This is the story of a furnace, a vase, an international stage, and political injustice. So if you like historical intrigue—and who doesn’t—then keep reading. The current Rakow Library exhibition, Designing for a New Century: Works on Paper by Lalique and his Contemporaries, includes a photograph of a furnace—a furnace built for a section of Emile Gallé’s exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition.
The 1900 Exposition was large in scope and size—nearly 60 countries sent more than 80,000 exhibitors to celebrate the turn into a new century. Companies displayed the latest technology, industrial practices, and the finest examples of decorative arts. Ultra-modern attractions, such as the trottoir roulant, the moving sidewalk, carried visitors to the exhibits at speeds of up to 4.5 miles per hour. Early cinematic technologies, such as the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre and the Cinéorama, were showcased for the streams of visitors who filled the exhibition spaces daily.
Technological exhibitions were popular, but the decorative arts were a draw as well, particularly the exhibits of Louis Comfort Tiffany, René Lalique, and Emile Gallé. These firms spent time and lots of money planning their elaborate exhibits. In fact, Emile Gallé’s furnace display was two years in the making and almost ruinously expensive.
Impressive in and of itself, this furnace also offers an intriguing glimpse into Gallé’s political and social views, as well as contemporary events of the era. A visitor approaching Gallé’s display would have seen the enormous furnace, surrounded by glass objects, including some which had been damaged in the making.
Looking closer, one would have seen a vase, Les Hommes Noirs (The Dark Men), exhibited on a pedestal to the left of the furnace. This vase, designed with Gallé’s long-time friend, artist Victor Prouvé, is an eerie, shadowy creation, around whose circumference creep unearthly and horrific creatures that wouldn’t be out of place in a Twilight Zone episode.
So why did Gallé include this strange and disturbing design for the international stage of the 1900 Paris Exposition? This is where the political injustice comes in.
Les Hommes Noirs is part of a bigger story about anti-Semitism, political expediency, and abuse of authority, all centered on a French soldier by the name of Alfred Dreyfus (1859‒1935). The Dreyfus affair, as it became known, was a controversial cause célèbre of the time which deeply moved Gallé and a number of other French activists. Dreyfus, who was Jewish, had been falsely accused of treason and incarcerated on Devil’s Island. Just prior to the 1900 Exposition, and in response to years of political protest, Dreyfus was released and pardoned. His supporters, however, were far from happy that he had to trade a guilty plea for freedom. The dark creatures on Gallé’s vase represented the injustice of Dreyfus’ predicament, as they crawled up from beneath the earth to sully truth and justice. For more background and interpretation of this vase, now in the Museum’s collection and on display in the modern gallery (CMG 2011.3.1), read curator Tina Oldknow’s post.
Gallé nearly bankrupted his firm producing this display at the 1900 Exposition. Surrounded by tools of the glassmaker, cracked and imperfect vessels and politically charged images and inscriptions, Gallé’s furnace and glass attested to the difficulty of glassblowing, and, for those who looked more deeply, manifested Gallé’s passionate political and social views. Read more about the exhibition at the Rakow Library and check out some images on our Pinterest board.