The Portland Art Museum's latest exhibition, Matieres de Reves: Stuff of Dreams, has some of Paris' Musee des Arts Decoratifs' best decorated objects gathered under the loose concept of dreams (opium-inspired reveries, surrealist images, luxuries). Visitors begin their tour of the collection perusing a medieval pitcher that portrays a man with an animal mouth for his, er, spout. They then wind their way through curtained rooms with rotating beds, and end up at a chair modeled after the human back. The exhibition will tour the U.S. for a year while the Parisian museum undergoes renovation. Curator Penelope Hunter-Steibel (best known for organizing the Stroganoff show) initiated the project and worked as one of its two curators. She took some time before jetting to London to speak with Willamette Week.
WW: What will Portland audiences find in this exhibition that they couldn't find at the local antique mall?
Hunter-Steibel: An introduction to the aesthetic possibilities of the accouterments of daily life, and of the possibilities of enriching one's life through collecting. The last is an instinct that's in every human being. Children do it. They go to the beach and collect seashells. We illustrate the instinct in the exhibition with the skulls. When the Baronne Henri de Rothschild acquired them, she picked them out at flea markets. They're not all masterpieces. They are not vastly expensive things. By bringing them together, she added a level of depth to her life.
What criteria did you use for selecting these particular objects from the Musee's vast holdings?
Our review of the collection was not theoretical but physical. We covered every inch of every storeroom. Objects had to meet and surpass ideas of utility. They had to surpass all standards of technical excellence. Then, they had to go beyond tradition. How is this object different from how it was made before? They had to make the leap from artifact to work of art, which is a whole different category. It was in that leap that we found the dream element.
There's even a bed. How did you transport the large, ornate bed of Emilie Valtesse de la Bigne?
In little bitty pieces. There are over 200 bronze elements. Then there's the wood structure, and the draperies, and the pillows.
I assumed the exhibition was going to be about light, airy and fantastical decorations. I pictured fairies on buttercups. But a lot is dark. What is the human impulse to decorate everyday objects with morbid images?
There's a yin-yang to life. Why did Picasso paint a beautiful woman in colors so acid that it's hideous to look at? There is beauty and attractiveness in the dark side. The Lalique pendant and chain is about the investigation of the subconscious that was being done at the turn of the century, not only through philosophy but through hypnotism and the investigation of hallucinations. Those are poppies in the woman's hair. The links in the chain that holds the pendant are the poppy seed pods. The idea that you would wear this, be embraced by it!
I saw a lot more of the objects' details in the exhibition catalog than in the exhibition itself. Where the photos in the catalog were really well-lit, the exhibition was darker and full of shadows. Why did you keep the lights low, and are you afraid people might not see the intricate decorations?
The objects are actually really well-lit in the exhibition. If you take your catalog to the museum and look at it when you look at the pieces you'll notice that you can see every detail. Clifford LaFontaine has created an atmosphere where the objects live and dream with you. He's given them that kind of breathing atmosphere as opposed to a clinical operating room. They weren't made for dissection. They were made to be part of art. These are not objects of design. They aren't intellectual exercises alone.
How do you decide that a decorative object from the last 20 years, the height of mass production, is an objet to be treasured? What's to keep you from cataloguing a Target tchotchke?
The objects we chose weren't mass-produced. Talking about the dark side--the inferno cabinet is just an absolute nightmare. It's got bright red iron spikes hanging off of it. These things are limited-production pieces. The dream element is just as strong in each one of these creations. The tradition of precious objects continue
The Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. Until April 28. $6-$10.