Lalique vases prove more than just an empty vessel

One of the most interesting and enjoyable tasks in curating an exhibition (for me, anyway) is researching. Inevitably, unexpected information emerges that changes my preconceived ideas, sometimes altering the whole angle of a show. A case in point has been the upcoming exhibition of Lalique glass from the collection of Jack C Richards.

I chose the vases to be included in the show after being appointed to my position but prior to moving to Napier, using photographs to make the selection. At that point I was familiar with Lalique’s style but had never read about him or his art. For instance, I knew that Lalique designed the majority of his glass vases in the 1920s and 30s, but I didn’t see them as Art Deco. My idea of Art Deco design centred around streamlined forms, geometric patterns, and stepping or zigzagging lines. How could a coiled snake in the form of a vase, jaws open wide in a hiss, be considered Art Deco? I thought Art Deco was all about machines and that natural forms belonged to the preceding era of Art Nouveau design.

So it was a surprise to discover that the two movements were not quite the opposites that I’d imagined. While Lalique embraced the machine in the production of his glass vases, his long-established and elegant use of natural themes continued, characterising both his Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods. The differences in his work are subtle. At the height of Art Nouveau, Lalique had designed a jewellery piece called Knot of Serpents featuring the open-mouthed snake motif – but in that case there were nine snakes all knotted together. Their bodies formed tight curves and complex loops that could only be achieved in a handcrafted medium. 26 years later he used a more simplified and balanced form of a snake for the Serpent vase, to suit his new medium of mass-produced glassware. It’s this simplification that marks Lalique’s shift into Art Deco design.

Another unexpected discovery was that Lalique’s daughter, Suzanne Lalique-Haviland, had designed several of the pieces that will feature in our upcoming exhibition. In fact, her designs are those that I’d thought of as distinctly Art Deco, including vases made of clear glass with pure geometric patterns marked out in black enamel. Suzanne worked as a designer for the family glassworks from the age of 17 until her mid 30s and had a strong influence on the company’s development: from its Art Nouveau beginnings to the Art Deco style of her own generation. However she never signed any of her pieces, so the attribution of Lalique designs to her has been based primarily on her sketchbooks and watercolours.

Researching Lalique has been fascinating and also had the unforeseen benefit of helping me become more familiar with Art Deco style – an important subject here in Hawke’s Bay. I’m looking forward to delving further into everything Deco and sharing the outcomes through exhibitions in the future.

Vase Serpent ©Lalique SA

René Lalique, Serpent. Model created 1924 iron carbon amber glass, mould-blown. Image courtesy of Lalique SA.

Jessica Mio – Art Curator at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Published in Hawke’s Bay Today Saturday 23 January 2016.

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