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Yale’s Smart Gallery, Opulent Downton Show Worth a Trip

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'Ostrich Feather Fan'
Mrs. James Armand de Rothschild's "Ostrich Feather Fan" (1912-13). It includes silver, diamonds and hundreds of rare blond tortoiseshell. Source: Waddesdon/The Rothschild Collection (Rothschild Family Trust)/Yale Center for British Art via Bloomberg

Mar. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Edwardian opulence was epitomized by a luxurious ostrich-feather fan presented to Mrs. James de Rothschild on her 1913 marriage into the banking dynasty.

To transform dung-spattered gray plumage into a fluffy, white objet d’art required numerous artisans in Jewish sweatshops, baths of acid, bleach and ammonia, plus diamonds, precious metal and hundreds of rare blond tortoise shells.

“Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century” provides a lot of ostrich feathers, diamond jewelry and electrical marvels, including tulip-shaped lamps, phonograph recordings and jewel-encrusted servant bell pushes from Buckingham Palace -- crafted by Peter Carl Faberge.

Don’t miss the film of little Prince Olav, looking like a present-day Shriner, driving the world’s tiniest car -- made by Cadillac -- through the streets of Oslo.

Extravagance, innovation and hubris permeate this enlightening exhibition at the redoubtable Yale Center for British Art.

Famous figures and lavish objects teeter on the precipice of time.

We encounter flamboyant life-size portraits by Charles Wellington Furse, John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, who painted his colleague James Abbott McNeill Whistler. There are also sculptures, furniture and decorative arts.

Downton Abbey

According to the curators, the success of “Downton Abbey” is partly responsible for renewed interest in that period’s decadence, but I’m not sure we ever stopped being fascinated by the age that went down with the Titanic.

An Edwardian immersion, the two-floor show should satisfy most anglophiles. For some, its “Masterpiece Theater” undertones could become cloying, especially in galleries overrun by willowy maidens, Arthurian pageantry, bejeweled duchesses and high-collared industrialists.

Yet throughout the exhibition, the era is presented as a period of transition. There are portals to the past in the gorgeous photographs Frederick Henry Evans took of cathedral doors, stairways and tympana.

But strong modernist works by Rodin, Duncan Grant, Augustus John, J.D. Innes, William Nicholson and Walter Richard Sickert, like battering rams, push forward.

‘Societe Anonyme’

Just across the street is the renovated and expanded Yale University Art Gallery.

Four floors of railroad galleries connect three buildings of disparate styles and move you almost seamlessly through an encyclopedic history of art.

Duncan Hazard and Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects united the 1953 Louis I. Kahn Building, the 1928 Old Yale Art Gallery and Street Hall (1866) in the $135 million project.

It is absolutely stunning -- a triumph of curatorial taste and architectural savvy. Everything is close without crowding.

Roman busts linger, as if on leave, in a Neo-Gothic setting, and African gods stand like messengers welcoming Picasso’s Cubism.

Memories of Frans Hals reawaken in portraits by Alberto Giacometti, and Fra Angelico’s candy-colored angels sing in chorus with Mark Rothko’s shivering red lozenges and Vincent van Gogh’s heightened yellows in “The Night Cafe.”

The current show, “Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America” is a treasure-trove of early modern art belonging to Yale. Formed in 1920 in New York City by Katherine S. Dreier, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, the society was actually America’s first experimental museum for contemporary art and Dada pranks.

Tightly packed, the exhibition includes masterworks by Jean Arp, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Fernand Leger.

Piet Mondrian’s heart-stopping “Fox Trot A,” a white diamond divided by three black lines of various weights, is itself worth a pilgrimage to New Haven.

“Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century” runs through June 2 at the Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., New Haven, CT. Information: +1-203-432-2800;

“The Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America” runs through July 14 at the Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven, CT. Information: +1-203-432-0600;

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine and Greg Evans on television.

To contact the writer on the story: Lance Esplund, in New York, at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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