Lalique in Lisbon! The Gulbenkian Museum Collection of the Work of Rene Lalique
Tucked away in the last little exhibition room at the end of the labyrinthine corridors of Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Museum is a collection of tiny artefacts beautiful enough to make God jealous. I had no idea what I was in for. A long-time Art Nouveau aficionado and Mucha devotee, I had included Rene Lalique as only an adjunct god in my fin de siècle pantheon. But as I studied each miniature piece in sequence, a newfound shame began to descend upon me. How could I have neglected these most stunning examples of Art Nouveau master craftsmanship? How could I have ignored the scope and depth of the utter genius that was Rene Lalique?
Mr Calouste Gulbenkian had good taste, as is reflected in the lovely and varied collection of his art housed in Lisbon's Gulbenkian Museum. Its galleries are laid out in a sort of maze which channels visitors from culture to culture, through time and space, and features unbendingly beautiful examples of many a genre of art. At the end of the sumptuous peregrination, around a sharp corner, nearly hidden behind a wall, just before the gallery exit, the participant visitor is presented with the jewel in the crown: the Lalique Room.
As I surveyed the exhibition, I could not fathom how Lalique had been able to interpret natural forms into such beautiful composite ornaments. Had he witnessed Deity? Was his channel completely unencumbered? My mind seethed with desire as I soaked in exquisite visuals. I wanted to see the clear beauty which Lalique could obviously see. Even his sketches were beautiful. He had somehow managed to incorporate ethereal spirits into functional objects. Watery, cloud-coloured textures land themselves on paper and fill divinely inspired fields, somehow having travelled through mind and imagination into the visible universe.
Between 1899 and 1927 Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955) acquired eighty of Lalique’s works of art, and amassed the largest collection of his original jewelry pieces in existence. He is noted for saying "Only the best is good enough for me,” in reference to his vast hoard of high quality art. It is written that he was a friend of Rene Lalique for fifty years.
Art Nouveau to Art Deco
Rene Lalique was one of the few artists to successfully make the transition from Art Nouveau to Art Deco. The carry over of concepts from Art Nouveau to Art Deco allowed certain artists to bridge the gap between the two closely related styles; while the almost opposite natures they embodied prevented many from successfully making the transition.
It must be noted that neither Art Nouveau, nor Art Deco, were purely decorative styles. In fact, the ascription of a uniquely ornamental value to Art Nouveau goes against a core tenet of the expounders of late nineteenth century modernism. Art Nouveau had, after all, inherited from the Arts and Crafts movement, as well as from Aestheticism, the Japanese ideology of acknowledging a unity between the so-called fine and decorative arts.
According to one biographer:
In 1900 at the age of 40, he was the most celebrated jeweler in the world and an Art Nouveau artist and designer of magnificent proportions. But by 1925 at the height of the Art Deco era he was the most celebrated glassmaker in the world.
Rene Lalique is known to have fathered six children by several women. This perhaps brazen treatment of personal matters might be taken as a hint of a daring personality. Given the supreme talent it must have taken to create so many intricate and beautiful works of art, and the pure genius of many of his designs, it makes sense to attribute a sort of super ability to Rene Lalique. This may help to explain how he could have made such a fundamental shift from workshop artisan to industrialist producer, without much of a hitch.