Creating a visual feast

Melding digital design, 3D printing, and traditional silversmithing techniques, Silvia Weidenbach creates exuberant jewellery that demands attention. Weidenbach is the first V&A Gilbert Collection artist in residence, and the display Visual Feast, alongside a commission, are the culmination of her residency. 

Housed in a suite of galleries in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection includes masterpieces from four areas of European and British decorative arts: silver and gold, enamel portrait miniatures, micromosaics and gold boxes. The collection was formed by two Londoners, Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert, who moved to Los Angeles in 1949. It was there that they also moved from designing bespoke ball gowns, to property development, and started collecting decorative arts. Their motto was "not for us, but for everyone". In this spirit, since the collection arrived at the V&A in 2008, the curatorial brief has been to show the collection in new ways in the Museum and online, ensuring it remains relevant and exciting for the broadest possible audience. It was with this is mind that internationally renowned jeweller Silvia Weidenbach was appointed as the first artist in residence for the Gilbert Collection (April 2017 – April 2018).

Portrait of Silvia Weidenbach. Photograph by Laura Falconer

Weidenbach sees the Gilbert Collection as a feast for the eyes. The intricacy and opulence of the historic objects exhibited in the galleries feeds her creativity. Her innovative work combines traditional goldsmithing and silversmithing techniques with digital technologies. Her jewellery is sculpted digitally, 3D printed and then hand-finished and set with precious materials.

Using these processes Weidenbach created the Visual Feast box, commissioned in response to the Gilbert Collection. In its materiality, this 21st-century gold box embodies the push and pull between the historic and the contemporary that defines the Gilbert Collection. The collection's 18th-century porcelain boxes, for example, are objects that were at the cutting edge of European technology when they were made. Porcelain, or 'white gold', had remained an Eastern secret for centuries, the subject of industrial espionage, as competing Western countries sought to discover its composition. Weidenbach's works, made of her secret material 'Moon Dust', embody narratives of wondrous making and the wow-factor of miraculously crafted objects.

Visual Feast ‘BOX’ (box), 3D printed Moondust, gold, diamonds, mother of pearl, Silvia Weidenbach, 2018, London and Glasgow

The Visual Feast box is inspired by arguably the most dazzling objects in the Gilbert Collection: five diamond-set boxes designed and made for Frederick II, King of Prussia (1712 – 86), also known as Frederick the Great, made between 1765 and 1780. These boxes attested to the skill of the craftsmen working in Prussia during Frederick the Great's reign (1740 – 86). They were extravagant and strategic commissions, allowing makers to explore innovative design in the latest techniques and most precious materials. They also proved that Berlin could rival Paris in the production of luxury goods. At a time when chic Parisian designers saw rococo as last season and had moved towards neo-classicism, defined by rational straight lines and references to antiquity, these boxes were asymmetrical, floral fantasies.

Left to right: snuffbox, unknown maker, 1765, Germany. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.413:1 to 2-2008; snuffbox, Jean Guillaume George Krüger, 1775 – 1780, Germany. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.414-2008; snuffbox, unknown maker, about 1765, Germany. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.412-2008

Created for the royal courts of the 18th-century, the boxes were used in exquisitely designed and built palaces, during meticulously choreographed ceremonies and events, by an elite whose appearance was as carefully constructed and opulent as the boxes they used. Weidenbach's work pays tribute to this world and its understanding of the power of objects, whilst also interrogating its aesthetics and deployment of luxury. Weidenbach consciously engages with the extravagance of these objects: her box is encrusted with the same abundance of diamonds and mother-of-pearl as their historic counterparts, posing questions of how this aesthetic functions today.

In the display, Visual Feast (July 2018 – January 2019), Weidenbach stages an intervention throughout the Gilbert Galleries, inserting her pieces into the display cases that hold the Gilbert Collection's historic decorative arts. The juxtaposition of her futuristic jewellery and the historic objects forms a link from the past to the present. This contrast asks the viewer to consider how objects communicate with us, how they express ideas – from power to identity – and how they can enchant us with the mystery of how they came to be. Looking at Weidenbach's work inspires the viewer to engage with historic objects in a visceral, personal way, indulging in their visual power and letting their eyes take their fill.

Interior of the Gilbert Galleries showing mounts by Katrin Hanusch for Silvia Weidenbach's Visual Feast. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Weidenbach engaged collaborators to realise her vision for the display. Sculptor Katrin Hanusch, translated Weidenbach's concepts to create 'mounts' for the jewellery. Intricate yet unobtrusive museum-made metal stands are used throughout the galleries to support the historic pieces without distracting from the objects on display. Weidenbach's sculptural mounts subvert this purpose by creating fantasy landscapes for her pieces and the neighbouring Gilbert objects, designating the gallery space as a playful one, to be visually enjoyed.

Digital artist Jon Emmony produced a video piece, Visual Feast: Moving Image. The film visualises Weidenbach's creative process. It explores the collisions of contemporary and historic, physical and digital that define Weidenbach's work. 3D scans and images of objects are merged with data that, when printed and hand-finished, becomes one of Weidenbach's pieces. Through these ruptured and shifting forms, Emmony creates a portrait of the maker and her process. These collaborations provide another avenue of engagement for the viewer to enjoy, and further demonstrate the power of the Gilbert Collection to inspire contemporary artists.

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The commissioned bejewelled box will provide a physical legacy of the residency, remaining in the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection.

All the work carried out throughout Silvia Weidenbach's residency, including a publication and the commission, is generously supported by the Gilbert Trust for the Arts.

Header image: Visual Feast ‘BOX’, 3D printed Moondust, gold, diamonds, mother of pearl, Silvia Weidenbach, 2018, London and Glasgow.