The Mediterranean as Muse
Wide expanses of sun drenched beach, sheer white cliffs giving way to a tranquil, sky blue sea, the splendor of ancient monuments rising above the heights of romantic city scapes; a mere mention of the grandeur to be found along the Mediterranean coast. Then, naturally, there is the satisfying salt of a ripe olive, the viscous honey sweet nectar of a deeply hued fig or the rich, buttery savour of a sun soaked cashew, all fed by the lush earth to be found on the glimmering seashore. Of course, the fruits of the Mediterranean extend far beyond its delightful produce, with the area’s lush landscapes and ancient cultures offering unmatched beauty, and inspiring those from native locales and far afield to create in its likeness.
Where better to begin our journey around the mediterranean than on the idyllic and iconic shores of Monaco. Set along its dazzling coast, this lithograph by Alphonse Mucha captures an idealized female form in elegant half-kneeling repose, entranced by the bright Mediterranean sun and framed by the Monte Carlo shoreline. Off centered halos of amalgamated flora, each laced into the architectural form of a wheel, dance around the young maiden, connected by stark, sweeping stalks. This incorporation of geographical forms true to a specific site or location is a rare and exciting inclusion by Mucha, as he generally preferred abstracted natural forms for his backgrounds. Such artistic departure may have been suggested by the poster’s sponsor, the railroad, who also seems to have inspired the unusually geometric arrangement of flowering vegetal motifs. The unique structure of the intricate native blooms was designed, along with their stems, to mimic the appearance of steam engine’s powerful wheels and resolute iron tracks, offering a colorful endorsement for both the = locale and the means of arrival on that sunsoaked shoreline.
With its coast stretching a little under three miles, Monaco is far from spanning the great breadth of the Mediterranean, or even speaking to the entirety of its Western shores. There remains a magnificent range of beauty to be found in this part of the world just upcountry from the coastline. Traveling just a bit North and a tad inland we find ourselves in the lush olive groves of Southeastern France, the inspiration for this important piece by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The covered box is rendered in rewarding earthen tones and gentle lines that capture the golden dappled light that fights its way through tangled branches in the olive growing fields. The smell of salty fruit and sandy soil that fragrances the warm, still air in the groves is all but present in the composition, so subtle but so complete is its dedication to the sensory experience of this region in the Mediterranean. A noted, celebrated and well written about piece in Tiffany’s body of work, the covered box is a warmly coveted composition by dedicated Tiffany collectors.
Though Art Nouveau was a French phenomenon, it did have remarkable counterpoints elsewhere in the Mediterranean, notably in the North Eastern Spanish region of Catalonia. In Barcelona, the cultural epicenter of the region, this Art Nouveau-esque movement was known as Modernisme, and is most recognized and celebrated as being the style adopted by Antoni Gaudi for his monumental architecture. Much like Art Nouveau, Modernisme incorporated sinuous, whiplash lines, bold color sense and native natural forms. It also shared the understanding that art, architecture and interior space shared a status that demanded each be complete and each be celebrated as a complete piece of art. This, of course, means that Gaudi paid careful attention to those works that would populate, or complete, the interior of his great creations. Thus explains the grandiosity and beauty of this pair of chairs by Joan Busquets, the prototype for which was created for Gaudi’s famed Palacio Güell. True to the Modernisme style, and to the Catalan coast, Busquets’ chairs incorporate the golden hues of the brightly sunlit Spanish city, the slight rippling waves that kiss its shores, and the great sweeping lines that dominate its architecture.
Architectural forms from the ancient past served as inspiration for many of the Art Nouveau masters just as much as the then-modern aesthetics, with Louis Comfort Tiffany being a particularly diligent student of Medieval Mediterranean architecture. Evidence of such devotion can be found in the Moorish chandelier by Tiffany Studios, which was inspired by Tiffany’s travels to Southern Spain and Northern Africa. The shape of the Favrile glass shades in this chandelier was meant to serve as a foil to the shape of the “muqarnas” (oblong indentations) found in traditional Muslim architecture, which Tiffany used to decorate his home, reflecting his deep love of area’s history and architecture.
Monumental sites of far more ancient standing also caught Tiffany’s attention along the Mediterranean, including the great pyramids and remarkable ruins of Egypt. Proof positive of his great love and assiduous study of the wonders of this ancient world is the Scarab mosaic box later produced by Tiffany Studios New York. The red hot temperatures and fierce light of the Mediterranean desert are reflected in the brilliant colors of the box’s mosaic, while Tiffany's great devotion to the study of the ancient Egyptian world are evident in the delicate treatment of the scarabs. The ancient Egyptians associated the Scarab, a symbol of immortality, resurrection, transformation and protection, with the sun, explaining both their incredible presence in the composition, and their glowing, golden iridescence.
Ancient geographical forms along the great, glimmering sea equally touched Tiffany’s heart in his travels through the region. We need look no farther for evidence of this than the beautiful Lava favrile glass vase by Tiffany Studios. A visit to Mount Etna in Sicily during one of its eruptions is said to have inspired Louis Comfort Tiffany to capture, in glass, the force and beauty of the molten volcanic flows and basaltic rock formations that he observed there. The free-form abstract drippings of gold molten glass and the speckled midnight blue and gold ground recreate the naturalistic effects of flowing lava, making this vase an exceptional example of the Lava glass art form.
A lifetime of admiration for the historically rich culture of Greece is readily apparent in Gabriel Argy-Rousseau’s Musiciens Grecs, a masterpiece in glass that pays homage to the friezes that decorate the monumental ruins of ancient Greece. Born Gabriel Rousseau, the so-called “engineer-ceramicist” was so influenced and taken with both his brilliant wife and her Greek heritage that upon the occasion of their marriage he took the first four letters of her Greek surname and placed them before his own. He would be known professionally as “Argy-Rousseau” until his death.
Finally, we will travel to the far southern reaches of the Mediterranean, where we find the source of inspiration for the remarkable, petite treasure that is this Cypriote vase. With gentle waves of iridescence lapping at a field of warm, textured gold, delicate masterwork by Tiffany Studios will transport you to the shores of the enchanting island. So rich is the golden iridescence of the masterfully executed vase that the piece appears to emanate warmth, while the subtle texturing of the body suggests a wide beach of sand, a poetic similarity, given the nature of glass.
The Art Nouveau movement celebrated the beauty of the natural world with an attentive eye to organic forms and brought the grandiosity of monumental architecture inside the home and within collections via careful design. With an abundance of particular splendor and a host of great architectural forms from both the turn of the 20th century and antiquity, the Mediterranean made a perfect muse for this romantic movement.