Sunday, February 20, 2000

Victorian era boasts variety

Furniture defined Americans

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Victorian furniture isn't what it's cracked up to be. It's a lot more.

        Think Victorian and you'll picture furniture that's overcarved, overdecorated, overstained, overstuffed and overblown.

        Sometimes it is, but in Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute at Cincinnati Art Museum, Victorian furniture could be grand.

        The furniture in this exhibition spans the 19th century. While the Victorian aesthetic filled the bulk of mid-century, it is bracketed by simpler styles, Federal before; Arts and Crafts after.

        It's as if Americans started the 19th century stiff, thin and dignified, then fattened up, spread out and slumped their way through a generation or two, only to straighten up and thin out again at century's end.

        The installation illustrates the point with a series of seven side chairs featured in the center of the gallery. Ranging from the century's start to end, they tell the story of the evolution of styles over time.

        The earliest chair is Federal style — severe, classic and flat. A scroll back appears in the early Empire style.

        Then come the various re vival styles, all curves and carving. It ends with a flat, sparsely decorated early modern Arts and Crafts chair.

        The larger pieces surrounding the chairs follow the same cycle, straight and simple, round and heavily carved and back to straight and simple. But what almost all the pieces have in common is that they are inspired by some other style from another place and time.

        This American furniture is French, English and Japanese. It reaches back to ancient Greece and Rome, savors the Gothic style of the Middle Ages, touches on the Islamic, wallows in Baroque.

        It's as if Americans in the 19th century wanted to be anywhere else than where and when they were living.

        It was all about changing fashions and a rising middle class that was changing the way they lived and entertained. They progressed from practical to presumptuous, from simple to flamboyant, and turning back to fashionable but expensive simplicity.

        The Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute in Utica, N.Y., is a museum and art school that began as the 1850s house of the family for which the museum is named. Much of the fur niture is shown there in room settings.

        At the Art Museum it is shown as a series of individual pieces, without the books on the shelves, vases on the tables and other knick-knacks that adorned the furniture when it was used. Such decorative touches would have added charm to the exhibition.

        These pieces were selected for fine craftsmanship, elegant ornament and graceful styles. Some are almost humorously opulent, others elegantly spare.

        The furniture is grouped by style and period, from early Neoclassical, inspired by the discoveries at Pompeii, through the various revivals that mark the Victorian era.

        There is Gothic Revival, Elizabethan Revival and the style that is most often associated with Victoriana, Baroque Revival.

        Reform movements wrap up the century: The English-inspired Aesthetic Movement, which attempted to be simple but rich, and Arts and Crafts, represented here with two pieces by the Cincinnati Shop of Crafters, from the CAM collection.

        The most curious section is the one labeled Innovation. A tilt-top table, covered with an ornate, lace-like design, is silver-plated copper, made by Tif fany. Some will love it. Others, who admire the simple, ladder-back Shaker chair, will find it ostentatious.

        There are chairs that try to look like kingly thrones. An armchair that tries to look like a folding camp chair is so over-designed that it can't fold. There are work tables so ornate that they could only be used by those who never worked a day in their lives.

        But there are tables that fold to side tables and open to become dining tables. They are a wonderful marriage of form and function, without sacrificing elegant design.

        This is furniture that is fun to see and to think about the people who used it. It is also a show worth seeing again and studying, to learn about the variety and beauty of American furniture in the 19th century.

        Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Cincinnati Art Museum through May 28. 721-2787.


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