O'Mahony on Dandona (2017)

Dandona, Jessica M. Nature and the Nation in Fin-de-siècle France: The Art of Émile Gallé and the École de Nancy. Ashgate Routledge, 2017, pp. xii + 214, ISBN 978-1-4724-6261-9

In 1890, the eminent design reformer, critic, collector, and museum inspector, Roger Marx marvelled at the imagination of his fellow citizen of Nancy, Émile Gallé, calling him a “homo triplex”: equally expressive and agile in the media of wood, glass, and ceramic. Dandona’s monograph explores the complexity of this fin-de-siècle creative temperament across a persuasively interdisciplinary spectrum of evidence, carefully referencing the wealth of primary sources and the dynamism of Francophone scholarship about the École de Nancy published since the 1999 centenary year. Dandona juxtaposes subtle physical analysis of objects in these three media with surrounding print cultures and installation photographs from exhibitions, with precision and insight. The book also deploys Gallé’s writing attentively throughout, a vital dimension of his career, encompassing many published treatises as well as his voluminous and thought-provoking correspondence with leading critics and intimates. This textual œuvre rightly secures Gallé’s place within the pantheon of Symbolist theorists and politically-engaged voices of the fin-de-siècle, sources happily now more readily accessible through the publication of anthologies edited by scholars and curators in Nancy and Paris since 2006, alongside the digitization of Eastern French historic periodicals (https://kiosque.limedia.fr/histoires/). The book is composed of four chapters, each constructed thoughtfully around a different perspective on the volatile socio-historical context of Third Republic France: the Franco-Prussian War, Japonisme, the Dreyfus Case, and the formation of the regional art alliances known as the École de Nancy. Gallé’s pièces uniques, large display objects designed for his stands in international and regional exhibitions, provide Dandona’s main case studies.

The first chapter centers on two massive and intricate pieces of furniture exhibited in the 1889 Paris exposition, a table known as The Rhine and a cabinet exhibited as Of Lorrainer Oak, French work. Both objects are collaborative pieces, with Louis Hestaux and Victor Prouvé, where the skills of other members of the firm helped Gallé to translate his aesthetics into three dimensions and human figuration. Highlights of this chapter are Dandona’s reflections on Celtic Gaul, which draw upon perspectives from Germanic as well as French texts and monuments, and the illustration of a rarely seen view of the interior of the firm’s Pavilion Gaulois at the 1889 Exposition.

The second chapter positions Gallé’s relationship with Japan within the renewal of geo-political and aesthetic dialogue between European and Japanese cultural arbiters in the aftermath of American military aggression in the 1850s, which had forced a renewal of trade relations and artistic exchange after centuries of isolation. The energizing force of this new contact with Japanese objects and aesthetics is explored by Dandona through Gallé’s metaphor of “clear water” through three case studies, a ceramic Flower Holder, and two glass pieces—Carp and A Hen appeared—all shown in the 1878 Paris Exposition. She argues for how the iconographic and conceptual intermingling of Neo-Rococo and Japoniste organicism demonstrates Gallé’s empathy with hybrid, cosmopolitan ideas of race and identity, further evidenced by his friendship with Tokouso Takacyma, a young Japanese botanist, artist and diplomat in the making, who befriended Gallé whilst studying forestry at the University in Nancy. 

The third chapter participates in the recognition of Gallé’s committed engagement in the Dreyfus case, which had been left virtually unmentioned in anglophone accounts and many French sources until the paradigm-shifting scholarship generated by the centenary of Gallé’s death in 2004. The fresh scholarly research embodied in the installations, documented in the publications generated by the annual exhibitions curated by Valerie Thomas and her team within the Musée de l’École de Nancy in collaboration with scholars working in Lorraine and Paris, has transformed our access to, and understanding of, not only Gallé’s oeuvre, but also of the many other voices and creative hands that constituted the École de Nancy. Dandona’s chapter focuses on the monumental glass in Gallé’s installation evoking a forge and the Dreyfusard cause at the 1900 Paris Exposition.       

The final chapter assesses Gallé’s role in the formation of the Provincial Alliance of Art Industries in Nancy in 1901. As François Le Tacon’s pioneering work has demonstrated, Gallé’s scientific understanding and symbolic deployment of the motif of Lorrain orchids aligned contemporary debates about Neo-Lamarckian hybridity with social entrepreneurship informed by Solidarist Republicanism. Dandona’s concluding note of swansong and decline around the 1903 exhibition of the École de Nancy in the Pavilion Marsan in Paris and Gallé’s early death from leukemia in 1904 is understandable given the monographic focus of the study. However, might not the creative practice and scholarly engagement of the interwar generation trained by Victor Prouvé at the École des Beaux-Arts in Nancy suggest the transmission of a sustained regional vitality stemming from the fin-de-siècle École de Nancy, which has flowered again in recent decades?  This involving book belongs on the syllabi and bookshelves of students and scholars of art nouveau and fin-de-siècle France. In a climate where multi-lingual skills are no longer to be presumed even at the postgraduate-level, we owe a debt to Dandona for making these wondrous objects, texts and debates accessible to a wider anglophone audience.    

Claire O'Mahony
University of Oxford