Artistic Luxury: Faberge, Tiffany, Lalique

  • by Robert Nesti, EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
  • Thursday February 26, 2009
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The Faberge Kelch Rocaille Egg, in the Artistic Luxury exhibit at the Legion of Honor.
The Faberge Kelch Rocaille Egg, in the Artistic Luxury exhibit at the Legion of Honor.

The point of departure for Artistic Luxury: Faberge, Tiffany, Lalique, a celebration of opulence and glorious excess at the Legion of Honor on view through May 31, is the 1900 International Exposition in Paris, an exceptional event attended by 15 million on the cusp of the new century, where these great luxury-makers, representing haute St. Petersburg, New York and Paris, converged. It would be the first and only time their work would be shown in the same venue.

Given the state of the economy, the exhibition, comprised of 250 valuables, arrives at a time when there's talk of tightening belts and layoffs, problems that never crossed the minds of those who possess these beautiful albeit extravagant items. (Prince Albert of Monaco, Queen Elizabeth II and Joan Collins are among the collectors and lenders.) This brings us to FAMSF Board Chair Dede Wilsey, a regular fixture at media previews, who recently regaled reporters with a story about her purchase of the shimmering, emerald green Rocaille egg, which she used as an evening bag; she stored pictures of her dogs in the egg's legendary "surprise" compartment. Although the anecdote was intended as an entertaining digression, it inadvertently accentuated the gulf between the rich and the less so, when that chasm is growing wider by the day.

Then, as now, clients for these personal objects, jewels and bibelots were from the wealthiest strata of society: American industrialists, Russian tsars, stars of stage and screen from Princess Grace to Sarah Bernhardt, and all manner of royalty and aristocracy craving luxury and status. While socio-economic issues shouldn't detract from or bear on its merits, an art exhibition doesn't exist in a vacuum. If nothing else, it gives a glimpse of how the other half - or is it 2%? - lives, and provides a welcome escape.

Divided into sections dedicated to a particular atelier, this is a show in which the vulgar and the exquisite dwell in the same domain, and, on occasion, the same artwork. Court jeweler to the Russian Tsars and their families, Faberge fabricated intricate confections that are the glittering equivalents of petit-fours, though the craftsmanship and the native materials, mined in the Urals and Siberia, are superb. King Edward VII of England once commissioned Faberge to make a miniature menagerie of his wife's pets, but he's most readily associated with the elaborate ornamental eggs, bearing his imprimatur, that were given as gifts on Easter, a tradition started by Tsar Alexander III. (Extremely popular, Faberge was widely copied, and the imitations dubbed "Fauxberge.") He also crafted jewelry, furnishings and lavish accessories later sold off by the Bolsheviks to finance the revolution.

As Faberge is a menu consisting solely of desert, you're likely to experience a sugar high or an overdose, depending on your sweet tooth. But his inventions, such as the "Imperial Lilies of the Valley Basket" with its delicate spray of white blooms nestled in a moss of spun gold, are ingeniously devised. The "Imperial Blue Serpent Egg Clock," owned by the late Princess Grace, is a miniature working clock in Lapis blue; the top rotates as a serpent's tongue keeps the time.

There were two prime movers behind the Tiffany dynasty: Charles Lewis Tiffany, who founded Tiffany & Company, was more conservative than his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, who rewrote the boundaries of stained glass and embraced art nouveau. With the exception of some jewelry and an assortment of iridescent Favrile glass, there's not much new here, although a stained glass window of magnolia blossoms that recalls an impressionist painting and a grander example portraying a Greek Temple, a vision characterized by vivid color and the play of light and shadow, are worth seeing. But an oversized tankard, decorated with a coiled silver handle and an ivory carving depicting combat between an elephant and a monkey, is a grotesque oddity.

So it's a relief, then, to encounter Rene Lalique and enter the realm of the sublime. Inspired by nature, Van Gogh, Japanese prints and a poetic heart, Lalique drew inspiration from plant forms, birds, insects and mythical creatures. Unlike Faberge and Tiffany, he utilized humble materials, employing gemstones as accents rather than showy centerpieces. Better known for his glasswork than for the delicacy and grace of the sculptural jewelry that's on abundant display, Lalique's creations are by far the most revelatory of the show. The bronze balustrades in the form of winged angels are amazing, as is the horn adornment that fosters the illusion of two swallows flying toward each other; but the graceful "Cattleya Orchid Hair Ornament" is, in a word, sensational. The gold, wing-like leaves are embedded with tiny diamonds, while the gentle blossom and its scalloped edges are, incredibly, carved from wafer-thin ivory. It's so breathtaking that you may fail to ask how many elephants were forced to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].