- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

Wednesday's gala dinner preview of "Art Nouveau," the National Gallery of Art's latest blockbuster exhibit, had an integrated party theme like none other.

Some 350 guests were treated to a near-total immersion into the sights, sounds and tastes of the years 1890 to 1914, during which this distinctive and engrossing decorative style flourished in at least 13 cities across the globe.

A trio played music by Debussy and Ravel during the reception. Tables were covered with look-alike copies of William Morris' favorite willow-leaves pattern, upon which were scattered the Italian chestnuts found in many art-nouveau forms. The menu included some of the favorite dishes of the era (turbot, pheasant) and a Grand Sablon croquembouche dessert from a cafe in Brussels named after a family that is a lender to the exhibition. Flowers were suitably sensuous in homage to themes of nature employed by many artists of the period.

To top it off, there was a bit of performance art for entertainment when, between courses, a spotlighted dancer swooped and turned on the mezzanine in the billowing manner made famous in 1905 by Loie Fuller, the woman who inspired several sculptures on view.

"I would hesitate to say it is our best installation, but then there is no reason not to," said Gallery Director Earl ("Rusty") Powell III, his flamboyant mood echoing what he described as "one of the most innovative and exuberant of modern art styles."

Who could disagree, especially when looking at an erotic outsize brooch by Rene Lalique titled "The Dragonfly Woman," which show curator Paul Greenhalgh said privately might bring as much as $70 million on an open market? "It's beyond value," he said of what he termed "the most expensive piece of jewelry in the world."

"C'est magnifique," said French Ambassador Francois Bujon de l'Estang, proudly reminding guests that the art-nouveau movement "started in Paris" as his wife, Anne, stood at his side in a coppery Chanel ensemble she described as "very this year."

The exhibit, which originated at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, is regarded as the most comprehensive on the subject since the Paris Centennial Exposition of 1900. Some 350 objects furniture, art, ceramics, even whole rooms brought over by the planeload will be open to the public beginning Sunday and running through Jan. 28.

DaimlerChrysler Corp., the main sponsor, contributed $1.5 million from its philanthropic fund for the show alone, the largest amount ever spent on a single cultural event, according to Robert Liberatore, head of the company's Washington arm. That didn't include the cost of the party, advertising, complimentary catalogs and other expenses, he added.

Kathleen Oswald, DaimlerChrysler's chief administrative officer, was quick to point out parallels in the style with her own business: "Automobile design and art nouveau started at the same time. Like the automobile industry today, art nouveau was global."

She didn't mention that one of the prime influences on art-nouveau stylists was, in Mr. Greenhalgh's words, "a fear of technology pushing back into spirituality."

The guest list was equally global, with a host of ambassadors from countries at the forefront of art-nouveau style (France, Belgium, Austria, Russia, Hungary) alongside such American political, media and philanthropic VIPs as Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer; Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala; Sen. Joseph R. Biden; Rep. John D. Dingell and his wife, Debbie; Judith Terra; Katharine Graham; Robert and Louisa Duemling; Lee and Julie Folger; Kathleen Matthews; Nina Totenberg; and Morley Safer (here to film a segment on the show for CBS).

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