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Sunday, Dec. 24, 2000

Rene Lalique: the magic of design

"Siren and Frogs" carafe by Rene Lalique

Some of the best window shopping this Christmas season is being enjoyed at an exhibition of jewelry and glassware by Rene Lalique (1860-1945), currently on display at Tokyo's most elegant art gallery, the Teien. Held in the Art Deco building that was once the residence of a Japanese Imperial prince, and which features a stunning glass door and chandeliers designed by Lalique, the exhibition includes numerous works from the inspired and fertile mind of one of France's greatest craft artists.

Some of the pieces have to be seen to be believed, like his Brooch with Three Seahorses (ca. 1902-3), a composition in enameled gold using opals as bubbles, or his sumptuous Table Centerpiece With Three Peacocks (1920) in molded glass on a bronze stand.

Lalique attained the highest level of technique in a wide variety of materials, including gold, glass, gems, enamel, pearls and horn. Indeed one of the strengths of Lalique as a jeweler was his ability to incorporate relatively cheaper materials like glass and horn into jewelry without lessening the aesthetic effect. A good example of this is his Winter Scene pendant (1900). Made from gold and enameled glass, decorated with marquise-cut diamonds and a gray pearl, this exquisite work captures all the romance of the festive season. The simple beauty and confidence of his Comb With Two Swallows (1906-8), a design mainly in horn, contrasts well with the Corsage Ornament With Songbirds (1889), a beautiful but still unsure early work encrusted with diamonds that submerge its artistic motif.

"Two Swallows"

His career can generally be divided into three overlapping periods: his early work as an Art Nouveau jeweler; a middle period when he worked both in jewelry and glass and helped to define the coming Art Deco style; and a later period when he focused increasingly on the factory production of glass.

The advent of electric lighting increased demand for the less expensive, light-responsive medium of glass, leading Lalique to set up the famous glassware company that still bears his name. Starting with perfume bottles, he expanded his glassware to include richly colored vases and enthralling figurines such as the statuette "Suzanne" (1925), which shows an expert use of frosting to achieve differences in opacity. His other glass works include panels for the Orient Express; windows, panels and chandeliers for buildings and a cruise liner; and a 13.7-meter-tall glass fountain for the 1925 Paris Exposition that demonstrated the Art Deco style to the world.

Lalique was important for the techniques he developed in glass enameling, molding and opalescence, but what marks him out as truly special is his artistic sense. As adept as anyone in the conventional language of beauty -- flowers, women, birds, etc. -- he was also able to derive aesthetic appeal from normally ugly motifs. Naturally grotesque creatures like lizards, beetles, frogs, bats and even flies, occur in his jewelry and glass work in startling and exceptional designs that show the stylization of nature later characteristic of Art Deco.

His Carafe With Sirens and Frogs (1913) juxtaposes frogs with naked sirens, partially curtained by streams of water flowing from the frogs' mouths. An otherwise grotesque design achieves beauty by interlocking the disparate elements into a geometrically harmonious whole. A successful work of this kind retains its charm much longer than something that is too obviously pretty.

His later work increasingly focused on abstract geometric designs more suited to factory production. His series of vases, Swirls or Volutes in Relief (1926), are powerful and dynamic works, but lack the charm of his earlier pieces.

However, in the dimly lit interior of this marvelous building, there are more than enough treasures to make you believe that you are in the enchanted palace of an ice wizard.

Works by Rene Lalique, until Jan. 31 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, (03) 3443-8500, a seven-minute walk from Meguro Station. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed second and fourth Wednesdays and Dec. 28-Jan. 4. Admission 1,200 yen, students 600 yen.

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