'Art of Iron' exhibit at The Clark adds new dimension

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WILLIAMSTOWN — There are 36 pieces in "The Art of Iron: Objects from the Mus e Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen, Normandy," a new exhibit at the Clark Art Institute that runs through Sept. 16. But there is a 37th point of interest that is in conversation with all the rest.

The Michael Conforti Pavilion, part of the 42,600-square-foot Clark Center that opened in 2014 and was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando, is the sleek, glass-walled wing that housed Picasso's works last summer. This June, instead of building high interior walls that blocked external light, Clark Art Institute Director Olivier Meslay and Kathleen Morris, director of Exhibitions and Collections, and curator of Decorative Arts, decided to embrace the pavilion's luminosity. Morris selected an assortment of architectural grilles, signs, lecterns and other iron objects from a collection of more than 16,000 items at the French museum, which occupies a former Gothic church.

"I just fell in love with the experience of seeing this old material in this even older builder and the contrast between the building and the kind of fascinating, eclectic material," Morris said of her first visit to the Rouen institution. "We thought that we could do the flip side of what's happening in Rouen here in Williamstown. So, instead of presenting this old, but still modern, material in a Gothic, even older, building, we would be presenting it in a contemporary building."

For those who are accustomed to experiencing Europe at the Clark through the brush strokes of Renoir or Toulouse-Lautrec, the exhibit will upend expectations. Wrought iron — formed by smelting iron ore, bent by heating, hardened by cooling — stars in this show. The metal was ubiquitous before industrialization precipitated its decline during the 19th century. As European cities modernized, wrought iron was cast aside, quite literally being thrown away, according to Morris.

Artist Jean-Louis Henri Le Secq Destournelles, who became one of France's first photographers, didn't let iron items go unnoticed. He steadily built a collection of keys, locks, grilles and signs after gaining an appreciation for the ironwork in French cathedrals he photographed.

After Destournelles' death in 1882, his son, Henri Le Secq des Tournelles, continued adding to his father's haul. He eventually donated the objects to the city of Rouen, leading to the formation of Mus e Le Secq des Tournelles.

"The displays in this Gothic church in Rouen are just magical and really unforgettable," Morris said.

In France, wrought iron fills the space floor-to-ceiling. In Williamstown, Morris was careful to pay homage to the museum across the Atlantic without overloading the Conforti.

"It started from the idea of: How can we make this old and funky material come alive and energize this modernist, beautiful space?" Morris said.

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This contrast is immediately apparent upon entering the pavilion. "Draper's Sign, 'The Dry Tree,'" a wrought iron, fairly symmetrical tree that was made in early-17th-century Paris, is to the left. The tree's trunk is hollow; leaves were added later. Through the glass wall behind it, visitors can glimpse the arc of verdant trees lining the hill overlooking the museum. It doesn't take a critic to see the juxtaposition.

Like nearly all of the show's works, the tree's creator is unknown, but its function isn't. The pieces alluded to tales from the ancient Near East, where luxury fabrics were plentiful, according to the exhibition's catalog. In a time before street addresses, drapers (cloth-sellers) often used this symbol to draw customers to their locations.

"If you were walking down the streets of Paris in the 18th century, you would have been seeing signs hanging above you, hanging on the facades of the doors of shops or facades of shops," Morris said.

While some of the signs tell stories, others merely leave tantalizing tidbits that allow visitors to forge their own. Across the room, "Bracket with Shop Sign, 'At the Two Fish'" hangs from one of the installed surfaces throughout the gallery. (An exhibit designer worked on them; "there's barely a right angle in the entire installation in terms of the fabrication of what we installed them on," Morris said.) The late-18th-century French work includes two carp made out of sheet iron. It likely belonged to a fishmonger or fishing gear shop, but certainty eludes, according to the curator.

Around the corner, gallery goers will find grilles, the other major category of pieces in the show. Several grilles flank "Gate Door," a piece mounted within one of the walls and in front of the Conforti's glass. Iron gates once served a similar purpose to contemporary glass, the curator mentioned during a press tour on Friday.

"I thought it was a nice juxtaposition of the new and old architectural motif," Morris said.

Deeper in the room, visitors will discover cabaret signs, lecterns and a bear muzzle, among other items. (Some are in cases, an arrangement Morris tried to avoid as much as possible). But the curator hopes visitors will also find a greater admiration for craftsmen, current and historical, the latter of whom she has positioned as artists in this setting.

"Iron was not something I had ever really worked on before as a material, so I did a lot of reading," Morris said. "I've had to come up to speed pretty quickly on it as a topic. But since I've been working on it, I've been more and more attuned to the fact that there is still iron all around us. Every city I go to, every town I go to, even in Williamstown, the Berkshires — you see wrought iron on buildings. It's still everywhere in our built environment, but we don't really pay attention to it. And it used to be absolutely ubiquitous. It was everywhere. It was just part of the fabric of daily life."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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