Gerard’s Crowning Jewel
So. Cartier. The Show.
Will you or won’t you, this winter? That’s the million-dollar-many-carat-diamond-encrusted question.
After a weekend full of rodeos and farm visits (with builders! Cue severe excitement) it is difficult to switch my mind back to the last week when, three days post-opening, we visited ‘Cartier: The Exhibition’.
(Presumably they added that last bit to the title so you don’t embarrass yourself by asking for a pricelist or an auction paddle.)
Sitting as it does next to the High Court of Australia (and sharing Col Madigan as architect), the NGA is ostensibly the High Gallery of Australia. Built with the modernist charter of bringing great art to the public (thus raising, through education, the moral fibre of the public as well as its cultural discourse) it is the final arbiter of taste and substance, of truth and beauty, in the land - or so you might reasonably expect.
But how does the NGA choose to commence its description of this crack(l)er of a show? Well like this:
“Never before have so many incredible diamonds, emeralds and other precious stones been seen in Australia.”
It’s a worrying if not unexpected symptom. Art shows and diamonds both having fallen prey to that false idol ‘BigIsBetter’ it was somehow twice as likely to infect an art show of diamonds.
Entering the show is like walking into some kind of adult Coney Island – dark and abuzz with the excited chatter. The walls throughout are painted in intense rich colours – deep indigo and dark vermillion dominant. Though I am a sometime fan of the non-white gallery wall (Bendigo Art Gallery’s blue hues haunt my dreams), it doesn’t really work here. Intended no doubt to highlight the boxed sparkle, it actually amplifies the dark and wasted space between, ending any chance of these cold jewels talking to their neighbours as you might rightly expect from a curated show.
The low-light rooms and boxed curios also create rather too strong a sense of museum. Indeed, if one takes the show at its best-intentioned-if-not-quite-realised promise, that remains its primary flaw – it’s a museum show of cultural and historical objects representing a particular period, an extremely narrow social stratum and a single retailer.
The first room, self-titled ‘Refined Elegance’ is a motley collection of curios, bejewelled opera glasses and misshapen agate kangaroos. Around the corner a crowd has gathered, mostly over-50s female (in keeping with the general attendance demographic) around a fist-sized sapphire pendant, which, the little black sign tells us, clocks in at 478 carats. The crowd jostles for pole position to peer into the flawless facets while a portrait of the long-dead lemon-faced wearer stares coldly down. In breathless voices the women convey their excitement to each other – so big, so bright, so so so pretty. Engagement with the piece (and indeed, from observation, the show) doesn’t go beyond that and, perhaps, it can’t.
There’s a section dedicated to Dame Nellie Melba, which titillates the geriatric market no end.
There are mirror walls that warp your reflection and strengthen further the Coney Island Adult Funfair impression.
There is a lot of bling. It’s all very shiny.
It’s nearly all appallingly tacky.
There are embellished enamel cherry trees in the ‘Asian room’ and knock-off Ancient Egyptian pieces that put the word costume to shame in the adjoining ‘Colonial Conquest & Plunder room’ (I jest). Whole rooms could be transposed to your local opp shop or second tier job-lot auction house without an eyebrow raised or eyelash batted.
Somehow, and I don’t think this is just me being contrary, the very insistence by the Gallery that this show is TASTEFUL EXPENSIVE YES (the crisp, possibly ironed, $100 bills folded into an engraved money clip as though to prove its providence through expression of its purpose) render it awkwardly vulgar.
Just when I am certain it cannot get much worse we hear the triumphant strains of the royal procession. There in front of us is the royal bling, all cold and glittery with colonial spoil, complete with modern day oversized black and white portraits of their wearers.
I look keenly for escape but the red carpet is also a red herring, and this room is possibly worse than the last. Larger than life portrait shots of heiress Daisy Fellows, Grace Kelly (the naughty royal) and Wallace Simpson (the naughty-not-quite-royal) rub shoulders with colour snaps of (our) Miranda (Kerr) and Nic(ole Kidman). Beneath them, citrine crocodiles roil in expensive knots and ten-carat diamond solitaire engagement rings lie on black velvet, heavy with the weight of false promise.
That the catalogue sold out in three days will no doubt lead some to call this show a success, a triumphal swan-song for Director Gerard Vaughan. Of course this merely reinforces the bums-on-seats crowd-pleasing populism that institutions have adopted in their dollar-starved race to the bottom. Which, one can only suppose, is how we end up with a red-carpeted diamond trade show in our national art institution.