"Jean Dunand: Master of Art Deco," May 23-Oct. 25, 1998, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.
What can you say about Art Deco? A luxury style favored in the 1920s by movie stars and the affluent, it has continued to have a certain tawdry popularity -- not least among avant-garde artists, the late Andy Warhol included.
My frequent ventures up Madison Avenue have inevitably led me past the windows of the DeLorenzo Gallery, where I could not help but be impressed by the display of Art Deco objects by Jules Jean Dunand (1877-1942), a Swiss-born artist-turned-craftsman who worked in Paris beginning in 1896.
Dunand's works -- from furniture, screens, sculpture and society portraits to vases, jewelry and objet d'art -- seamlessly captures the spirit of his time. But I've been frustrated by the fact that DeLorenzo has been the only place in town to see Dunand's work.
Dunand's prices can be intimidating -- an inlaid metal vase goes for more than $50,000, while a dressing table and chair are priced at over $1 million.
But now, thanks to "Jean Dunand: Master of Art Deco," a small exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, my appetite for this intriguing artist can be satisfied. The special sampling of 24 works by Dunand, most acquired from the museum collection (which bought its first Dunand in 1923), has been thoughtfully produced by a young research assistant, Jared Goss, whose succinctly written text panels effectively inform the viewer of the breadth of Dunand's output, despite the museum's limited holdings.
A master of dinanderie (a term derived from a small medieval metalmaking town now in Belgium), Dunand meticulously hammered his trademark objects from a single, flawless sheet of copper over a shaped mold. Of the eight metalworks on view, the most grand is perhas a copper vase with plated gold geometric decoration. Another exquisitely rendered form is an unmistakably lifelike bronze Cobra that clearly shows the influence of Dunand's early training under Jean Dampt (1854-1946).
Although Dunand was quick to receive acclaim as a metalworker, he did not stop there. He soon mastered the Japanese art of lacquer, after studying under Seizo Sugawara in Paris beginning in 1912. While Dunand carefully adhered to the ancient technique, he disregarded classic Oriental designs and instead applied streamlined geometric, and sometimes naturalistic, lacquer decorations to an unusual array of materials and forms.
Dunand's signature innovation was "eggshell lacquer," an incrustation of tiny pieces of eggshells laboriously placed into a layer of wet lacquer. The exhibition features a number of such examples, including a metal vase from about 1923. He was fond of using this ancient decoration because the color of the eggshell -- a white impossible to create with pure lacquer -- beautifully juxtaposes with his brilliant lacquer colors, such as the red on a wood table of about 1925, which although quite ordinary in form is strikingly elegant.
The museum's eggshell lacquered portrait of Juilette de Saint Cyr is perhaps the most extraordinary object in the collection. While the portrait itself is fairly mediocre, the fascinating composition is stunning, from the abstractly patterned dress and jewelry (which Dunand probably designed for her to wear) to the stylized flower border etched through the various layers of lacquer and the rectangular eggshell backdrop.
However, the heart of the exhibition -- never before shown in its entirety -- is a suite of seven pieces of silver-and-black lacquered furniture designed by Dunand for the master bedroom of the San Francisco penthouse of Templeton Crocker, an heir to the Union Pacific Railroad Company fortune. The show includes photographs of the original 1928 installation (some with notes on the back describing the colors), as well as of two other rooms that Dunand designed for Crocker, the breakfast room and the dining room. Claims Goss, "The Crocker apartment is an amazing moment in terms of American taste as it was the first large-scale residence in the Modern idiom. It is an enormously important commission, one that deserves on-going research." The bedroom suite was donated to the Metropolitan by the publisher of The Magazine Antiques.
Of course the furniture display would have been far more remarkable had the museum opted to simulate at least a portion of Dunand's richly detailed lacquered wall panels depicting a woodland scene (which are not known to have survived) as well as the grey chamois curtains and examples of period accessories. Nonetheless, I was left standing in awe of the resourcefulness of this 20th-century virtuoso.
An especially refreshing addition to the show are the period photographs of authentic installations, Dunand's atelier and his patrons stunningly dressed in his lacquered costumes and jewelry (unfortunately, the photos are often far too small). Also invaluable are pages from a July 1939 issue of the French magazine Plaisir de France illustrating the various steps of lacquermaking in Dunand's atelier.
The documentation also includes two photos showing magnified cross sections of lacquer taken from a spectacular panel designed in 1925 by Séraphin Soudbinine (1870-1944) in collaboration with Dunand for the music room in the Long Island estate of Solomon R.Guggenheim. Such visual images bring to life Dunand's own words, "There exist labors of pure patience, such as lacquer, which I love so much!...Twenty coats are needed, no forty....Actually not forty but as many as a hundred preparations are required."*
After visiting the Metropolitan Museum exhibition, be sure to stop by the DeLorenzo Gallery at 985 Madison to see its Jean Dunand selection, where you will see some exquisite pieces for sale, among them -- if its not too late -- a charming lacquered table in red with an eggshell edge once owned by Andy Warhol.
Though the Metropolitan hasn't published a catalogue or brochure, a comprehensive book is available, Jean Dunand: His Life and Works by Félix Marcilhac (Harry N. Abrams, New York City, 1991).
*Quoted in Alastair Duncan, Jean Dunand. (The DeLorenzo Gallery, New York City, 1985), p. 4.
MARY ANNE HUNTING is a freelance writer specializing in the decorative arts.