A Tour of Dreams

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), February 3, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Tour of Dreams


Byline: BOB KEEFER The Register-Guard

IMAGINE THIS: You're turned loose for more than a week in the galleries and attics and storerooms of the largest private art museum in Paris.

Take your pick, the director says. Mull over all 150,000 items we've got locked away, from the 16th century Flemish tapestries to the 18th century clock of Marie Antoinette herself to the 20th century designers' stark designs. Find the best and most amazing and utterly outrageous stuff and pack it up and take it home to Oregon. We'll help. All you have to do is choose.

That's not a bad description of what Portland Art Museum curator Penelope Hunter-Stiebel has been up to lately.

In yet another international coup for the museum and its directors, John and Lucy Buchanan, the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris - closed for a giant construction project until 2004 - decided to let Oregon rummage its attics and basements and bring home a selection of treasure.

The result is an exhibit of devastating strangeness and outsized brilliance that opened Saturday and will run through April 28 at the Portland Art Museum.

In a literal sense, "Stuff of Dreams," as Hunter-Stiebel aptly titled the show, focuses on the art of the ordinary. The Musee des Arts Decoratifs - the Museum of Decorative Arts - collects only utilitarian works. It has specialists in charge of such traditional collections as drawings, glass and jewelry, but it also has departments of wallpaper and toys.

This is the art of everyday life - the art of home and hearth.

But that doesn't make it everyday art.

"I was given carte blanche working with (Paris curator) Odile Nouvel- Kammerer, who had all the keys," Hunter-Stiebel says.

"And for 10 days we opened doors. And we went from the 19th century attics, where we were climbing on these old wood ladders in the dark, down to the areas that were excavated for the Louvre (where the museum will reopen in two years)."

Her guiding priciple, Hunter- Stiebel says, was simply to find the best of the best, work that is indeed utilitarian but goes so far beyond everyday life as to reach a point of artistic transcendence.

"What we found were objects with a leitmotif. Every one of them far surpasses all standards of utility. People will delight in just the craftsmanship."

This is indeed the stuff of dreams, and not just pleasant daydreams. Much here is weird and dark and unsettling, the kind of dream from which you awaken with a start and wonder just what it was you dreamed of.

The exhibit is arranged mostly chronologically, opening with a 13th century bronze "aquamanile," a sort of pitcher used in pre-plumbing days for hand-washing water, and working its way right up to a ceramic bowl made by a contemporary French artist in 1996.

You can, if you wish, chart art history through the galleries: baroque and rococo, art nouveau and art deco unfold in fairly neat progression as you work your way forward in time.

Hunter-Stiebel, though, nicely chose to keep art history somewhat at bay in her presentation.

Rather than the usual dry explanatory matter, she has accompanied each object with a line of poetry or philosophy, as though it just might be the magic that matters, not the provenance. (More literal-minded types can find all the names and dates they need in copies of the exhibit catolog, arranged in reading stations around the exhibit.)

The dreams of which this exhibit is made are lush and fulsome, sometimes attached to history, sometimes springing from imagination.

History plays its part. Walk into the first room of "Stuff of Dreams" and you find yourself face to face with an enormous ceremonial cradle, built of finely inlaid wood and gilt bronze in 1819 for the young Duc de Bordeaux.

Crafted like an enormous boat, the cradle is almost Jungian in its layered symbolism. …

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