How an Early 20th-Century Parisian Vogue for Islamic Art Inspired Cartier’s Love Affair With Modernity

A new exhibition in Dallas of some 400 objects reveals an unexpected story of influences from afar.

Head ornament, Cartier New York, circa 1924. Marian Gérard, Collection Cartier © Cartier.

“Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity” is not just about the influence on the storied French luxury maison’s jewelry. It’s also the tale of the house itself, the family behind it, and the shaping of a broader, new aesthetic lexicon.

The new exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art opens on May 14. At its heart is the theme of how art informs and influences the world around us and how we see and communicate. Much is changed in translation, of course.

The show is co-organized by the DMA and Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs (where it finished its run in February) in collaboration with the Musée du Louvre and with the support of Maison Cartier. It includes over 400 objects from those institutions’ collections and works from India, Iran, North African, and several Arab countries.

The show centers on the grandsons of Cartier founder François-Louis Cartier, Louis and Jacques, and their roles in shaping the brand in an exciting era when technology and culture, and the past and the future, blur.

Sarah Schleuning, senior curator of decorative art and design at the DMA, was part of the four-person team that curated the exhibition. She took a break from installing the show to answer some of our questions.

Small bottle, Iran, 9th–10th century, bronze, The Keir Collection of Islamic Art on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art.

Many would be unaware that Cartier had such such strong connections to Islamic art. 

If you look at a lot of the research done before, you see elements and allusions to these ideas. I think of them as threads that weren’t fully pulled. Having a curatorial team that was two Islamicists and two decorative arts and jewelry specialists, we were able to create a more nuanced and fuller picture.

The exhibition is focused on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when people were pulling in all elements from different cultures to form the Art Deco movement.

Think about these exhibitions that people saw in the early 20th century, this fascination with Persia and the Ballet Russe, the zeitgeist moment of Schéhrazade and this fascination with color and all these turban-style outfits. The removal of corsets changed the style of jewelry that was being made. People were inspired, but it was filtered through so many different interpretations

There were incredible opportunities to be inspired. What are new color combinations? What are new forms? There were also huge scale shifts happening. You might be looking at a building colonnade, but you’re then trying to shift that into the scale of a tiara. It’s fascinating to see the intricacy and that detail being miniaturized in a way, or thought about in a different scale.

What can you tell me about Louis Cartier as a collector and a person?

He had a very keen eye, was incredibly curious, had incredible taste, but was not only just interested in collecting for himself. He lent a lot of these collections to exhibitions. He also photographed pieces that we believe were accessible to his designers. He had the desire to collect for the idea of preservation and inspiring others with things that inspired him.

Bib necklace, Cartier Paris, special order, 1947. Nils Herrmann, Collection Cartier © Cartier

I like how some of these precious objects made to last a lifetime are rather obsolete, like cigarette cases and upper-arm bracelets.

It’s being at the forefront of what is popular in its moment. That’s why the archive matters, too, because in many cases things get contemporized. You would have people returning with family jewels and saying, “Take these emeralds and make a more contemporary setting.” You see these styles that get sort of phased out. That’s the cyclical nature of fashion and aesthetics. It’s always this rotation.

There are moments of evolution. There are moments of revolution. There are big transitional shifts. So much happened in Paris at the dawn of the 20th century: this emergence of Islamic artwork flowing into the city, this rise of consumption, and the codification of Islamic art as a field of discipline. Incredible shows emerged out of that, which created a collector base and a taste, fascination, and a desire to pursue.

Bazuband upper arm bracelet, Cartier Paris for Cartier London, special order, 1922. Platinum, old-cut diamonds. Cartier Collection. Nils Herrmann, Cartier Collection © Cartier

What were some of these key game-changer exhibitions? 

Gaston Migeon was a young curator at the Louvre. His [“Exposition des arts musulmans”] in 1903 was really the beginning of trying to look at Islamic art with a scientific approach. Then you have these watershed exhibitions, like in Munich in 1910, and you have a show of Persian and Indian miniatures at the Musée Des Arts Décoratifs in 1912, and a huge exhibition in 1931 at Burlington House in London.

We’re tracing what happened when certain individuals, including Louis Cartier, saw these exhibitions and what emerged out of that. What’s going to happen in 2022 when people see them again? What kind of new things will be sparked and become generative when people see these objects? That’s the power of art. I think it’s incredible.

Arabian no. 2, Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, pl. 32, Day and Son, Ltd., London, 1865. Archives Cartier Paris @ Cartier

“Islamic art” is a gigantic umbrella encompassing so many different cultures and mediums.

It’s important to understand that this show is what we thought Cartier and the designers at the maison saw and experienced. The goal of the exhibition is not a holistic overview of Islamic art. It’s saying, “What did Cartier see in these exhibitions? What did he collect? What was in that zeitgeist, and where did that take the design?”

We also tried to be sensitive about nomenclature. We are using contemporary terms, but within the show we also try and use period terms and titles. We try to explain that, you know, language changes.

Bandeau, Cartier Paris, 1922. Nils Herrmann, Collection Cartier © Cartier

Did a specific object profoundly move you?

One of my absolute favorites is the coral and onyx bandeau, which has a very striking color combination. It’s very modern. It’s just very delicate and pinned to a tortoise shell comb. How intricately designed it is. It’s magical to think about how many people and layers of ideas it took to to make that. And then you’re just seeing it as this crystallized idea manifested.

Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity” is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art May 14 through September 18, 2022.

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