Till death do us art: Exhibit unlocks the ritual and comedy of 'Wedded Bliss'
From a woven Swedish blanket that once adorned a 19th-century wedding bed to a Vera Wang wedding gown so light and elegant it seems spun of sugar, a new Peabody Essex Museum exhibit entitled “Wedded Bliss” traces marital traditions from the 18th century to today.
The exhibit, which encompasses 130 paintings, photographs and sculptures, includes works by Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Winslow Homer. It opens Saturday April 26 and is on display through Sept. 14. (See event details at the end of the story, and look for a related story about the woman who created PEM's ornate wedding cake.)
Divided into five themes, “Wedded Bliss” explores subjects including “Color and Symbolism in Wedding Attire” and “Art and Ceremony,” which is the tradition of putting aside a sacred space to tie the knot.
“Bride with Fan,” a painting by Russian artist Marc Chagall, depicts his wife’s silhouette in iridescent blues and whites so she seems to glow in moonlight. With her veiled head bowed demurely and a feathered fan in hand, the pose brings to mind Renaissance depictions of the Madonna.
Another piece, a small wooden chest lined in faded floral paper, once held the dowry of young Chinese bride in the early 19th century. It still bears traces of her identity, engraved with the letters of her name and wedding date.
In 19th-century Korea, a painted wooden screen in an open courtyard set aside a sacred place for the wedding ceremony. Once the ritual was complete, the screen was moved into the bedchambers its flower and bird symbols meant to bring the bride and groom good fortune. Pairs of birds represented fertility, craggy rocks male sexuality.
“It was meant to convey well wishes,” says exhibit curator Paula Richter.
The exhibit includes modern works, including a multimedia installation that encourages active participation. Modern couples are encouraged to submit their own photos and wedding stories to www.pem.org/weddedbliss. A documentary film showcases wedding rituals from around the world including India, Morocco, China and Paris.
Those expecting a Hallmark card version of marital bliss will be happily surprised. Tucked into the museum’s five exhibit rooms are several unique perspectives on marriage, one of the most compelling being Sandy Skoglund’s surrealistic photograph, “The Wedding.” The photo plays with our notion of the big day, showing a man and woman clothed in red standing in a room whose walls and floor have been coated in strawberry jam and orange marmalade. The two figures stand apart, eyes averted, seemingly afraid to make the journey across the sticky floor. A giant red wedding cake stands in the foreground topped with a tiny plastic replica of a married couple.
Is this a statement about the excess many cultures go to celebrate weddings? A comment against the European and American tradition of the “white wedding?” The photo seems to question our tendency to rely on conventional society’s wedding traditions and encourage us to think more freely.
Perhaps the biggest surprise comes at the end of the exhibit, from a lithograph by Nathaniel Currier of Currier and Ives, the famous printmakers of the mid-19th century.
Inspired by British satirists of the time, Currier depicted the seven stages of marital life in a pyramid, with marriage being the pinnacle. In the first scene, entitled “Captured by Beauty,” the man falls in love with the woman. The couple goes on to woo, marry and have a baby by the fifth level, but by level six the woman is waving a broom at the man, and he is brandishing a stick.
“… The leaves desert the rose and ragged thorns themselves disclose,” the poem reads.
The last level, labeled “Divorce,” depicts the woman thumbing her nose at the man while he clutches a paper labeled “bill of cost.”
Strangely ahead of its time, the cartoon, at first glance, conflicts with the exhibit’s “Wedded Bliss.” But curator Richter says it makes an important statement about love and marriage.
“The lithograph has a human element to it,” she says. “We didn’t want [the exhibit] all to be happily ever after. We wanted some work that shows it isn’t always like that.”
“Wedded Bliss: The Marriage of Art and Ceremony” will be at the Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square from Saturday April 26 through Sept. 14. Find out more at www.pem.org/weddedbliss.