Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"Artistic Luxury" at S.F. Museum

A necklace of green glass frogs and jewels by early twentieth century designer René Lalique.

The artistic opulence of turn-of-the-twentieth century luxury is celebrated in a new exhibit at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and if you love beautiful things it is the show for you. The exhibit is titled: Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique and runs through May 31 in the City By the Bay.

The museum offers free admission on the first Tuesday of each month, so I chose a Tuesday to head up to San Francisco from my home on the peninsula just 46 miles away. San Francisco is almost always colder, foggier and windier than the Santa Clara Valley so, since it was pouring sheets of rain in Los Altos, I expected the worst in the City. Well, anyway, I told myself. The museum is, after all, indoors.

But as I cruised along the most beautiful highway in the U.S., Interstate 280, up against the foothills of the Coast Range, the sheets of rain let up at about San Mateo and it was clear sailing into San Francisco. The Legion of Honor museum is located in a corner of the City where I haven't often traveled. It is just on the edge of the old Presidio, on a hill overlooking the Bay. You have to be careful or you'll end up going over Golden Gate Bridge if you miss your turn. New-old-comer that I am I almost did just that, but at the last minute took the last exit and found myself at Fort Point, just about where Kim Novak was rescued by Jimmy Stewart when she jumped into the Bay in Vertigo. Like a good tourist I got out and took a picture, and you just can't take a bad picture from that location.

There it was, posing for me at the edge of the Presidio.

From there, all I had to do was wind my way through the Presidio to the edge of Lincoln Park and that wasn't difficult. I parked at the foot of the hill and walked the quarter mile up to the museum. It was good exercise after sitting in the car for fifty minutes and when you get to the top the view is worth the walk.

Even on a grey day the Legion of Honor was blooming with color.

There were so many beautiful objects in the show--jewelry, hair combs, vases, lamps, brooches, stomachers (that's a bibelot dripping in diamonds you wear over the front of your dress), Fabergé eggs, and Tiffany lamps, it was almost more than you could take in. Many of the Fabergé items, all covered in gems and gold from cigarette cases to eggs to jewelry to tea sets, had been designed for the ill-fated Romanaov family, the last of the Tsars. Looking at all that luxury and knowing how it was bought while their subjects suffered in poverty was a little sad. Many of the items were confiscated by the Soviets after they executed Tsar Nicolas, Tsarina Alexandria (the granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and their entire family. But they certainly enjoyed their exquisite jewels while they reigned.

Fabergé necklace of Siberian amethysts.

The Tiffany and Lalique objects had a somewhat more cheerful history, purchased in the West for the wealthy sons and daughters of successful capitalists, God-bless-'em, in Europe and America.

I was familiar with the designs of Louis Comfort Tiffany because Winter Park, Florida where I lived for twenty years, is home to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art with the largest collection of Tiffany objects in the world. The Morse recently re-designed its jewelry exhibit and as my friend and museum executive Catherine Hinman told me, "We don't have anything in there that we would loan." So, if you enjoy the San Francisco show you have another treat on your hands the next time you visit Central Florida. (See more on their web site at

A Louis Comfort Tiffany brooch in the San Franciso exhibit.

But the Getty family loaned the Legion of Honor show several important Tiffany lamps and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Albert of Monaco also sent over a few priceless knickknacks from their own collections. And, oh yes, Joan and Melissa Rivers sent over a few things. But they didn't say which ones, so one could only speculate.

At right: one of Fabergé's rare be-jeweled Easter eggs.This one was given by Tsar Nicholas II to the Tsarina in 1907.

Since it was free day the show was very crowded, especially crowded with French-speaking people who didn't budge so others could see around them. I stayed as long as my brain would allow me to download all this beauty and then I walked to the coat check for my umbrella (not allowed inside the show.) Adjacent to the coat check was a little cabinet with beautiful jewelry from Greece and Rome, circa 200-500 BC. Each of the pieces could easily compare with the lovely jewels of the Belle Epoch exhibit down the hall. Just goes to show you--people have been enjoying beautiful things since the dawn of time.

Outside, the rain had started again, and the mist made the city look like the land of Sam Spade and the Maltese Falcon. I stopped to take a picture of the Bay, with Alcatraz cold and lonely in the distance.

And then I did what any good tourist would do: I headed over to Fisherman's Wharf to buy a couple of Dungeness crabs and some sourdough bread for dinner. The sun came out again and the sad fate of the Romanovs faded from my mind. The real jewel of this adventure had been San Francisco herself.

They were awfully good, and since they are only found on the West coast, I at least know they were caught somewhere not farther away than say, Alaska.

Is it the prettiest bridge in the world? It certainly can be found on a lot of charm bracelets.

All of the photos of the "Artistic Luxury" exhibit are the property of the Cleveland Museum of Art in conjunction with the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and Yale University Press. They are used here under the Fair Use provisions of the law, in this news article only, and should not be reproduced for commercial use.

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