Little vices can be world-changing.
“Bitter/Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate,” a new exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, underlines how these exotic foodstuffs sparked whole new industries, restructured the global economy and changed European tastes in stimulants forever.
The ticketed show will be up through March 5.
With 68 artifacts ranging from staggeringly elegant tea and coffee services to Madame de Pompadour’s coffee grinder, “Bitter/Sweet” chronicles the arrival of tea and chocolate in Europe in the 1500s, and coffee’s appearance in the next century.
The show was pulled together by Yao-Fen You, DIA associate curator of European sculpture and decorative arts. She admits that her enthusiasm for what academics call “material culture” played a big role in sparking the exhibition.
She notes the taste for exotic morning refreshers worked a small revolution in the ceramics industry, particularly with porcelain, which until tea’s arrival had been a Chinese monopoly.
But not for long, once Europeans got hooked. The rise of a porcelain industry in the West, Yao-Fen says, “had so much to do with the rise of these hot beverages.”
Indeed, anyone who’s into fine china is likely to be blown away by what’s on display here, which includes a French Sèvres set once owned by Prince Louis, Duke of Nemours, and a rare 24-piece set made by Germany’s legendary Fürstenberg Porcelain Manufactory.
Complementing the cups, saucers and tea caddies are historical paintings that touch on the foodstuffs, including a Velásquez portrait of the “Infanta Maria Theresa.” When the Infanta married France’s Louis XIV in 1660, coffee — hitherto a largely Spanish obsession — suddenly became popular with the French court.
The show also does a nice job illustrating how Europeans regarded the societies that produced coffee, tea and chocolate through their own cultural lens.
“When coffee was first introduced,” Yao-Fen says, “it was constructed as the Turkish drink — and thus a Mohammedan custom. There were people who advised against it for that reason, because it came from the non-Christian world.”
And which of the three beverages does she partake of?
“I’m a fan of all three,” she says with a laugh, “but I start the day with coffee. I almost can’t leave the house without it.”
‘Bitter/Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate’
Through March 5
Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit
Wayne, Oakland & Macomb residents: $10, adults; $5, ages 6-17; all others, $14, adults; $7, ages 6-17
9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. and Sun.