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Lalique Gets a Museum
December 7, 2011  | 

The first thing you see inside the new Lalique museum in Wingen-sur-Moder is crystal—almost two tons of it—hanging from the ceiling. Those intrepid enough to walk under this nearly 10-foot chandelier might want to note that a weight-bearing pillar had to come down to make room for it. René Lalique’s son, Marc, created it for an exhibition in 1951, but it had been gathering dust in the basement of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Paris ever since. Now meticulously restored, it has found a home back in the Alsatian village where it was made.

Several other Lalique museums exist around the world, from Tokyo to Lisbon, but this is the only one in France. Inaugurated July 1, it is located just a few miles from where René Lalique set up his glassmaking factory, still in operation 90 years later.

"The museum shows the breadth of Lalique’s creations from jewelry to crystal," says curator Véronique Brumm, who claims distant glassmaking relatives in this same town. Taking in the glittering displays, it’s surprising to learn that when the region of Alsace and the local municipalities started planning the museum in the early 1990s, they had no collection whatsoever. The original idea, explains Brumm, was simply to show images and films about René Lalique and his company; only gradually did the project evolve into a "real" museum. The transformation started in 2002 with the opportunity to buy an Art Nouveau Lalique pendant of a dragonfly woman at auction. Subsequently, the Lalique company (which is not a partner in the project but offers support) donated 40 contemporary works to the nascent museum.

The turning point came when René Lalique’s granddaughter Marie-Claude passed away in 2003. Her belongings were dispersed, and the museum acquired several important drawings and objects, such as a 1919 clear glass vase with two large frosted glass rings (like ear hoops) covered in scarabs. In 2007, the institution received the coveted Musée de France designation, which made it eligible for substantial state subsidies and loans from other national museums, including the Musée des Arts et Métiers and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Now there are nearly 600 objects on display.

The museum inhabits the site of the Hochberg glass workshop, founded in the 18th century but closed in 1868, when the nearby forest could no longer supply enough wood for the furnaces. Listed as a historic monument, this group of sandstone houses with peaked terracotta roofs stands amid a gently rolling setting of fields and trees. To the south, long-haired Scottish Highland cattle graze on a hillock, their large hooves perfectly suited to the marshy land.

One of France’s finest architects, Jean-Michel Wilmotte, was selected to renovate the workshop and create an extension. His plan caught the jury’s eye not for its architectural bravado but for the way it blended into the existing buildings and landscape. "This is a little hamlet with a lot of charm," he says. "I thought it was best to respect it." So he placed his addition behind the original structure, semi-buried in a sloping piece of ground. Visitors approaching the main entrance don’t even see the extension at first—the only telltale sign is a sheet of glass indicating the front door. But as they draw near, a cube of green Italian stone on a concrete base suddenly appears beyond and to the left. From different angles, one perceives it as a box, a low wall or a street-level garden (which also happens to be the roof). The entire structure is an ongoing game of hide-and-seek between nature and architecture, old and new. Wilmotte chose green stone for the façade and green-tinted glass for the windows so that it would practically disappear into the vegetation. "We made a wound in the earth, but when nature takes over again, you won’t even see we’ve built a museum."

According to the architect, the modest budget—€2,500 per square meter—was not a disadvantage but a boon. "It directed our thought process," he explains. With it, his team created a simple, unpretentious building to mirror the traditional workshop atmosphere. They left mechanical aspects exposed, such as screws in the steel window frames and hydraulics in the display cases, which are different-sized glass boxes on black enameled-steel bases. "People who work with glass use sheet metal tables," says Wilmotte. "It’s dark, there are ovens. That’s the feeling I wanted to create—not a Parisian museum in a beautiful building with sophisticated window displays. This isn’t the Louvre."

Visitors enter through an old factory building, which still has an original stone wall, high ceilings and wood beams. Black-painted surfaces offset the sparkle from the immense chandelier. Beyond, there is a boutique, an auditorium, a gallery for temporary exhibits and the permanent collection, displayed in 10,000 square feet in the contemporary cube. The presentations are of interest to both aficionados and neophytes. "We wanted to show the historic, artistic, social and technical context for Lalique’s work," says Brumm. Various areas introduce the Art Nouveau era, Lalique’s famous clients, 1930s modernity and the advent of electric lighting.

Outside, a former hunting lodge is now a restaurant with a terrace, and three new gardens take inspiration from the trees and plants in Lalique’s designs. After touring the collection, visitors walk through a passage overlooking a courtyard with flowers in a pattern like a disjointed orchid, a reference to one of René Lalique’s favorite motifs.

René-Jules Lalique was born in 1860 in Aÿ, a village near Reims. According to Christie Mayer Lefkowith, who recently wrote an illustrated book on his perfume bottles titled The Art of René Lalique, he did not like to talk about himself, so his early years are a bit of a mystery. What is certain is that his parents, of modest means, moved from Champagne to Paris to make a living. His father, an agent representing small goods manufacturers, had a violent temper and died when René was young. The boy was closer to his mother, who made embroidery for sale. She returned to Champagne to give birth to him, then, depending upon which version of the story you believe, brought René back to Paris or else left him with her own father in the countryside.

Whether Lalique spent his childhood or only school vacations in Aÿ, he learned a love of nature from his grandfather. They went for long walks during which the old man taught him about birds, flowers, insects and reptiles—all important themes in his later work. Lalique dabbled in watercolor landscapes and started working at age 14 as an apprentice to a watchmaker in Paris, then sketched designs for a jeweler. When he turned 18, his mother sent him to school in England, where he discovered the naturalistic art of William Morris.

Back in Paris, Lalique set himself up as a jewelry designer. In 1884, his drawings were exhibited in an Industrial Arts exhibition in the Louvre, where they attracted the attention of an established jeweler who was planning to retire and offered to sell his workshop to Lalique. The younger man lacked the means to buy it, so his mother urged him to marry a rich girl named Marie-Louise Lambert.

In his new workshop he allowed his fertile imagination to fly, experimenting with shapes from the natural world, from snakes to orchids to the female nude, a daring motif for the era. He also mixed precious stones with lesser materials such as ivory and enamel. "I began this prodigious search to find a new style of jewelry, unlike anything that had been done before," he said. At the time the fashion was for expensive stones, the bigger the better, so Lalique’s work appealed to independent spirits such as actress Sarah Bernhardt, who wore his jewels on and off the stage. She introduced him to the oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian, who became his biggest client. In 1900 Lalique triumphed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, received the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honor and became famous worldwide.

"By age 40 he was one of the richest men in Paris," says Mayer Lefkowith. "He was a member of high society, with friends who were actors, painters, sculptors, musicians." He had long ago stopped going home to his wife and daughter in Auteuil, especially since meeting a young woman named Augustine-Alice Ledru in 1890. The daughter of a sculptor who had decorated his rue Thérèse workshop with nudes, she became his muse then his mistress, moving into the workshop and giving birth to two children, Suzanne and Marc. Lalique married her in 1902, after finally obtaining a divorce from Marie-Louise. Seven years later, at age 39, Augustine-Alice died.

Jewelry makes up the first section of the museum’s permanent collection. Early works—a flock of diamond-encrusted swallows, a brooch with ivory nymphs unexpectedly framed by bats—are followed by later pieces, when Lalique started introducing glass into his designs. It was his work with enamel that probably led him to glass in the 1890s. He installed small furnaces in his workshop and experimented with a technique called cire perdue, or lost wax casting, a thousand-year-old process generally used for bronze that allows for great detail. One early flacon he made using this technique—maybe his first—was shaped like an amphora, smooth on the outside with swimming fish molded on the inner surface. An often-repeated story holds that Lalique mistakenly set fire to his kitchen while creating this bottle, but it is likely a myth.

Soon Lalique’s furnaces were too small for his needs, so he bought a property near the Rambouillet forest. This is where he cast glass panels with pine branches for the front door of a house he built in 1902 for himself and his new family on Cours-la-Reine (now 40 cours Albert 1er) in Paris. Unfortunately, his granddaughter sold the house, and it has since been divided into offices and apartments, though the magnificent doors still stand.

In 1907 (or perhaps earlier), Lalique met the perfumer François Coty. At the time, perfume came in utilitarian flacons because 19th-century glassmaking techniques did not allow for mass-producing sculpted bottles. Lalique developed ways to produce decorative bottles in series, starting with a glass flacon for a Coty fragrance called Cyclamen. It had six sides and three symmetrical pairs of dragonfly women smelling flowers. He signed the base, like a work of art.

Perfume has always been a competitive industry, and soon other fragrance houses were asking Lalique to design flacons to highlight their individual scents. As his glass production increased, he bought a factory in Combs-la-Ville, near Paris. In 1912, feeling that he had gone as far as he could with jewelry and annoyed by his many imitators, he organized a final jewelry exhibition and let it be known that from now on, he was a glassmaker.

Likewise, the museum’s permanent display also moves from jewelry to glass with more than 200 perfume bottles, many exhibited to the public for the first time. They come from the collection of Silvio Denz, the current owner of the Lalique company and an avid collector of rare Lalique flacons. Among the important prototypes he has lent to the museum, Denz is particularly fond of the early fish amphora, the "tiara" flacons with oversized stoppers that frame the bottles and the "Four Suns" flacon with 24-karat gold leaves that glow beneath sunflower motifs like muted light emanating from within.

In 1921, Lalique needed to open a second factory to meet his ever-expanding workload and chose Wingen-sur-Moder as the site. He knew that he would find talented artisans here; this has been a glassmaking region since the Middle Ages, when it drew nomadic craftsmen who used the sand in the soil and trees from the forests for their ovens, moving their operations each time wood grew scarce. Moreover, this area between France and Germany had suffered greatly during World War I, and the French government was offering financial incentives for glassmaking companies to come back. Lalique equipped the new factory to combine mass production with the best aesthetic and structural qualities. "I believe that when an artist has found something beautiful, he must try to allow the
greatest number of people possible to enjoy it," he said.

Thus Lalique reincarnated himself, combining two artistic careers in a single lifetime. Indeed, his reputation as a glassmaker surpassed his prior achievements as a jeweler. Twenty-five years after his success at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, he once again dazzled critics and the public at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which gave birth to the term Art Deco. He showed glass flacons, statues, vases, tableware and lamps, plus a stunning 50-foot-high fountain on the Esplanade des Invalides. This time, the State promoted him to Commander of the Legion of Honor.

Though Lalique’s style evolved throughout his long career, he always stayed true to his major inspirations, the three F’s—flora, fauna and femmes. The museum is filled with them: A vase like a coiled snake, its mouth opened in a hiss. Hood ornaments in streamlined shapes of dragonflies, horse heads and nudes. A "Poissons" statue with transparent fish leaping outward in unison. The fish fountain on display here is a crystal copy of the 1937 original. Photos show Lalique’s lesser-known sacred art—windows and altarpieces created for churches and chapels—as well as glass panels and chandeliers for the lavish interiors of the S.S. Normandie ocean liner and the Orient Express.

When World War II struck, the Alsatian factory was shut down. An excerpt from a Time magazine article from 1939 reads: "Last month Wingen was evacuated. From Paris hurried short, scholarly, white-mustached René Lalique, now 79 and ailing, to salvage his irreplaceable molds. He found his factory’s fires out, soldiers at its gate." Lalique died in 1945, days after hearing that the Allies had liberated the town. He left the company to his son, Marc, with whom he had had a contentious relationship—ultimately, it was Marc who destroyed his father’s molds, trying to escape the great man’s shadow. But his real legacy was in making the switch from glass to lead crystal, for which the company is known today.

The final section of the permanent exhibition presents works in crystal, from Marc Lalique until today. It also highlights the work of the artisans in the nearby factory with a "tactile table" that allows visitors to see the steps involved in the production of a "Bacchantes" vase, a bestseller since 1927. Reaching out to touch the neo-classical priestesses, one can only marvel at how sand, lead and fire are transformed into works of such astonishing beauty.

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Musée Lalique, rue de Hochberg, 67290 Wingen-sur-Moder. Tel. 33/3-88-89-08-14; The museum is about 37 miles from Strasbourg. Those visiting by car can easily include the museum in a tour of the area’s many attractions. By train, the trip from Strasbourg is about 40 minutes. For now, visitors arriving at the station must take a taxi to the museum, although a
shuttle service may be available in the future.