Ancient Islamic roots of modernity

It wasn’t until 1903 that the first truly scientific display was organised by a young curator from the Louvre, Gaston Migeon. His Exposition des arts Musulmans was met with unprecedented enthusiasm. “One’s eyes were not truly opened until 1903,” wrote the art collector Georges Marteau. 

Visual vocabulary

Although it is not known for certain if Louis Cartier, the eldest Cartier brother who would be instrumental in expanding the firm’s global reputation, visited the exhibition, a catalogue exists in the Cartier archives, so it is clear he would have been aware of its contents. At the time, jewellers were stuck in a rut of endlessly recycling historic European styles. Sarah Schleuning, curator of decorative arts and design at the Dallas Museum of Art, tells BBC Culture: “If you look at Cartier themselves, they were really in that neoclassical, what we now call the garland, style… there’s a kind of heaviness and an ornateness.”

Cartier was “interested in finding a new style but he wasn’t interested in the modern aesthetic of the time which was the transition to Art Nouveau,” says Schleuning. The 1903 exhibition gave him the visual vocabulary he was looking for. “He saw the geometry, these distilled motifs, as an incredible path forward, and you start to see them as early as 1903. He’s starting to play with them, sometimes in pure isolation like in this incredible, very minimalist, little brooch that is just a series of triangles. But in other cases, you see it infiltrating with these kind of garland styles, so they’re starting to insert and play with that and think, how do you transition,” says Schleuning. 

The 1903 Paris show was followed by an equally ground-breaking exhibition in Munich in 1910 that carefully grouped objects according to technique and geographical origin with the specific intention of inspiring contemporary creativity. This exhibition is thought to have been the catalyst for Louis Cartier to develop his own collection. He had a particular taste for manuscripts, paintings and inlaid objects from Iran and India from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

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