Masterpiece Conversations: Decorative Arts
Coffee Table, 1876, Edward William Godwin. Courtesy of Oscar Graf
Wolf Burchard is Associate Curator in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where he is responsible for British furniture and decorative works of art. He was previously Furniture Research Curator at the National Trust.
Oscar Graf is an expert on French, British and American furniture and works of art from 1870 to 1914. He established his eponymous gallery in Paris in 2010, and is opening a second gallery in London in June 2019.
What first sparked your interest in this field?
Wolf Burchard: My mother always claims that my interest in the fine and decorative arts stems from the fact that the day I was born, the ambulance that picked her up and drove her to the hospital in Paris took a detour, and that the first thing I saw was the skyline of the Château de Versailles – which isn’t entirely accurate, because I was born seven hours later in hospital. But it is true that throughout my childhood, living in France, I took a great interest in French chateaux and loved visiting them.
I was always interested in the different aspects of interiors – the painting, architecture, furniture, sculpture, tapestries, carpets and so on – and I realised while studying art history that a lot of people weren’t interested in furnishings and decorative arts at all, and that it would be a good niche to fill. When I did my PhD, I deliberately chose to work on Charles Le Brun because he had used all these different media, and I thought that versatility might help me when it came to looking for curatorial jobs. I’m not wedded to one particular country or one particular type of object: when I worked for the Royal Collection I was in the paintings department; at the National Trust I worked primarily on continental furniture, and now at the Met I’m in charge of British art.
Oscar Graf: It’s funny that you mention Versailles, because my father used to work there as a young architect, just after he graduated. It was always a very important place for me: we used to go there every weekend. But I went on to study something completely different. I was going to be a conductor, but of course that didn’t work out – I soon realised that I wasn’t as talented as my friends.
I started coming to London – I spoke pretty good English and loved the city – and visiting a few dealers, which developed into a real passion when I was 19 or 20. I began buying a few things, bringing them back to Paris in a small bag – the only things that fitted were Benson lights, hall lights, chandeliers, lamps. So it started with Arts and Crafts lighting and then moved into furniture, too, and a broader range of decorative arts. Today, 80 per cent of my focus is still on British Arts and Crafts – it’s been a passion for 10 years.
How dynamic is this field at the moment, in terms of research and exhibition-making?
Wolf Burchard: The community of decorative arts historians is extremely dynamic! But it is also much smaller than, say, the community of historians of Old Master paintings. Many decorative arts’ subjects remain uncharted territory. Specialists who are doing the legwork just establishing facts are extremely important; to some people this may appear old-fashioned, because these experts may not always go into wider sociological and political contexts, but if they didn’t focus on gathering data, any broader interpretation would stand on a rather weak base. What’s exciting is that over the last decade, there have been many new publications on specialist subjects. It’s wonderful that there are publishing houses, museums and private donors who are supporting publications of this kind.
There have recently been some very well-researched exhibitions at institutions like the Wallace Collection and the Frick, and indeed at the Met. In 2017 the Wallace mounted a show on gilt-bronze mounts, and it’s now preparing a very important exhibition on Jean-Henri Riesener – a brilliant partnership with Waddesdon Manor and the Royal Collection. Riesener is a such central figure in 18th-century furniture-making, and yet until recently we hardly knew anything about him.
Oscar Graf: I was very inspired, just as I was getting started as a dealer, by ‘The Cult of Beauty’, an exhibition about the Aesthetic Movement that travelled from the V&A to the Musée d’Orsay in 2011. I saw just how much people in Paris were interested in the material – and I discovered that the Orsay has an important collection of British Arts and Crafts objects, too.
More recently, there have been three important shows on my period: ‘In Search of Style: 1850–1900’ at the Landesmuseum Zürich, then a big exhibition on William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Madrid and Barcelona, and an exhibition at the Bröhan-Museum in Berlin, which traced the prehistory of the Bauhaus from British Arts and Crafts onwards. I’ve been surprised by how far the interest in Arts and Crafts has spread beyond Britain and France.
Do you worry that the general public sees decorative arts as an elitist or rarified field?
Wolf Burchard: I don’t think decorative arts should be considered in any way more elitist than the fine arts. We’re talking about objects that are in a way much more relevant to daily life today than an Old Master painting with an allegorical depiction would be. They are often functional objects, even if elaborately adorned, and they reveal the interconnection between developments in design and technology, which is relevant to all of us today. Of course, most of us do not live surrounded by Meissen and Sèvres porcelain, but nor do we all have a Titian or Van Dyck at home.
Oscar Graf: It is true that for any period of decorative arts, what we consider to be the best or most important pieces were mostly made for an elite. What’s interesting in my field, with the Arts and Crafts Movement, is that it developed very differently from what had come before: William Morris wanted ordinary people to benefit from good design, and for designers to be in constant contact with the workers during the production process – which is why he was so drawn to the medieval period in the 1850s and ’60s, to what he saw as its pre-industrial freedoms. His success meant that he ended up working for an elite, but the basic theory was that everyone could benefit from his work, which is not the case for other fields.
Wolf Burchard: The objects I study are extremely exciting, and I want to convey that to as broad an audience as possible. I think that some of my peers, other decorative arts curators, may benefit from being a little bit more confident in their approach: be passionate about the object and don’t take an apologetic approach in which you take that object and try to make it more interesting by adding a far-fetched interpretative layer to it. The challenge, I think, is to put objects in the right context and make the right comparisons. With a highly elaborate Sèvres vase from the 1750s, an astounding technical feat, for instance, it’s important to remind people that European porcelain was only invented 40 years earlier, and explain how dozens of people were involved in making this object without any of the tools that we have today. You must communicate why you think this is such an amazing object.
Oscar Graf: What is interesting about decorative arts, maybe more than any other field, is that the objects are more faithful to the exact living style in any period – any year, by the fin de siècle – than other kinds of art. If you take a piece that was made in 1900, say a Mackintosh chair, that is exactly what the original buyer lived with in that year, what he sat on, the style he showed his guests. It took longer for the paintings made in that year to become fashionable. Decorative arts are what people have lived with: they feel very immediate to me.
How is that immediacy best conveyed, in terms of the material qualities of objects?
Wolf Burchard: Obviously museums can’t allow everyone to handle everything. The Met is very good in organising visits for the blind, with object handling, which is possible because it’s such a large collection. The V&A has done a very good job with the Dr Susan Weber Gallery [of furniture] in recreating some of the chairs, with their different backs, so that it becomes an immersive experience where you feel what it’s like to sit on some of them, and you have samples so you can touch different types of wood and metal surfaces. I sometimes wonder about tactility, though: all of us know what glass or ceramics feel like. It is the weight of some of these objects that might surprise the visitor and should probably be conveyed, together with their measurements.
Oscar Graf: Most people know what what a teapot feels like, it’s true. The real difference between most historical and contemporary objects is design. It’s important to convey how strikingly different that has been.
Has the collector base for this material changed in the past decade?
Oscar Graf: When I started I thought that most of my clients would always be from older generations ¬– which was fine, of course – but to my surprise there have been a number of younger new clients. I won’t lie to you, they’re not all 20. It takes time to understand a field, and most people at the start of their careers don’t have a lot of disposable income to spend on art. Collecting is an evolution of thought.
Wolf Burchard: The comparison between private collecting and museum collecting is very interesting. Private collectors have become much more diversified. There aren’t so many collectors today who say ‘I’m only interested in 18th-century France’; you can collect 19th-century British ceramics as well as, say, 20th-century photography. So it’s up to museum departments to ‘stay focused’ as it were. Generally I think that, when it comes to decorative arts, a museum of art, rather than anthropology, should be very careful about where it draws the line with regards to quality. As is true of paintings or sculpture, a high-class museum should aim for the uppermost tier of objects, even if we are talking about candle sticks or a tea cup.
Could museums and the art trade collaborate more effectively in this
Oscar Graf: They do already a lot. Dealers are always very proud to sell works to museums, of course, but the relationship is not as imbalanced as I thought it would be when I started out. I had a piece at an art fair recently that had been reserved by a museum, and in the first two days of the fair, many curators from that museum – the sculpture curator, the prints and drawings curator, a contemporary art curator – came to see it. They were all very interested to see what their colleague was acquiring for the museum. For me that was an amazing feeling.
Wolf Burchard: When I look at myself and my contemporaries in the museum world, most of us went to university for a long time and have new ideas about decorative arts. But most of us don’t always have much experience in looking at and handling objects. This is really something where we rely on the conversation with our colleagues in the trade, in auction houses and galleries, who – at the same age – have been handling a much wider array of objects, of different qualities, and for many years. Of course, for museums those relationships need to be nurtured with great care, but ultimately, all we want is to share information and our passion for great objects.