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Smoke and Mirrors: Pierre Chareau at the Jewish Museum

Commissioned by Artforum, this review never saw the light because of publishing reschedules. It is presented here for the first time.

If you have ever visited the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, you will likely remember seeing a period room called “a library for an ambassador.” Perfectly round, paneled in figured wood, its domed ceiling and curved walls open and shut like a fan. The space is a stunning little showpiece, and indeed, it was conceived as one. It was designed by Pierre Chareau for the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (1925), the event that gave us the term Art Deco. The room remains a precious object today, set off like a jewel in its museological surroundings.

Chareau’s luxurious designs in walnut, brass, lacquer and alabaster are the subject of a current exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. Instead of the static period room approach that one experiences in Paris, the show presents decorative arts through an imaginative series of lenses, both interpretive and technological. In the first section, for example, the visitor is presented with a series of projected animations that show ghostly figures in silhouette, going about their everyday business. A man sits on a sofa, smoking. A woman applies cosmetics at a vanity.

Stepping round the projection scrims, we see the actual furniture that appears in these vignettes, casting shadows against the screens from the other side. The objects, which viewers might have otherwise passed over, present themselves with the force of revelation. This ingenious shadow play recalls an iconic installation by Barbara Bloom at the MAK (Museum für Angewandte Kunst) in Vienna, in which she presented facing lineups of Thonet chairs through a scrim, emphasizing the iconic silhouette of each chair. In the case of the Chareau exhibition, the emphasis is instead on objects in use, the aspect of historic decorative art that remains most elusive in the museum setting.

This ingenious coup de theatre, and the exhibition design as a whole, is the work of Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The architectural firm is now associated primarily with highly capitalized and controversial institutional projects, like the new Broad in Los Angeles, the planned expansion at MoMA, and The Shed, a cultural venue proposed for development in New York’s Hudson Yards. Yet DSR used to be known for their lightness of touch. Their breakout project of 2002, the Blur Pavilion, was like a raincloud brought down to earth, or as the architects preferred to put it, “an experiment of de-emphasis on an environmental scale.” The Art of Scent, held at the Museum of Arts and Design in 2012, featured shapely niches into which visitors could lean, the better to inhale a range of perfumes. It is good to see DSR here at the Jewish Museum, continuing their subtle handling of the ephemeral.

The high point of the Chareau exhibition is a black box gallery with four corner platforms, each with an arrangement of furniture. It looks for all the world like the stage set of an avant garde play, and this proves to be not far off. Through the use of Virtual Reality headsets, visitors can explore digitally reconstructed interiors in 360 degrees, featuring the furniture groupings on display. The experience is extremely satisfying, because it restores the original architectural scale, lighting, and relative positioning of the objects.

It is also a little eerie. While the shadowy projections encountered earlier in the exhibition successfully evoke the Art Deco period (they recall black and white films), VR cannot help but feel futuristic, more 2025 than 1925. Little touches in the digital realm add to the strangeness. The conceit is that the viewer is virtually placed in one of Chareau’s chairs. Look down and you see it “below” you. But it remains immobile as you swivel around to take in the full view, contributing to the vertiginous sense of disembodiment you were feeling anyway. One of the digital reconstructions includes a vase of tulips just past their prime, dropping their petals to the tabletop, and a cigarette propped up on an ashtray, unfurling a plume of smoke into the non-existent air. Surely here we are in the domain of Dutch vanitas painting rather than French Art Deco.

The reader will have noticed that so far, I have said almost nothing about Pierre Chareau himself. All I can say is that this reflects the exhibition experience. While his works are seductive, in the context of this exhibition they feel largely like pretexts for the display, rather as the fashions of Charles James were overlaid with technological spectacle at the Metropolitan Museum in 2014. In both exhibitions, the usual hierarchy of original artifact and interpretive materials has been inverted. It is interesting to consider whether a museum would dare to bring such an overtly theatrical approach to a designer of greater reputation - Le Corbusier or Eileen Gray, for example.

The exhibition ends with another breathtaking moment of audiovisual whiz-bang. Chareau’s architectural masterpiece the Maison de Verre (1928-32) is presented as a room-sized digital construct, courtesy of an expensive-looking projection array mounted on tracks in the ceiling. As it pans back and forth, we slide visually through both plan and elevation views of the building. Occasionally the presentation pauses to focus on a particular room, which is brought to life in further videos projected against the walls, showing performers moving about in the real space. A curatorial note on the wall informs us, “It is impossible to convey the spatial transparency and fluidity of the Glass House with a traditional architectural model.” I buy that, but it also seems worth pointing out that the mesmerizing virtual tour constructed by DSR is nothing like walking through a building, either. Dematerialized and omniscient, it is more like an architect’s flythrough prepared for a client pitch.

The Pierre Chareau exhibition is, in short, an experience where technology plays the starring role and real artifacts are supporting players. This isn’t meant as a criticism, exactly. The show is arresting and enjoyable, and if it brings a large audience to look at the work of a previously obscure decorative artist, that can only be a good thing. There are also several “analogue” sections of the show, audiovisually unaided, that are successful in their own right. Curator Esther DaCosta Meyer managed to gather together an impressive selection of artworks from Chareau’s own collection, including works by Picasso, Ernst and Mondrian. A stunning raw caryatid figure in limestone by Amedeo Modigliani makes the artist’s paintings look insipid by comparison.  

DaCosta Meyer has also included a wide range of photographs, plans, pochoir prints and other pictorial materials that help to illuminate Chareau’s process. Welcome attention is devoted to his wife Dolly Dyte Chareau, who managed his affairs – the background role to which all too many women in the arts were relegated in those years. And an excellent associated catalogue acts as a permanent record of research into Chareau’s career, with particular emphasis on the contributions of his many collaborators.

For most visitors, however, what will remain in memory from this exhibition is its impressive technical apparatus. Rather as Hollywood has lately felt compelled to offer us films, DSR has come up with a way to make traditional decorative art displays look flat and unexciting by comparison. It is a project perfectly in tune with our contemporary moment, a time when visitors increasingly treat museums as photography sets for their Instagram feeds.

Hats off to the Jewish Museum: once a sleepy place, it has arguably run the most dynamic and innovative program of any New York City museum for the past five years, since the arrival of director Claudia Gould and curator Jens Hoffman. Like the excellent concurrent show Take Me I’m Yours (which adopts hyper-interactivity instead of technology as its mode of engagement), the Chareau exhibition is another entry to add to a growing record of achievement.

Is it a good model for museum practice in general? That’s another question. The Chareau project might best be understood as the latest salvo in an institutional arms race. Exhibitions are becoming ever more expensive. Historic objects are becoming dependent on contextual stagecraft. Technology is competing with scholarship for our attention – needless to say, not an evenly matched fight. In this moment, one could scarcely imagine a more effective exhibition about French Art Deco. But one can also imagine a different direction for museums entirely: one in which institutions avoid spectacle, collaborate rather than compete with one another, and find ways to draw attention to the objects in their care without treating them as props. If we were to find a way to do all that, the ghosts of the past - so compellingly conjured in this exhibition - might be a lot happier with us.  

WritingMarci LeBrun