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art: Fashionable Expression 

The Virginia Museum's new exhibit celebrates prosperity, ornamentation, symbolism and, the belt buckle.

Already a leading repository for art nouveau furniture, graphics and decorative arts, VMFA was the first in the country to devote a gallery to the style. Today, the prized collection is bigger and better thanks to the recent acquisition of 484 belt buckles and decorative art objects collected for more than 20 years by Dr. and Mrs. Karl Kreuzer of Munich, Germany.

We owe the prolific expression of art nouveau in part to the fashion of the day, which called for slender female waists, emphasized by belts and punctuated by highly decorated belt buckles. But other than the fact that these objects represent a trend in women's wear of the time, the significance of their purpose is incidental. Here, form places above function. Passion for organic form and line, which inspired sensual curves and color, makes "Celebrating Art Nouveau" a visually appealing exhibition. Add to that a rich visual language borrowing from symbolist literature, myths from many cultures, Celtic ornamentation, Oriental art, and even Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde," and you have a full and engaging viewing experience.

Innovative use of materials matched art nouveau's innovative visual imagery, and in this exhibition, many examples of unusual glass and semiprecious and precious stone settings can be found. Some strange examples are two German buckles by unknown artists in which animal teeth are used instead of gemstones. Incorporated in an oak motif, six stag teeth protrude from acornlike caps, and in the other, eight fox teeth dangle from undulating leaves like lilies of the valley.

Artists, guilds and design studios represented here include well-knowns such as Tiffany and René Lalique, but equally as masterful are the many works in enamel, silver, gems and stones by unknown artists from Germany, France, Denmark, Bohemia and Austria. The emblematic firefly (according to scholar and catalog essayist Ulrike von Hase-Schmundt, a motif that suggests a composite of a human female and a winged creature) is rendered in colorful glass and silver by both French and Bohemian artists, but dozens of other motifs, some surprisingly contemporary-looking, may surprise even the art nouveau devotee.

The exhibition includes not only the newly acquired Kruezer Collection but some items from the Museum's pre-existing art nouveau collection, which have never been displayed before. S



"Celebrating Art Nouveau: The Kreuzer Collection" is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2800 Grove Ave., through Jan. 19.

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