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Art Deco Glass at Museum of Glass

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Art Deco Glass Recalls an Era: Stylish Treasures At Museum of Glass

Since its opening in 2002, Museum of Glass in Tacoma has fashioned itself into a unique hybrid museum: part exhibition space for solo and group surveys; part glassblowing "hot shop" studio where people can watch glassblowing while seated in an amphitheater; and, now, part collecting museum and repository for contemporary and historic glass art and related materials.

The new exhibition, "Art Deco Glass from the Huchthausen Collection" (closes September 5, 2017), is part of an ongoing series of shows which fulfill the narrative that connects contemporary studio glass to its historic forerunners, for example, Czech modern glass and Art Nouveau glass.

What is Art Deco and why is Art Deco glass considered so important? Although the reaction to the sinuous, late 19th-century painting and decorative arts style known as Art Nouveau ("New Art" was the name of the Paris gallery) was already underway before the cataclysm of World War I, a huge art and trade fair in Paris in 1925, the "Exposition international des arts décoratifs et industries modernes" (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts), highlighted elegance, speed, geometry, and bright colors over tangled vines, decadent subjects and dark colors. This watershed event, the famous "Art Deco" fair (as it came to be nicknamed) was repeated in subsequent years and had enormous influence on European furniture, architecture, ceramics, metalwork, and glass until World War II.

Art Deco caught on because it reflected the times: wealthy and youthful with a preference for streamlined forms that combined unusual deep colors growing out of the Fauve painting movement begun by Matisse and others. Art Deco made possible what scholar Helmut Ricke called the "high point of French glass art." This simplicity and severity, compared to Art Nouveau, is what attracted collector David Huchthausen, himself a world-class glass sculptor, who was studying architecture when he began collecting in the Chicago area in 1973. He favored the Bauhaus at that time.

With over 200 objects to inspect, visitors should take their time and not rush through the crowded, 11,000-square-foot galleries. Most all the big names of France are there, with welcome additions from Italy, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and the US. Displayed in a mixture of glass-topped cases and on pedestals, Huchthausen's selections will pass into the MoG permanent collection after his death. (He is 66.) His gift will represent the largest donation of pre-studio glass in the museum's history, providing a significant anchor to their holdings.

René Lalique (French, 1860–1945). Vase Bacchantes (Bacchantes Vase)), 1927. Press-molded opal glass. 9.5 x 8.75 in. Courtesy Museum of Glass.

D'Avesn Vase

Pierre D'Avesn (French, 1901 - 1990). Vase with spiral design, circa 1926 - 1931. Press-molded opal glass. 7.5 × 8.25 in. Courtesy Museum of Glass.

Freres et Dieupart Vase

Simonet Frères et Henri Dieupart (French, founded 1919 - closed 1970s). Vase, circa 1925 - 1930. Mold-blown glass with surface enameling and polished highlights. 7.75 × 10.125 in. Collection of David Huchthausen. Photo by Lloyd Shugart. Courtesy Museum of Glass.

Except for later figures who worked directly on the blowpipe or poured the molten glass from a ladle into molds by themselves, like André Thuret and Henri Navarre, the bulk of Art Deco glass was made in factories in Northeast France, near the German border in Alsace-Lorraine, the contested territory Germany last in World War I and took back temporarily in World War II. The coming of that war would have tragic consequences for at least one French glass artist, as we shall see. France was in a politically turbulent period during the 1930s after the affluent 1920s, so some glass houses closed, mostly due to labor unrest and the famous general strikes of 1935 and 1936. Others stopped production during World War II and resumed later; still others morphed into smaller ventures revolving around individual artists, like Navarre and Thuret, who anticipated the designer-­makers of the American studio glass movement, such as Harvey Littleton and Dale Chihuly.

In the factory setting, instead of one-off unique blown pieces (à la Chihuly and the whole Studio Glass movement), pieces could be made in greater quantity through the invention of reusable steel molds, especially those by René Lalique, probably the best-known and most celebrated of the Art Deco glass masters. After the mold-blowing or molten ladle pouring was cooled, innovative surface treatments such as acid-cutting could be employed to achieve the crisp new look. Besides geometric motifs, other decorations included animals (panthers, elephants, butterflies, fish, antelopes, parakeets, monkeys, octopi); human figures (male and female nudes, mermaids, and "bacchantes"); and botanical specimens (algae, mistletoe, dahlias, chestnuts, peonies, bay laurel, plums, pine cones, poppies, lilies, thistles and grape leaves). Tropical themes associated with overseas French colonies in North Africa or the Caribbean were picked up in the choices of decoration. They also remind us that the wealthy, leisured consumers were still avid to escape modern-day realities, including severe income inequalities. Left- and right-wing extremists in the National Assembly could not form working coalition governments. As a result, economic reforms were delayed. This hurt some of the factories, like Muller Brothers, which closed in 1936, ruined by striking union members making unrealistic demands.

Muller, Schneider, Daum, Lalique and Marius-Ernest Sabino are the best represented in the survey. The Muller family had all worked for Émile Gallé, the godfather of Art Nouveau glass, but came to specialize in cameos when they opened their own place in 1895. By the 1920s, they were developing a popular new product, electric night lights. Similarly, the Schneider Brothers, Charles and Ernest, began at Gallé before opening on their own in 1913. Huchthausen is lending 40 Schneider vases which demonstrate the transition from Art Nouveau to Art Deco. Floral motifs and vines remain, but they are tightly cut into exterior glass walls of contrasting colors. The Daum family spanned several generations and shifted from the Lalique-style opal colors to dark colors like solid blues and greens. Early in World War II, when founder Jean Daum's nephew Paul was keeping the company going, unfortunately, he was deported to Auschwitz where he was murdered in 1944. The family firm still operates today. Don't miss other examples by loners Pierre D'Avesn, Jean Sala, André Delatte and André Hunebelle. They point the way toward post-war studio glass with its mixture of hands-on activity and extensive teamwork.

MATTHEW KANGAS, consulting editor at Art-Guide Northwest, writes for Art in America, Art Ltd., Sculpture, and numerous other publications. His latest book is Paul Havas (University of Washington Press, 2017). He lives in Seattle. Copyright © Matthew Kangas 2017

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