The Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum has always had a connection with French glassware. After all, almost the first thing you see as you enter through the front entrance is a set of glass-relief doors with an angel motif. These were created by the famous French glass artist Rene Lalique as part of the original Art Deco design, when the building was created in the 1930s as the residence for Prince Yasuhiko of the Imperial Family.
This and other features of the building make it a near-perfect venue for the present exhibition, “Emile Galle: Nature & Symbol,” which looks at the work of yet another mercurial glassware genius from France.
It is not, of course, the first time that Galle has been featured here. Galle at the Teien is something of a tried and trusted formula, presenting an immersive aesthetic experience for visitors. But this is the first time his work has been featured since the museum was refurbished and reopened a couple of years ago with a spacious new gallery annex behind its main building.
This means that this Galle exhibition is much larger than any of the previous ones, and so it is able to offer more of an analytical overview, with various sections showcasing aspects of his art, with titles such as “Japanese flowers,” “Light and Shadows” and “Galle’s Factory.”
While the Teien is an Art Deco structure, Galle’s glassware comes from the earlier Art Nouveau movement, which was popular around the start of the 20th century. Because of its debt to Japanese influences this is a genre that has always been popular here, but the truth is Galle — and Art Nouveau in general — had a strong interest in exoticism for all its unfamiliar influences.
One section of the show takes this as its theme. Alongside Japanese-influenced pieces, we also find hints of China and elements from the Arab world. Sometimes these are combined together, as in “Vase with Sparrows and Bamboos in the Snow” (c.1898), where a traditional mosque lamp shape is adorned with a Japanese-style seasonal scene.
Direct observation from nature was also important, and Galle made constant studies, but what really distinguishes his art is the panache and confidence with which he applies such motifs to a range of items. Flower patterns in relief are wrapped around various vessels, sometimes seeming to smother them. The natural transparency of glass is obfuscated to create richly colored translucency where the light seems to lose itself before finding a way to glow back. “Octagonal Vase with Orchid (Cattleya) Affectation” (1900), an exhibit at the Paris Expo of the same year, is a good example, but there are many others.
Another noticeable feature of Galle’s aesthetic is an almost gothic sensibility. This is evident in the “Light and Shadow” section, where he plays with contrasts and smoky textures, but also with his interest in amphibians and insects, especially dragonflies. Outsized versions of these are laid across several works, which, as in “Saucer with Dragonfly” (1878-1889), struggle to contain them.
Rather than separating or abstracting elements from nature, and then turning them into tame little motifs, Galle instead embraces nature in all its chaotic wildness and channels its life force. He expressed his philosophy in a simple slogan, “Ma racine est au fond des bois” (“My root is in the depth of the forest”).
In this attitude it is easy to perceive a holistic approach to nature that resonates deeply with environmental concepts of nature popular today. This makes this exhibition a little like entering a glass forest — a mysterious realm where the light is bent this way and that, and magic ensues.
“Emile Galle: Nature & Symbol” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum runs until April 10; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,100. www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp
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