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Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco/Art Deco Paris

Exhibition dates: June 8 – September 5, 2004
Exhibition locations: Special Exhibition Galleries, first floor
Press preview: Monday, June 7, 10 a.m. – noon

The highest achievements of French Art Deco, the style that epitomizes the glamour and sophistication of 1920s Paris, will be explored in two related exhibitions, concurrently on view at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art from June 8 through September 5, 2004.

Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco is the first major retrospective devoted to all aspects of the career of the preeminent exponent of high-style French Art Deco, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879–1933). The exhibition of some 225 works will be drawn from the collections of the Metropolitan, one of the premier repositories of the designer's work, augmented by loans from private and public collections in North America and Europe. A complementary exhibition, Art Deco Paris, will provide a broader context for Ruhlmann's achievement with a display of approximately 50 works by other leading Parisian designers of the 1920s – all drawn exclusively from the Metropolitan's holdings of Art Deco furniture and decorative objects, which are among the finest in the world. The Metropolitan was a pioneer in recognizing the importance of French Art Deco, and began to assemble its unsurpassed collection of objects in this style in the early 1920s.

Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco will feature more than 100 key pieces representing the full range of the designer's achievement, which included not only the design of exquisite furniture, but of all the related elements needed for his interiors – from the interior architecture itself to the lighting, ceramics, carpets, and textiles. Combining aesthetic refinement, luxurious materials, and impeccable craftsmanship, his works represent the pinnacle of French Art Deco and rank with the finest decorative arts of any era. Also on view will be 125 original drawings for his designs – most of which come from the Ruhlmann Archive in France and are being exhibited for the first time – as well as vintage photographs of his furniture and interiors.

The exhibition is made possible by The Florence Gould Foundation.

The exhibition is organized and circulated by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Le Musée des Années 30, Boulogne-Billancourt.

Born in Paris in 1879, Ruhlmann was the son of a decorating contractor. In 1907, he took over the family business, and soon expanded the enterprise to include furniture design and interior decoration. By 1910 he was producing works in the new, distinctively elegant, and unabashedly luxurious style that would come to be known as Art Deco. By the 1920s Ruhlmann was the most prestigious and sought-after designer of his day, commanding a team of more than 100 skilled workers and assistants.

Taking as his point of departure the great cabinet-making heritage of late-18th-century France, Ruhlmann created works of classic simplicity, fashioned of the finest materials and according to the highest standards of craftsmanship. His designs, notable for their harmonious proportions, architectonic structure, and restrained use of ornament, are graceful and highly original translations of the Neoclassical tradition into a modern idiom. Like his

ancien régime forebears, Ruhlmann excelled in the use of rare and exotic woods, ivory, lacquer, and precious metals; exquisite veneers; intricate inlay; and scrollwork.

The time and materials involved in Ruhlmann's creations made them prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest. One very large and elaborate Ruhlmann piece reportedly took up to 1,000 hours of labor and cost the equivalent of a house.

Nevertheless, Ruhlmann was phenomenally successful, owing in large part to the patronage of the newly rich, entrepreneurial class of post-World War I Paris, who were eager to advertise their wealth, taste, and sophistication. The association that Ruhlmann offered with the aristocratic styles of the past – he was dubbed "the Riesener of the 20th Century," a reference to the celebrated royal cabinetmaker to Louis XVI – made his work all the more appealing to those who saw themselves as the "new royalty" of modern France.

By the time of the famous 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes – the event that gave Art Deco its name – the taste for the luxury style that Ruhlmann epitomized had reached its peak. His pavilion at the Paris Exposition was the fair's most admired attraction.

The stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing worldwide Depression abolished the wealth and undermined the societal attitudes that had sustained Art Deco. Ironically, Ruhlmann's own premature death in 1933, at the age of 54, coincided almost precisely with the decline of the style that he so spectacularly pioneered and promoted.

Despite the brevity of his career, Ruhlmann was extraordinarily prolific, envisioning – and then creating – entire suites of rooms and their contents. On view will be examples of furniture – considered his true forte – including an array of exquisitely crafted tables, chairs, writing desks, sideboards, and cabinets, all designed and executed according to his exacting specifications. One of the early masterworks on view is a desk of ca. 1918-19, made of amboyana (a burled wood imported from Burma), with delicate ivory inlay and fittings, and a sharkskin work surface. The defining qualities of Ruhlmann's mature, "classic" style are exemplified in his famous 1919 "Chariot" sideboard, made of macassar ebony, with a stylized bold ivory inlay depiction of an Attic charioteer. The distinctive, tapering legs – a Ruhlmann hallmark – give the piece an impression of lightness and grace despite its substantial size. An elaborately decorated cabinet with ivory floral inlay, commissioned by the Metropolitan directly from Ruhlmann in 1926, is a variant of a work shown in the 1925 Exposition.

A special section of the exhibition will be devoted to works associated with Ruhlmann's famous pavilion at the 1925 Paris Exposition, the Hôtel du Collectionneur, which was meant to evoke the imaginary villa of a rich and discerning collector. Furniture, carpets, and decorative objects created for the rooms will be displayed along with archival photographs of the exterior and interiors.

The exhibition also features a representative selection of the luxury market decorative objects Ruhlmann designed, including a magnificent crystal and silvered metal chandelier (ca. 1925); a monumentally scaled white Sèvres porcelain vase lamp (1927), one of eight, six of which were created for the fabled luxury liner, Ile de France; extravagantly patterned carpets; and vividly colored textiles and wallpaper.

Original drawings on view – ranging from quick sketches, to elaborately colored presentation drawings for clients, to full-scale working drawings used by his craftsmen – will allow viewers to understand the evolution of many of Ruhlmann's pieces from first thought to finished product.

Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco will be accompanied by a 323-page catalogue, published by Somogy Editions d'Art and co-produced by the Musée des Années 30, Boulogne-Billancourt, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. The publication will be fully illustrated in color and include 20 essays written by the curators and experts in the field of French Art Deco. There will be a catalogue entry for each piece of furniture, as well as a complete list of the works in the exhibition. A comprehensive bibliography will also be included. The catalogue will be available in both English and French editions.

The curators of the exhibition are J. Stewart Johnson, Consultant for Modern Design and Architecture, and Jared Goss, Assistant Curator, in the Metropolitan's Department of Modern Art; and Rosalind Pepall, Curator of Decorative Arts, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a full range of educational programs, including gallery talks and lectures, and will be featured on the Museum's Web site at www.metmuseum.org. The exhibition will later travel to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Art Deco Paris : Ruhlmann's Contemporaries and Collaborators
The complementary exhibition Art Deco Paris, also on view from June 8 through September 5, 2004, will feature approximately 50 outstanding examples of works by other leading Parisian designers – both collaborators and competitors of Ruhlmann – who also helped to define high-style French Art Deco of the 1920s. Drawn entirely from the Metropolitan's own superb holdings of Art Deco furniture and decorative arts, the exhibition will feature furniture by Süe et Mare and Clement Rousseau, textiles by Raoul Dufy and Paul Poiret, jewelry by Georges Fouquet, bookbindings by Pierre Legrain, lacquer by Jean Dunand, metalwork by Edgar Brandt, glasswork by René Lalique, and costumes by Jeanne Lanvin.

Art Deco Paris is organized by J. Stewart Johnson, Consultant for Modern Design and Architecture, and Jane Adlin, Assistant Curator, in the Metropolitan's Department of Modern Art.

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