THE SECRETS OF FRENCH LACQUER: VERNIS MARTIN at LES ARTS DECORATIFS





secrets


Apologies are in order today. A-Gent of Style is a couple of months late to the party. Today’s feature somehow fell through the net whatwith the intoxicating whirlwind of events of the last couple of months. But, as they say, better late than never.

During his last stay in Paris back in May, A-Gent of Style featured the revelatory Dries Van Noten retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Concurrently, the Parisian museum devoted another major exhibition, now closed, to the secrets of French lacquer which highlighted the widespread passion for a technique and savoir-faire that became the epitome of luxury and refinement in the 18th century.

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A-Gent of Style already expressed last year his obsession for lacquer, particularly its high-gloss treatment, in a special feature chronicling its wonders in 20th and 21st centuries interior decoration. So it made sense he visited this exhibit showcasing the origins, transformations and various manifestations of this decorative finish in its supreme art form in France during the Age of Enlightenment.

Soon after leaving the fashion show (and a postprandial walk in the Jardin des Tuileries), A-Gent of Style returned to the museum, press day pass in hand, but turned right this time to walk up the imposing staircase flanked on each side by a replica of a 1770 wood panel representing a Chinese figurine, adorned with exquisite blue and yellow lacquer, that announced the entrance to the exhibition. Designed by the architect Philippe Pumain and produced in collaboration with the Lackkunst Museum in Münster, this spectacle brought together some 300 exceptional and rare objects from private collections that were nothing short of ravishing.

 

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Towards the end of the 17th century, the increasingly high cost of lacquer production in Japan and the inferior quality of lacquer imported from China prompted Europeans to seek to master this technique themselves. The study of lacquer enabled skillful artisans in Germany, England, Holland and France to recreate its deep, velvety sheen masterfully imitating oriental lacquers. In Paris, a host of gilder-varnishers’ workshops sprang up in the Saint-Antoine quarter alongside those of the cabinetmakers and joiners already established there, thereby linking them with the furniture industry from the outset.

Amongst the most famous were the Martin brothers, Guillaume and Etienne-Simon Martin, whose name became associated with their technique, Vernis Martin, and who were instrumental in its development and refinement. The ornamental elements adorning coaches – highly sought after by European royalty – brought acclaim to Vernis Martin. The tightly guarded chemical compositions differed from workshop to workshop and generated new colours such as blues, greens and yellows (incredibly stunning especially the teal desk you will see below) in addition to the more ubiquitous Asian reds and blacks. This specificity of French lacquer and its use on all kinds of materials and objects ranged from the imposing to the most discreet; furniture, woodwork panelling, decorative objets (the Chinoiserie barometers with their pagodas were utterly ravishing), jewellery, musical instruments, caskets, horse-drawn carriages, sedans and sleighs trace the history of a passion shared by Parisians and a pan-European clientèle and transcending the passion for all things Chinese for which it originally catered. This innovative mode of lacquering was representative of the Enlightenment, an age curious about the arts and sciences, and the exhibition aimed at demonstrating the full range of that interest, thanks to a wealth of historical, iconographic, and scientific research that was undertaken.

This post and also the accompanying book will hopefully compensate for the late feature and delight you with the wondrous qualities, intricacy, mastery and pulchritude of the age-old decorative finish that is plaster.




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One comment


  • Jude

    Wow!!! Amazing exhibition and fabulous write up. Thank you for sharing A-Gent of Style

    July 17, 2014

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