Cincinnati Silver 1788-1940 is a sterling example of how an art exhibition can be about local history while still assuring the displayed objects are worthy of our long, concentrated gaze.
Indeed, Cincinnati Silver — at Cincinnati Art Museum through Sept. 7 — stresses that the 150-200 objects, primarily silverware, are more than just precious metal. They are immaculately gorgeous, imaginative works of fine design. It’s quite an accomplishment for this show to do that, especially when you consider that what’s on display includes, for example, something as odd as a pickle caster.
For this success, we should thank Amy Dehan — the art museum’s curator of decorative arts and design, who provided the vision for this show — and exhibition designer Chrystal Roggenkamp, who did a wonderful job making Cincinnati Silver look so dramatic and elegant.
Drawn from the museum’s collection, it does have a story to tell about our city’s history as a manufacturer of fine crafts, especially in the 19th century when Cincinnati’s national importance was at its peak. As such, it’s a new chapter in an ongoing story that already includes ceramics and wood-carved furniture.
Cincinnati was a center for the design, creation and sale of silver dining utensils — especially flatware but also fine-dining specialties like butter dishes, tureens, mugs — yes, even pickle casters. One firm in particular, Duhme & Co., lasted in various permutations for 80 years (1843 to about 1928) and had a downtown showroom that — on the basis of a reproduction of a drawing — looks like a world’s fair exhibition hall.
The show tells this history effectively via easily readable text — white on gray panels.
Sometimes those words are augmented by images from old photographs and advertisements. (There is also a companion catalogue.)
The exhibit realizes its artistic ambitions impressively. It begins in the museum’s balcony area overlooking the Great Hall. There, tall black display cases with large glass panes stand in front of a contemplation-demanding black wall. The key signage is silver; the backgrounds of the display cases are black save for a deep blue one that almost glows. The lighting is subtle and allows individual pieces to sparkle.
There is, for example, the tiny (just 5-and-7/16 inches) curved condiment ladle from 1840-1853 by John Owen, with a fiddle handle (shaped like a violin body) and a bowl-like bottom that doesn’t seem to hold much more sauce than an eyedropper would.
One other object in this area deserves special praise. It’s a toast rack from 1844-1861 by silverware manufacturers E. & D. Kinsey. It looks like a delicately balanced sprig that has floated down to the ground with its perfectly formed leaves intact. It’s magnificent as sculpture. That it holds toast is a dividend.
The main gallery partially recreates the rarified experience of entering Duhme & Co.’s showroom. The wood floor has a polish to it; the display cases spaciously highlight the choicest and most spectacular of objects.
For instance, there is that amazing pickle caster. It’s made of silver and leaded glass and dates from about 1880. It has figurehead medallions at its feet and side mounts, grapes and grape leaves along the hinged bail handle, and a winged bird atop the lid of the leaded-glass jar.
If pickles were revered in finer 19th century homes, what about ice cream? It must have been a real delicacy in the 1860s, judging from the dozen petite ice cream spoons, lined up horizontally like sardines in a can, in a beautiful blue cloth-lined case.
Also outstanding is a fish serving set that came in a golden lined box. The fork and serving spatula have asymmetrically shaped handles that seem a little avant-garde. The stamped floral designs and other elements on the pieces — there’s even a tiny scarab — are so fascinating a fish could get cold while you looked closely at the utensils.
In the end, the exhibit is about more than Cincinnati and its silver. It is a lesson in art appreciation. One sees how much care and creativity are put into adding beauty and originality — decoration, nuance and meaning — to things that, at their core, are functional. In this regard, it reveals how the artistic impulse is a desire to elevate mundane things. It’s a refusal to be satisfied with superficiality.
For us as visitors, Cincinnati Silver teaches that everything can be appreciated more. You can always go deeper into a subject and be rewarded for it. It’s true for Monet; it’s true for pickle casters.
For more information, visit cincinnatiartmuseum.org.
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