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Dazzling Designs Add Sparkle to Exhibition Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry
This sensual and exotic orchid brooch, part of "Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry" on view in the Torf Gallery Jul 23-Nov 9, 2008, relies heavily on plique a jour (backless) enameling and a large iridescent baroque pearl for its realism and delicacy.

BOSTON.- Called “a new, imperishable beauty” by artist and architect Henry van de Velde, the Art Nouveau movement at the turn of the 20th century found its fullest expression in the decorative arts, and a new type of jewelry design flourished that preserved the beauty found in nature. More than 100 of these dazzling miniature works of art are featured in Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), where it is on view July 23 through November 9, 2008.

The majority of the works, by such recognized masters as René Lalique, George Fouquet, and Louis Comfort Tiffany, are drawn from a private collection representing one of the largest and most important assemblages of Art Nouveau jewelry in the United States; more than half of the pieces have never before been exhibited. Included are such fanciful works as Belt buckle with lily pads and blossoms by Henri Vever and Pendant/brooch with female bust, probably by Louis Aucoc, both of which are from about 1900. In addition to stunning examples of jewelry, decorative art objects are showcased, such as a Daum Frères vase, an Auguste Rodin sculpture, and a Lalique circular gold box. Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry, on view in the Torf Gallery, also features prints, posters, and paintings from the Museum’s own collection that evoke the creative spirit of the times.

The artistic movement known as Art Nouveau distanced itself from the traditionalism of Victorian and Edwardian times and the mass production of the Industrial Revolution. It embraced an aesthetic that was avant-garde, sensuous, and symbolic, and looked to the natural world, the Impressionists, and the arts of Japan for inspiration. Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry traces the history of this new style of design as it influenced jewelry making. The movement began in France and swept through Europe in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, reaching its peak around 1900. The exhibition highlights the talents of one of Art Nouveau’s greatest exponents, Frenchman René Lalique (1860–1945), who worked for several prestigious jewelry houses (Aucoc, Cartier, and Boucheron), where he both designed and fabricated elaborate, one-of-a kind pieces often made of unusual materials, such as horn, enamel, and glass. While Lalique is known today for his molded glass sculptures and decorative objects, jewelry was his first love.

“The Art Nouveau movement brought a breath of fresh air to the late 19th century,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “The works created during this period by Lalique and his contemporaries achieved a level of innovation in both design and technique that has rarely been seen in jewelry. They are also exquisitely beautiful.”

More than 40 dazzling works of art by Lalique are included in the exhibition, as are the designs of his French contemporaries, among them, George Fouquet (1862–1957), Eugene Feuillâtre (1870–1916), and Lucien Gaillard (1861–1933). Also included in Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry are ornaments by artists of the related German Jugendstil (“youth style”), along with artists from Belgium, Spain, and Russia. In America, the influence of Art Nouveau design was limited to a select group of jewelers, most notable among them, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933).

“Art Nouveau jewelry is regarded by many as the most beautiful and technically sophisticated jewelry ever created. It was flamboyant, fantastical, sensual, and poetic,” said Yvonne Markowitz, the MFA’s Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry. “The talented artists who created these jewels achieved their extraordinary results through fluid, undulating forms and audacious, emotionally charged curves—the trademark whiplash line that characterized the movement.”

Jewelry made during the Art Nouveau movement is defined by its technique and materials as much as by its evocative design. Those who created it rejected the “tyranny of the diamond,” which represented what some described as formal, backward-looking trends of the Victorian period (1837–1901), or the all-white, diamond and platinum look favored by proper Edwardians (1901–1910). Instead, Art Nouveau jewelers fashioned for their wealthy, artistic clientele an alternative to the ornate designs favored by society’s grande dames. An example is Lalique’s Zola family necklace (1895–1902, Private Collection), made of gold, enamel, sapphire, and agate for Jeanne Rozerot, the mistress of famed French writer Emile Zola (1840–1902). It features the likenesses of their children accented with ivy leaves and branches. Writers, actresses, and other members of the avant-garde set appreciated Art Nouveau jewelry’s emotional, exotic appeal.

Adornments were celebrated more for their artistry than their intrinsic value. Dramatic brooches, necklaces, and hair ornaments were designed in yellow gold settings with small diamonds (used sparingly), often highlighted with colored gems like paints on an artist’s palette. Baroque pearls were chosen for their irregular shape, satisfying a love for asymmetry. Opals, which reflect the colors of the spectrum, were favored for their iridescence and fire, and unusual materials such as horn (molded, carved, dyed, and inlaid with jewels), elephant ivory, and molded glass were incorporated into striking configurations, often with symbolic meaning.

Enamel provided the basis for much of a piece’s coloration, which often employed pastel shades favored by the Impressionists. The vitreous material is a mix of powdered silica, potash and metallic oxide colorants, and can be applied to metal surfaces using a variety of techniques known as champlevé, cloisonné, and plique-à-jour enamel. Champlevé is where the metal background of a piece is dug out by etching, carving, or casting—forming recessed compartments into which enamels are placed, fused by heat, and then polished to produce a flat surface. Cloisonné features a design outlined by flat metal wires adhered to a metal back, forming compartments that are filled with colored enamels, and then fused by heat. Plique-à-jour (“open to the light”), like cloisonné, uses metal partitions between enamels, but without the metal backing. This allows light to pass through transparent and translucent colors like stained glass, which also makes the piece very fragile. In some cases, an object’s reverse is as beautiful as its front, as can be seen in many examples on view in the exhibition.

These innovative techniques and materials gave jewelry artists and fabricators the freedom to experiment with new, sophisticated, and even fantastical designs. Sinuous lines, asymmetrical formats, and organic shapes invigorated these three-dimensional works of art. Some pieces used a romantic, spiritual imagery; others had a dreamy, mystical quality; still others reflected an edgy, fin de siècle darkness and morbidity rooted in the uncertainty of modern times. These themes were most often expressed by three distinct motifs: flora, fauna (both natural and imaginary creatures) and the female figure. The exhibition Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry is divided among these categories, with an additional section that examines Art Nouveau jewelry design in America.

Evocative of the natural world were trees, creeping vines, exotic orchids, and delicate wildflowers, as well as leaves, blossoms, and berries, which were incorporated into Art Nouveau jewelry. One of the most celebrated examples of flora is Orchid brooch (1898–1901, Private Collection) designed by Charles Desrosiers for George Fouquet. The orchid, with its sensuous overtones, was a favorite flower among Art Nouveau jewelers. This piece is particularly striking because it is a masterwork of plique-à-jour enameling, which gives the petals an ephemeral translucence, while the tiny diamonds on the surface suggest early morning dew. It also reflects Art Nouveau jewelers’ appreciation for baroque pearls with their natural discolorations. Lalique, in addition to being one of the movement’s most important artists, was a master glass innovator who began to experiment with the medium when he was designing and crafting jewelry. Branch brooch with cherry blossoms (1900–1902, Private Collection), made of gold, diamonds, and cast glass, features a series of flowers on a branch, each in a different shade of pink and different phase of bloom. Its subject matter and asymmetrical design reflect Lalique’s fascination with Japanese art.

The earliest work highlighted in Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry was created in 1889 by Lalique and further illustrates his interest in Japanese design, particularly ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Swallow brooch (1889, Private Collection) is an early example of the artist’s breakaway style. The head and part of the wings are composed of pavé diamonds set in silver, reminiscent of traditional 19th-century jewelry. The rest of the bird’s feathers feature opaque enamel in shades of blue. Also of note is the regal pairing of birds in Eugene Feuillâtre’s Double Peacock necklace (about 1900, Private Collection), designed in gold, enamel, and diamond, featuring an iridescent opal at its center.

The use of fauna as a motif in Art Nouveau jewelry ranged from creatures that were elegant and ethereal (swans, peacocks, swallows, butterflies, and dragonflies) to those that were dark and dangerous (wasps, bats, snakes, panthers, and dragons), reinforcing the duality of nature. The light and airy Butterfly brooch (about 1900, Private Collection) by French jeweler Louis Aucoc offers one example of why this exhibition is called Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry because—unlike butterflies, which live a mere 20 days—this exquisite interpretation in platinum, gold, enamel, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires will last forever. This work also features horn which (when subjected to heat and pressure) can become translucent, like the shimmering wings of flying insects. For his Dragonfly pendant-brooch (1904, Private Collection), Belgian artist Philippe Wolfers used translucent plique-à-jour enamel for his creature’s delicate wings. The lower edges of the upper wings are decorated in a new fashion with channel-set rubies and the artist extended the rosy color of the gems onto the lower wings. Such dramatic shading is a rare usage of the plique-à-jour technique.

The Female Figure
Art Nouveau jewelry spoke volumes about society, especially the changing roles of women in the emerging modern age. Victorian and Edwardian sensibilities had to make room for new artistic depictions of women, from the chaste (wood nymphs, marsh fairies) to the erotic (sirens, female sphinxes, or Medusas). Seen in full face or profile, with long flowing tresses and gowns, these goddess-like images adorned brooches, necklaces, and hair ornaments.

Necklace with a female head and a sphinx (about 1900, Private Collection) by Emmanuel-Jules-Joseph Decomps (1872–1948) is an elongated pendant with a female face at the top of the piece, her long hair adorned with poppy blossoms, and a winged female sphinx at the bottom that alludes to the mysteries of ancient Egypt. Actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse—independent women, style setters, and members of the demimonde—served as inspiration for Art Nouveau. Bernhardt was an important patron of Lalique’s; he created jewelry that the actress sometimes wore during her many stage appearances. She served as a muse for others as well. The poster La Dame aux Cam(1896, MFA) by Czechoslovakian artist Alphonse Maria Mucha (1860–1939), which is featurein the exhibition, is jewel-like, with a starry background in silver that gives Bernhardt a delicate, ethereal quality. Serving as contrast—maybe like the woman herself—is Fantastic Inkwell (Self-Portrait as a Sphinx) (1880, MFA), a bronze sculpture by Bernhardt that depicts the actress as a powerful, mythical creature.

Art Nouveau in America
Unlike delicate European Art Nouveau Jewelry, which was often crafted just for display, sturdier American pieces were meant to be worn. Louis Comfort Tiffany created exquisite jeweled depictions of dragonflies, dandelions, and Queen Anne’s lace; his Brooch (about 1915, PrivaCollection), designed in gold and topaz, is included in the exhibition as are works by other prominent Art Nouveau jewelers in America, such as F. Walter Lawrence (1864–1929) andFrank Gardner Hale (1876–1945). Lawrence’s Dog collar with a nautical scene (about 1903Private Collection), made of gold and pearls, typifies the popular “dog collar” necklace that wain vogue at the turn of the century, and often worn on a ribbon of velvet or silk. Hale’s Pendant (about 1910, Anonymous promised gift) features sinuous swirls of yellow gold, accented by green tourmalines and diamonds.

The graceful curves, elegant asymmetry, symbolic shapes, and innovative techniques of Art Nouveau jewelry were created by designers who acquired their skills in the high-style European tradition, but who sought inspiration elsewhere. Their creations were delicate, surprising works of art that flourished for a time, but the cost of labor-intensive production, the impracticality of the pieces, and the onset of World War I—as well as Lalique’s transition to glass making—resulted in the demise of Art Nouveau jewelry around 1914. What emerged from its legacy was the studio jewelry movement of the 1940s and 1950s in the United States and Europe which also emphasized the importance of a work’s design over its intrinsic worth, its uniqueness, and technical innovation. While this period offered a new design direction, it nonetheless paid homage to the creativity of its recent past, ensuring that the imperishable spirit of Art Nouveau would endure.

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