‘Edwardian Opulence': a decadent feast for the mind

Don't you wish you wore this to prom?
Don't you wish you wore this to prom? // Creative Commons

The Yale Center for British Art’s exhibit “Edwardian Opulence” is a veritable feast for all the senses. The two-floored exhibition, which serves as an artistic and cultural representation of the opulence of the Edwardian era — 1900 to 1913 — provides audiences with a taste of the era that expands far beyond the typical portraits and still-lifes associated with many art exhibits at Yale.

Immediately upon entering the exhibition on the second floor, I was floored by the beautiful bodice, skirt and train, which belonged to socialite Mary Victoria Leiter. The intricately designed white dress set the tone for the rest of the exhibition as highly indulgent yet clearly representative of the cultural elite of the early 1900s. The dress itself was commissioned by famous Paris fashion house Worth for Leiter upon her marriage to the future viceroy of India, George Curzon. The dress served as a representation of the blending of her two cultures (despite the fact that she was American-born), combining traditional Indian techniques like zardozi, metallic threads, and patterns of vines, leaves and orchids with more European trends including the traditional silhouette and floral beading on the bodice. This sweeping gown was not only beautiful, but provided a rich story, setting the tone as a historical artifact more so than just a piece of art.

The exhibition itself followed from this into sections broken down thematically rather than chronologically. Because this time period is relatively short, the amount of art represented here is remarkable. Gorgeous jewels from Cartier to De Beers represented the bourgeoning use of colonial resources with the simultaneous growth of a market for luxury goods. Diamond tiaras and brooches sparkled alongside paintings and photographs. In the colonial sections, intricate and stunning fans were framed alongside hand-drawn designs for furniture and luxury hotel interiors. The “Mrs. James de Rothschild Ostrich Feather Fan” from 1912–’13 was particularly impressive, for similar reasons to the dress at the opening of the exhibition. The feathered fan itself was breathtaking in the intricacy of design on the gold handle and the over-the-top opulence of the ostrich feather, but its real impressiveness stemmed from the historical context. Ostrich feather fans became popular in the early 1900s because of the farming of ostriches in the Cape of Good Hope, and were yet another symbol of the golden age of British imperialism.

As the exhibition transitioned into a new section, the attention to detail in the installation shone through. Interactive elements of the exhibit were particularly impressive: the phonograph, which you can pick up and adjust to the iPods set up with early vocal recordings, makes the galleries engaging the whole way through.

The iPods were a delight as well, setting up a playlist of early sound recordings beginning with a Baroque-esque orchestral and vocal rendition of “God Save the Queen” which, while quiet, was still impressive. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for old documents and archives, because they bring history alive for me. This part of “Edwardian Opulence” did just that.

The next sections were dedicated to “Men of Mark,” “Town” and “Country” which all merit rave reviews of their own. “Men of Mark” was exclusively composed of photographic portraits of the cultural elite painted by William Orpren, perhaps the most prolific and represented artists in this exhibition. My favorite painting in the entire two-floor exhibition was in this section, a giant scene entitled “Homage to Manet” from 1909. This painting portrays the critic George Moor reading his own article on Manet, to Philip Wilson Steer, Henry Tonks, Hugh Lane, Walter Sickert and D.S. MacColl, who were all art critics, painters and artists in their own right. It is a celebration of artistic collaboration, discussion and admiration of Manet (one of my personal favorite artists).

The final section on the third floor began much differently with large, brightly colored paintings depicting glorified and successful imperial missions. This floor was much less exciting in the variety of art it offered, but was still a delight to visit. The final video, which displayed short silent films from the era, served as the perfect final note to the exhibit: beginning with the regal crowning of Edward VII and ending with the whimsical video of small children in a toy automobile entitled “Smallest Car in the Largest City in the World,” providing a range of emotional payoff representative of the Edwardian era.

The YCBA is always an excellent place for a study break, but this exhibit is worth a full hour of your attention. It is expertly put together, provides a pleasant educational experience and truly is a beautiful aesthetic feast.

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