BMA exhibit shows how Art Nouveau shaped Rene Lalique's glass images


Rene Lalique was a bridging figure in the history of modern decorative arts, moving as he did from making exquisite jewelry in the Art Nouveau era of the 1890s to making elegant glass objects in the Art Deco era of the 1920s.

His progression, as well as the legacy carried on by his son and granddaughter, can be seen in an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, "Lalique: A Century of Glass for a Modern World."

The earlier and more impressive half of Lalique's career, when he crafted that to-die-for Art Nouveau jewelry, was surveyed in an exhibit at The Walters Art Gallery in 1985. The current touring show that has touched down at the BMA gives some sense of those Art Nouveau origins mainly in showing how Lalique retained some of its motifs in the more streamlined Art Deco designs of the 1920s. His material shift from using precious stones and metals to using glass had much to do with the sleek appearance of his later creations.

The natural symmetrical treatment of animal and plant forms -- an Art Nouveau trait -- gets a more deco treatment in a cast glass vase made around 1929. Believe it or not, its exterior surface is raised in a decorative patterning of fish heads. Again in the Art Nouveau tradition, the bulging open fish eyes and mouths verge on the grotesque. And yet the fact that this is a clear glass vase tends to smooth out the jarring oddity of these schooling fish heads rising from the surface of the vase.

Another nouveau-into-deco piece is a cast glass ovoid vase with an ivy leaf pattern running over its surface that was made around 1923. What's of further note here is that this vase is shown with its original presentation box and sales slip. Among other things, this exhibit demonstrates that Lalique was intensely aware of the commercial aspect of his artistic production.

Indeed, just have a look at the exhibited perfume bottles, including at least one that many lady visitors will recognize as still being available at perfume counters. Lalique's business savvy was knowing how to sniff out the scent and sensibility of the rich and bottle it for the upper middle class. Although there are a number of unique objects in this exhibit, one comes away thinking more about those objects like perfume bottles meant for mass production.

In his quest to please the affluent public of the '20s, Lalique broadened his decorative horizons beyond what his Art Nouveau origins might lead one to expect. To be sure, there is the expected figurative work that includes such traditional images as cicadas and classical maidens. But there is also more abstracted work speaking to the modern condition, as in skyscraper-shaped perfume bottles that are nifty trans-Atlantic marriages of the lines of French Art Deco and the height of American skyscrapers.

Lalique anticipated the every need -- well, OK, luxurious desire -- of his customers. The exhibited cocktail shaker and swizzle sticks seem all set for a Carole Lombard-type to put them to practical use.

And the various glass automobile mascots representing a dragonfly, horse, falcon, and woman with her hair flying in the breeze are such showy radiator cap ornaments that one understands just what it meant for a Gatsby era auto to roar through that decade.

After Rene Lalique's death in 1945, his business was carried on by his son, Marc, who died in 1977, and is now run by Marc's daughter, Marie-Claude. Its standards have generally remained high, and, as Marie-Claude's cast glass dove from 1966 proves, gracefully shaped glass has a clear place in our age, too.

"Lalique: A Century of Glass for a Modern World" remains at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Jan. 13. Running concurrently in an adjacent gallery is an exhibit of Toulouse-Lautrec posters from the BMA's own collection. For details, call 396-6310.

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