review: Bling’s Big Three— Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique—at 1900 World’s Fair, Legion of Honor, February 7- May 31, 2009
How gratifying that in an economic crisis, we can momentarily forget our worries, escape to a museum and indulge in pure fantasy. “Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique” at the Legion of Honor through May 31, 2009 is an enticing show that will fuel your imagination and transport you back a century to a time when the world’s fair was the stage where all the newest innovations, curiosities and luxury goods were unveiled. The show offers a glimpse of rare jewelry and design masterpieces from bling’s “big three” Peter Carl Fabergé, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and René Lalique set against the backdrop of the Exposition Universelle of 1900, the only world’s fair where all three masters showed simultaneously. With some 300 objects from more than 50 international lenders, “Artistic Luxury” reunites works that have not been presented together since they were shown at this world’s fair and offers many pieces that have never been exhibited publicly in the United States before. The exhibition is curated by Stephen Harrison of the Cleveland Museum of Art curator of decorative art and design, where the show originated and by Martin Chapman, curator of European decorative arts and sculpture for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
The Legion of Honor is the perfect venue for this show as its benefactor Alma Spreckels, “big Alma” was a passionate collector of all three of these master designers, particularly Fabergé. And one of the Legion’s current benefactors, Diane B. “DeDe” Wilsey, Fine Arts Museum Board of Trustees President, is also a passionate collector. The Legion also organized the impressive 1996 blockbuster show “Fabergé in America” that had a 16 month, 5-stop national run and left some critics scathing at the blatant promotion of Fabergé, a large financial sponsor of the show. Some of those Fabergé objects, along with some bequeathed by Mrs. Spreckels are on display again, and Mrs. Wilsey has lent her Kelch egg, rarely shown in public.
Prepare to be pleasantly overwhelmed. The show is awash with globetrotting royals, aristocrats, stage stars, gallerists and industrialists from several different eras. It would take a battalion of Vanity Fair readers to piece together all the juicy stories behind these treasures that the rich and famous have commissioned, bought, bequeathed, auctioned, hawked and sued each other for over the years. Unfortunately, the placards on the display cases read like dry novels, long lists of owners and way too little gossip. Because jewelry is intimate, it begs for intimate stories of those who owned and wore these items. And, of course, what the original owners paid and how that translates in terms of today’s dollar.
The Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris provides a fresh and historically interesting context for examining these three luxury producers. Billed as the summation of a century, this world’s fair aimed to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate movement into the next. And it was the center stage on which the rivalry between these three great luxury makers took place as they attempted to outdo each other and to woo the upper crust to buy their exquisite creations. From April through November of 1900, over 50 million visitors attended and some 60 countries presented 85,000 exhibitions of the best of their art and culture, scientific innovations and manufacturing accomplishments. Visitors were wowed by innovations such as a moving sidewalk which rattled around the exhibitions at two different speeds—9 km/hour and 4 km/hour, the wireless telegraph, scientific photography, the first projected sound films and the world’s most powerful telescope. The Exposition’s legacy includes many grand Parisian buildings that were constructed as venues for the Exposition such as the Grand Palais, the Gare de Lyon, the Gare D’Orsay (now the Musee D’Orsay), the Pont Alexander III and the Petit Palais.
The new style that was universally present and served to usher in modernism was Art Nouveau, a revolutionary movement which was a response to the radical changes caused by the rapid urban growth and technological advances that followed the Industrial Revolution. Art Nouveau basically sought to make art central in the design of all things and to abandon the traditional separation of art into the distinct categories of fine art (painting and sculpture) and applied arts (ceramics, furniture, and other practical objects).
The three luxury makers embraced Art Nouveau in varying degrees—Rene Lalique and Louis Comfort Tiffany on the cutting edge; Fabergé worked in several styles; Charles Lewis Tiffany remained a traditionalist.
When walking through the galleries at the Legion, it is hard to distinguish objects that were actually shown at the Paris world’s exhibition from those produced during that period. According to curators Stephen Harrison and Emmanuel Ducamp, who have been researching this for years, verification of the actual objects that were on display has been a difficult task, especially so for because little information was retained. The best sources have been photographs taken of the various booths and of objects and also sales receipts and correspondence.
Fabergé: Beyond Eggs
Peter Carl Fabergé of St. Petersburg was at his peak at Exposition Universelle of 1900 where he displayed all the exquisite imperial Easter eggs he and his craftsmen had made, plus a selection of other luxurious objects, and was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. Fabergé was the most conservative of the big three, catering primarily to the tastes of the Russian and British royal families and to international clients such as the King of Siam. He used a greater variety of precious and semi-precious stones than any other jeweler in history and the Czar’s patronage gave him access to exquisite and rare Russian hardstones from Imperial quarries in the Urals and Atai Mountains. Sapphires, emeralds and rubies were usually en cabochon (not faceted) and diamonds were almost always rose cut. His enameling techniques were unparalleled, especially the finishes he achieved: opaque, semipolished or brilliant, or color effects which varied according to the angel of light or vision. Refinement is the distinctive characteristic of all his work: one object alone might have four differnt shades of gold, blended and contrasted exquisitely with the colors of the gems and enamels he chose.
The 7 Fabergé eggs on display at this exhibition wonderfully illustrate the competing push-pull factors at play between historical revival styles and the beginnings of modernism around the turn of the century. Fabergé maintained a foot in both design camps: some of his designs were executed the Art Nouveau style such as the “Imperial Pansy Egg,” while others such as the “Imperial Blue Serpent Egg Clock” were done in Louis XVI taste from 18th Century France. His complete mastery of historical styles was so proficient that he could readily adapt the very best elements from the past while keeping aspects of his pieces attractively modern.
The well-known story behind the exquisite ornamental Imperial eggs is that they were commissioned by Czar Alexander III in 1885 and presented to his czarina, Maria Feodorovna, yearly at Easter up until the Russian Revolution. After Alexander died, his son Czar Nicholas II continued the tradition with gifts of eggs to his mother and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. Together, father and son commissioned 56 eggs in total. Fabergé had to always best himself and over the years his eggs, which always related thematically to the Imperial family or to scenes from Russia important to the family, become more and more elaborate with an array of dizzying surprises inside.
One of Fabergé’s most beloved eggs is the famous Art Nouveau style “Imperial Pansy Egg,” given in 1899 to Maria Feodorovna. This stunning green egg in nephrite, a form of Siberian jade, has tender branches of twisted gold from which appliqué pansies in enamel and diamonds seem to grow. The treat found inside is executed in a more traditionally historical design—a large white heart with a border of diamonds sitting on an easel; affixed are 11 red enamel medallions like holly berries that click open to show miniature portraits of the members of the imperial family. The family lent the egg back to Fabergé so that it could be shown at the 1900 Paris exhibition.
The more traditional “Imperial Blue Serpent Egg” is actually a clock with a rotating dial—a snake’s tongue marks the hour—and was inspired by a fantastic French desk clock by Jean André Lepaute from about 1785. The midnight blue enamel egg with gold garlands and diamonds was originally presented on Easter in 1887 to Maria Feodorovna and later owned by Princess Grace of Monaco. Prince Rainier III of Monaco received the egg as gift in 1974 from Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos and it became one of Princess Grace’s favorite objects, adorning her desk in her private study. When we consider how cherished these objects were, it is remarkable that the Dowager Empress lent this egg, along with other treasures back to Fabergé to show at the 1900 Exposition Universelle.
Also on display is the Fabergé “1902 Kelch Rocaille Egg” owned by Fine Arts Museum Board of Trustees President Diane B. “DeDe” B. Wilsey.
The 7 Kelch eggs were modeled after the Imperial Eggs and were all created by Michael Perkhin, Fabergé’s second head work master between 1898 and 1904. They are as fine, if not even more sumptuous that those in the Imperial series. The 1902 rocaille egg is made of translucent green enamel adorned with gold rococo cartouches, platinum flowers set with diamonds and varicolored gold palms, also set with diamonds. The heart surprise picture frame is made of gold, rose-cut diamonds, and rose and white enamel. Mrs. Wilsey keeps a portrait of her beloved dog in the diamond studded frame.
Fabergé and his craftsmen also created a wide range of personal luxury items and whimsical objects coveted by European aristocrats–all kinds of little boxes, small animal sculptures in semiprecious materials decorated with gold and gems, umbrella handles, cigarette cases, flowering branches set in vases and baskets, clocks and mechanical pieces. One of his finest creations is the masterwork “Imperial Lilies of the Valley Basket” a basket of lilies of valley of seed pearls nesting in moss of spun gold with delicate leaves of carved stone. It was presented to Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna by the merchants of Nizhny Novgorod as a coronation gift in 1896 and became her favorite object by Fabergé; she kept it on her desk until the 1917 Revolution. Fabergé borrowed it back and took it to the 1900 exposition in Paris where it was a sensation.
One of Fabergé’s most popular works at the turn of the century was a delicate “Dandelion Puff Ball” whose real-looking powdery fluff was actually asbestos fiber fixed on a thread of gold with a small uncut diamonds at the edge. His inspiration was the Hermitage’s collections of flowers cut in precious stones made for Catherine the Great and her aunt. The Legion of Honor has an entire case of flowers carved of rare hardstones from Russian Siberia and the Urals, each flower exquisite in its endearing simplicity.
Two Tiffanys: American Upstarts
Visitors to the 1900 Exposition Universal would not have missed the stunning displays of luxury goods in the American pavilion by Charles Lewis Tiffany’s firm, Tiffany and Co., and beside it, the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. owned by his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany. The numerous awards won by father and son were reported widely and this critical exposure bolstered demand and secured the reputations of both Tiffanys as a brand source of museum-quality objects. No greater contrast between the traditional and conservative versus the new Art Nouveau style—could be seen than in the two Tiffany booths.
In the Tiffany & Co. display, the emphasis was on rare and expensive stones in lavish settings that beckoned the seriously wealthy to buy. The exhibition at the Legion offers a stunning 5-inch-long “Iris Brooch” in pink tourmalines, green garnets and platinum as well as a breathtaking necklace of large pink tourmalines set in diamonds, both created by Tiffany and Co. for Jeptha Wade II and his wife Ellen, of Cleveland, Ohio. Wade was the grandson of the founder of the Western Telegraph Union and he and his wife typified the type of wealthy and socially prominent clients that Tiffany cultivated. Despite heavy American demand, most Europeans thought the flashy American works produced by Tiffany & Co. were vulgar because they were created for business tycoons and not true aristocrats. An elaborately carved elephant tusk tankard on display clearly crosses the line into excess and humor as it mistakenly features painstakingly carved American-style alligators instead of the African crocodiles that big-game hunters would expect want to see carved on their African elephant ivory trophies.
Louis Comfort Tiffany’s glass was well known in Europe before the Exposition Universelle of 1900 due to his association with Siegfried Bing, the Paris gallerist whose department store-museum “Salon de l’Art Nouveau” which opened in 1895 gave name to the Art Nouveau movement. Tiffany was one of the top artists in Bing’s stable of artists and designers and Bing retained exclusive distribution rights over his work up until the 1900 exhibition. By the time, Tiffany showed at the 1900 exposition, his Favrille (handmade) glass had become legendary to the point that any artwork that had any iridescent quality was called “Tiffany glass,” much like any copy is referred to as a “Xerox.”
Louis Comfort Tiffany presented his finest work at the Paris fair, creating a special shaded gallery so that viewers could experience hismagnificent glass in all its glory. His large “Four Seasons” window won a gold medal and his religious masterpiece, “The Flight of the Soul,” was extremely popular. In key parts of his windows, Tiffany and his team of artisans folded and layered glass to create texture, depth and realism.
Tiffany’s precious “Magnolia Window” which has its U.S. debut at the Legion was displayed in Bing’s separate pavilion just outside the gates of the exhibition on the River Temps. This window was bought in 1901 and taken to Russia by Baron Alexander von Stieglitz, for his Stieglitz Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts in St. Petersburg, as an example of contemporary art. After the Russian Revolution and during the Soviet era, the window was in safe storage in the Hermitage but essentially lost to the art world. This is the first time it has ever been seen.
The window exemplifies Tiffany rewriting the boundaries of conventional stained glass during this period, creating a canvas on which he essentially makes an Impressionist painting in glass. The woman who actually worked the glass and created the cartoon or framework was Agnes Northrop, one of the many gifted women designers employed by Tiffany Studios. In fact, the big three all had similar design studio set-ups where they were the master artist but employed a stable of very talented artists who could execute and sometimes extend their creative masterpieces. The delicate shades of pink, green, and ivory glass selected for the petals and leaves of the tender magnolia blossoms show a remarkable sensitivity for color nuance.
Lalique: Uniquely Poetic Of the big three, Rene Lalique (1860-1945), the Parisian goldsmith and jeweler, had the most profound influence on his peers in Europe. His booth was the sensation of the 1900 exposition, what everyone came to see—the walls were a glorious bestiary of women crafted from bronze and glass with arms outstretched and transforming into winged butterflies, flanked by snakes and bats. Beneath their protective wings were cases of his fabulous jewelry. Lalique’s poetic interpretations, expressed through Art Nouveau design delivered a groundbreaking message: this not about was jewelry as precious stones but rather about jewelry as art. Lalique was interested in conveying the mutual interdependence of the human, animal and plant realms and he created wildly provocative and metaphorical works that were a fusion of female, animal and plant in a mystical recognition of nature.
Lalique’s designs were embraced by the celebrated actresses of the day, including Sarah Bernhardt and Julia Bartlett whose bold personalities could carry off these strong and often large artworks. According to scholar Emmanuel Ducamp, who wrote the catalogue essay on Lalique, “The aristocracy backed away saying ‘too much and not enough,’ meaning too loud and the simple materials didn’t have enough value.”
Lalique’s creativity and reformist vision of woman as earth mother, creator, warrior, and protector went hand in hand with the modernism embraced near the turn of the century in the theatrical repertoire. Powerful roles for women like Salome, Jeanne d’Arc, Medee, Cleopatra—made impressions that had ripple effects. The catalogue (p. 128) quotes the critic Plumet musing that Lalique’s jewelry had “a bizarre charm…disturbing, spellbinding, even Satanic.” In all, a new woman was in the making and feminism was about to pop with Lalique’s designs stirring the pot.
While it was common among the big three to use serpents and insects in their designs, the snake in its various complex contortions was a principle theme of Lalique. His “Purse with Two Serpents” (1901-03) created for Bernhardt has a clasp of two angry striking serpents cast in silver which guard the contents of the purse.
According to Stephen Harrison, Lalique’s use of fighting snakes as guardians for the contents of a purse references not only the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but the general mood of titillation that was central to Art Nouveau. The work’s realism is underscored by the slippery-looking snake skins embroidered into the bag’s surface with silver thread.
In the 19th Century, a passion for tropical orchids overtook Europe and people became practically manic in their interest which drove prices to incredible heights. Missions were sent to the tropics for collecting orchids to satisfy this passion for exotic plants. Lalique’s ability to immortalize the delicate orchid in ivory must have been mesmerizing. Around the turn of the century, he created a number of orchid hair combs which attest to his complete mastery of the material. The “Cattleya Orchid Hair Ornament” on display has creamy petals whose lacey ruffled edges are so thin they are translucent. The piece is enhanced by pale green cloisonné leaves with veins of diamonds.
As soon as mass production and second-rate firms began flooding the market with “Lalique-style” jewels, Lalique himself turned to a new medium–glass and a style that moved way from Art Nouveau’s interpretations of nature to a more abstract and simple form. One of the reasons that Lalique became perhaps the greatest glassmaker of all times was that he applied his techniques of jewelry-making to glass art and his works conveyed his love of nature, capturing its poetry and enough realistic detail to impress everyone who encountered it.
Saturday, May 30, the show’s very last weekend, offers “Luxe at the Legion: Divas as Patrons, Collectors”a free program that promises to let you relive la belle epoque in a luxurious day of music, films, lectures, and art.
The catalogue Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique by Stephen Harrison, Emmanuel Ducamp and Jeannine Falino, Yale University Press, is recommended, and provides a wealth of information about jewelry-making and styles at the turn of the century.