For all its light-refracting glamour, glass is usually made for functional purposes. So it’s to be expected that the Hillwood Museum exhibition “Glass: Art. Beauty. Design.” includes dozens of goblets, plates and bottles. These aren’t everyday household objects, however. They’re from the extraordinary collection of businesswoman and philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post, whose trove of 1,600 glass works includes more than a few that once belonged to the Russian imperial family.
These rare and ornate pieces alone would make for a fascinating show at Hillwood, a D.C. mansion that’s impressive even if it’s not Post’s most-talked-about former residence. (That would be the Florida place she named Mar-a-Lago.) But while the bulk of the items are from Post’s holdings, curator Wilfried Zeisler has nudged past the aesthetic and chronological limits of the collection, which contains mostly objects from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Zeisler pushed the clock in both directions, borrowing a few ancient glass pieces while also incorporating items by contemporary glass artists whose work is exceptionally accomplished and often provocative. Some of the modern pieces obliquely comment on Post’s mansion and collection, and in ways that she might not always have appreciated.
The show is primarily staged in Hillwood’s Adirondack Building, built 10 years after Post’s 1973 death in the style of her summer home in Upstate New York. The display opens with a few ancient artifacts, including a 2nd-century Roman ewer that belongs to another Washington mansion turned museum: the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Georgetown.
Also on display are dozens of objects from Russia, many of which Post acquired while living in Moscow in the 1930s with her then-husband, Joseph E. Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. These include goblets engraved with double-headed eagles or the insignia and portraits of Russian empresses. Among the other countries represented are the United States, Italy, China and France, the source of a mid-20th-century electric radiator that, made of glass, looks more ethereal than industrial.
One section of the show is titled “More Light!” and features an elaborate chandelier, painstakingly relocated from the main house, and eight pairs of ornate candelabras. Among the latter are monumental pieces newly attributed to Baccarat, the eminent French firm; they are said to have not been shown publicly since the 1930s.
A very different sort of chandelier is the invention of multiracial New York artist Fred Wilson, whose work is designed to question assumptions about history, culture and race. An array of lanterns and electric-light torches made of dark metal and black and clear glass, the assemblage is modeled on historical Venetian and Ottoman styles. It’s one of several cross-cultural chandeliers by the artist inspired in part by the Shakespeare play whose full title is “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.”
A second of Wilson’s Othello-themed creations has been installed inside the mansion’s breakfast room, temporarily replacing the chandelier that has been moved to the Adirondack Building.
Another piece well beyond the scope of Post’s glass collection is by Tim Tate, a gay D.C. artist. Made of blown and cast glass, the vessel is festooned with flowers that surround an embedded video of a short 1896 Thomas Edison film in which two men dance together. The combination fuses the contemporary with the historical, the political with the decorative.
More aligned with Post’s known passions are works by Debora Moore, Karen LaMonte and Beth Lipman. Moore uses blown and sculpted glass to make large, realistically voluptuous models of orchids — flowers that Post loved. (Real ones can be seen in Hillwood’s greenhouse.) LaMonte explores another Post interest: fashion, with cast-glass models of translucent dresses that incorporate the forms and features of women’s bodies.
Lipman’s contribution sits, seemingly precariously, on a table in the mansion’s dining room. Two glass table settings, one clear and the other black, mirror each other. The plates, bowls and goblets look to be in disarray, teetering on sheets of glass that appear to be sliding off the surface. The sculpture plays on the contradictions of glass, solid in fact yet fluid in appearance. It also injects a note of anarchy into Hillwood, a place of meticulous order both as a home and as a museum.
LaMonte’s gossamer yet fleshy sculptures are on view in both the Adirondack Building and the mansion. In the latter location, they’re displayed alongside some of Post’s own gowns, near drapery that echoes the glass’s subtle colors. Corporeal yet ghostly, the dresses suggest a person who’s gone but whose presence remains palpable. Someone, perhaps, like Marjorie Merriweather Post herself.
Glass: Art. Beauty. Design.
Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. NW. hillwoodmuseum.org.
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