Art

Art nouveau's jewels in the crown

by Mio Yamada

Special To The Japan Times

As Parisians of the late 19th century reveled in the heady optimism of economic prosperity and enjoyed the innovations spurred by the ongoing Industrial Revolution, Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress and muse of the time, became enamored by two trendsetters: Rene Lalique, then a jewelry maker, and Alphonse Mucha, the illustrator and designer.

It’s unsurprising that Bernhardt was drawn to them. Both were pioneers in their fields — Lalique’s elaborate statement pieces were crafted in unconventional materials, while Mucha’s bold posters showcased unusual dusty color palettes in a graphically flat style. Both also favored organic forms, were inspired by fluid curves and the exoticism of the East — and both produced art nouveau works that complemented Bernhardt’s own eccentric aesthetic.

Yet, contrary to expectations, the Lalique Museum Hakone’s special 10th-anniversary exhibition, “Mucha and Lalique,” is less about the similarities between these two iconic Belle Epoque artists and more about their differences.

“Lalique and Mucha were both born in 1860, and they lived and prospered at the same time,” explained Isao Hashimoto, chief curator of the Lalique Museum Hakone. “But this exhibition is meant to reveal the different paths that they chose to take.”

Bernhardt’s patronage is perhaps the only link between the two famous artists, but it’s an important one. It was the atypically tall and skinny promotional poster that Mucha designed for Bernhardt’s 1895 performances of “Gismonda” that propelled the illustrator from obscurity; and while Lalique was already an in-demand jewelry maker, his creations seen adorning the actress both on stage and in her personal life further boosted his popularity.

Despite the aesthetic similarities that attracted Bernhardt, though, the two artists’ careers began in very different circumstances. The jewelry on show at “Mucha and Lalique,” the kind of works that made Lalique famous, were objects d’art — unique commissioned pieces in tune with the decorative arts movement. Mucha’s fame, on the other hand, was launched via the less revered commercial success of printed posters and leaflets. This led to two almost opposite artistic paths: Lalique, unafraid to continue experimenting with inexpensive materials, eventually abandoned jewelry to embrace advances in technology and its ability to offer art to the masses through glassware, while Mucha, frustrated by his association with commercial art, eventually reverted to fine art painting.

The museum’s display of Lalique jewelry and glassware alongside pamphlets, posters and paintings by Mucha, much of which will seem aesthetically familiar to visitors, is not so much a pairing of works for comparison but an illustration of the era. It was a period that not only saw the rise of the nouveau riche looking to flaunt their wealth and cultural sensibilities through originality, but one that was also beginning to favor mass production over craftsmanship.

In light of all this, the exhibition’s pièce de resistance is all the more special. The pearl-encrusted diadem of lilies embellished with colorful semi-precious stones — commissioned by Bernhardt for the drama “La Princesse Loinaine” and made famous by photographs taken by the Reutlinger Studio — is not only believed to be a rare collaborative work of Lalique and Mucha, it is also one of few pieces that seamlessly blends Mucha’s artistic originality with the modern craftsmanship of Lalique and the fascination of Bernhardt.

“Mucha and Lalique” at the Lalique Museum Hakone runs until Dec. 13; daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,500. www.lalique-museum.com