Of all the types of art exhibitions — group shows, career retrospectives, recent work, juried competitions, survey shows, exhibitions organized around periods and styles, etc. — the shows I find most satisfy are theme shows, those in which art and artifacts are assembled around a central idea. Art, after all, is a form of knowledge, so when images and objects are assembled in service of a concept they tend to have resonance beyond their own internal and inchoate meanings.
The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, looks to have a real winner in this regard in Wedded Bliss: The Marriage of Art and Ceremony. The sumptuous Wedded Bliss catalogue just arrived in the mail and I can’t wait to get to Salem this summer to see the show, especially as I have a daughter getting married in September.
Organized by curator Paula Bradstreet Richter, Wedded Bliss uses some 130 disparate objects, from paintings and sculpture to jewelry, fashion and even wedding cakes, to take an international look at all manner of marriage made manifest in art from 18th century to the present.
The show is organized into five thematic sections in order to explore both conventional notions of wedding and elements of ceremony, symbolism and marriage ritual that may not be as familiar to western eyes.
The first section, “Wedding in White,” examines the transformational symbolism of white purity as expressed in everything from a Christian Lacroix wedding gown to a Lesley Dill sculpture in the form of a paper wedding dress printed with Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The Soul Has Bandaged Moments.” Dill’s didactic gown was made for an AIDS auction. As I tend to associate Salem with the sea, I am particularly interested in seeing Maine artist Brian White’s seashell wedding dress and veil, an iconic embodiment of desire that speaks in folk accent to both sailors’ valentines and haute couture. “Artful Negotiation” uses everything from Winslow Homer’s 1874 painting Rustic Courtship to bride price shell money from New Guinea and spear-blade currency from the Congo to invoke aspects of how marriages are arranged, both socially and romantically.
“Color and Symbolism in Wedding Attire” features nuptial textiles from around the world, from Chinese silk tunics and satin robes from Japan to a vintage Indian sari and a brocade Mayan-inspired wedding coat from Chiapas, Mexico, to celebrate the very fabric of marriage.
“Art and Ceremony” deals with the scared spaces created by arts and crafts for the wedding ceremony. Among the offerings, a 19th century Korean screen, a chupah or wedding canopy by artist Ricky Tims, and sculptor Louise Nevelson’s “Dawn’s White Wedding Chapel II,” one of the artist’s monochrome found-wood constructions.
“Remembrance” features images and objects meant to memorialize weddings, such as a Tiffany anniversary napkin ring and an anniversary teapot.
Multi-cultural, multi-media and multi-faceted Wedded Bliss promises to be a marriage feast of an exhibition, serving up everything from fine art by Picasso, Chagall and Homer to an exquisite wedding cake created just for the exhibition by Cile Bellefleur Burbidge, the Danvers, Mass., baker who supplied wedding cakes to high society for decades.
The Peabody Essex Museum, with a quarter million square feet of exhibition space, bills itself as the second largest museum in New England. It is a rare and eccentric museum with strengths in Asian arts and a campus that features period gardens and 24 historic properties. Now don’t you want to go to Salem this summer? I do.
Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, MA, 978-745-9500, pem.org.