at Bunkamura Museum of Art
in the Shibuya area
This event has ended - (2010-01-02 - 2010-02-21)
Queen Victoria held the longest reign (1837-1901) of any British monarch. In English “Victorian” is a hefty, all-encompassing word that conjures in our minds a staggering blur of what that age represents, and how its milestones continue to color our lives: the railway, the Crystal Palace, the Boer Wars, Britain uplifting the torch of the Industrial Revolution, Dickens, Darwin, colonial India, “the Scramble for Africa”, Victorian values, Victorian homes. Of the relics to choose as a theme, Bunkamura Museum has opted to commemorate this era by showcasing a plethora of dainty items — a Georgian gold muff chain, a brooch made of tiger’s claw lined in gold, a parure encrusted with seed pearls and multiple examples of the sculpture-like engraving of nineteenth century cameo, to name a few that have slipped through the plush velvet of time, straight from the jewelry box of Victoria’s reign.
For the span of the exhibition “A Celebration of Victorian Jewellery [sic]: Love, Leisure and Ceremony” running until the February 22, that is what the museum is: a walk-in jewelry box or, more broadly, a treasure box that functions in a way similar to an architectural-scale time capsule. While, as the exhibition’s title implies, there is a strong thematic focus on the varieties of antique nineteenth century European jewelry, this show is more than a historic accessories exhibition to be enjoyed by women.
It holds an insightful variety of familiar and unfamiliar relics, offering fuller scope of the material world of the Victorian Age beyond its diverse jewelry. Included, alongside jewelry pieces in Berlin Iron-Work and Holbeinesque style, are design etchings of furniture such as a Victorian dressing commode and gentleman’s shaving table, as well as several works by the German artist and court portraitist Franz Xavier Winterhalter, who painted the Queen, Prince Albert and their large family over a hundred times (many of which are part of the Royal Collection). On display one will also find effeminate parasols (cream-colored with ivory stems), a Victorian “model room” with a table set and ready with chinaware and silverware for tea, and antique wedding gowns of such understated sublimity that had the effect, in my case, of momentarily wanting to revive old school chivalry from its Victorian coffin.
It has been some one hundred and ten years since the death of the Queen. During this span the era of colonialism marched straight into its dusk. Developments in science, technology and industry have allowed near-unimaginable breakthroughs, such as the mapping of the human genome that, like a re-run of the first wave of Darwinism, has come into a collision course with ethics. However, despite the hyperactivity of the lapse, we still feel in many ways the reverberations of the Victorian Age today.
The exhibition’s organizers acknowledge this, and they mention in their introductory message that the Japanese people’s admiration of and desire to mimic the English and the polite society for which they are known have their roots in Victorian culture. It turns out that the internationally exported tradition of “afternoon tea,” — which in its pure form is to come inexorably together with good company, the leisurely passing of time and gracious conversation (and perhaps delicately portioned sweets) — cherished in Japan, was perfected during this era. The message goes on to say that the Queen had a tremendous impact on the lifestyle of women through developments in European jewelry, fashion and wedding ceremony that she promoted during her reign.
The exhibition is a must see for any Anglophile with one-tenth of Rupert Brooke’s patriotism, or any person nostalgic for the days when Great Britain and Her empire was the alpha superpower. On a personal note, being confronted with the majestic spirit of Victorian aesthetics was an assault on the emotions in an amicable sense. As I walked towards the exit after some one hundred minutes of careful viewing, the temperature-controlled air in the museum, at least to me, smelt like it were tinged with the effortless art of English diplomacy, the subtlety waltz to which only the English truly know how to dance, and all the scents of all the pages of Victorian novels that ever made us crave for English good sense.