What is luxury? A major new exhibition offers an answer

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris chronicles the history of luxury over the past 6,000 years


This tiny English perfume bottle is a way for the show
to address the history of perfume (Source: Musée des Arts Décoratifs/Jean Tholance)

LAST Thursday, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris opened an expansive exhibition devoted to luxury.

The topic “can seem like a bit of a provocation”, says Olivier Gabet, the show’s curator and the museum’s director. “But our museum was founded in the 19th century by the luxury industry and our mission, over the last century, was a valorisation and defence of the French lifestyle and the French luxury industry.”

Moreover, he continues, luxury in the 21st century “is a new universal language: If you land at an airport in Shanghai or are walking around Mexico City, you’ll see the same logos”.

Luxury as a topic, in other words, isn’t simply about nice things. It’s about the evolution of culture.

“What does a museum have to say about luxury?” he asks. “We wanted to [present] luxury in its economic and political background.”

The show, entitled Luxe, runs through May 2, 2021. It contains about 100 objects and tells the history of luxury goods over the last 6,000 years.

A previous version was shown in 2019 at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “The fact is,” Gabet concludes, “it’s also a recognition of excellent craftsmanship.”

These are some of the highlights.

Qilin, around 1736-96

“It arrived in the museum’s collection in the early 20th century,” Gabet says. “It’s a good example of cloisonné [a technique to decorate metalwork] in China.”

This qilin, Gabet says, is “representative of the taste of the great court of China in the 18th century and also the taste of collectors in Europe in the mid 19th century”.

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The show, entitled Luxe, runs through May 2, 2021 (source: madparis.fr)

Perfume Bottle, 1750

This tiny English perfume bottle is a way, Gabet says, for the show to address the history of perfume. Today, he says, the perfume industry is a way for fashion houses to go mass market.

“But for a long time, perfume was absolutely exclusive, because there was no collective perfume,” he continues. “This object, which is very exquisite, and delicate, is an expression of luxury for oneself.” (An inscription engraved on the bottle’s stamp reads: “I love liberty.”)

A Pair of Pyramid Vases, 1700-10

These Dutch vases were intended to showcase tulips. By the time they were made, the infamous “Dutch tulip mania”, a roughly one-year period in which the country’s speculators pushed the price of bulbs above that of gold (then the bubble burst), had been over for decades. The flowers were still considered a luxury.

Seeing the vases, Gabet says, “you realise the story of luxury is not totally focused on material culture. We talk about flowers and tulips, but we could also talk about salt and pepper, which at one point in history was absolutely proof of luxury”. — AFP