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  • Writer's pictureRoger Blikkberget

"Les Gemmaux"

Updated: Mar 4

The story of Les Gemmaux begins in 1936. The art form was invented in 1930 by the French painter Jean Crotti, who was working in Paris after his return from the United States after World War I. The word Le Gemmail (the singular form of Gemmaux) is the contraction of two words: "gemmme," meaning precious stone and "email," meaning enamel, the medium used to assemble pieces of glass. Crotti, who in 1950 was awarded the highest French award possible, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, was a close neighbor of the Malherbe family in a suburb of Paris.

The Malherbes were from a long line of physician-inventors and well-known in scientific circles for studying the molecular diffusion of light and fluorescence, among other things. The patriarch Emanuel Malherbe-Navarre and his sons Christian and Roger Malherbe-Navarre were physicists, and another son, Jean Paul Sala Malherbe, was also involved. After Crotti showed them his new art form, it was the Malherbes who successfully developed and perfected the process of the Gemmail and by the early 1950s had formed their own Atelier for creating them.

Design by Louis Gilis; technique invented by artist Jean Crotti (1870-1958); assembled by “gemmists” in the Paris studio of Roger Malherbe-Navarre called Les Gemmaux de France. Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY. Photo by Wayne Stratz.
Pont de Grenelle (Grenelle Bridge)(1959). Design by Louis Gilis; technique invented by artist Jean Crotti

In fact the Gemmaux are translucent paintings which live through light. The artist draws an outline of a design on a large plate of clear glass, on which are placed pieces of coloured glass where the size and superposition allow him to obtain the most subtle range of colours of the palette. Once the work is finished to the satisfaction of the artist, the piece is submerged in an absolutely colourless enamel and put into a heating chamber where it reaches temperatures close to the degree of heat that softens glass, unless the constitution of the linking elements, foreseen to supply chemically a particular part of the baking process do not allow it. In these circumstances, the work is done at a much lower temperature. When the desired temperature has been reached progressively and the desired reactions have been obtained, the chamber is brought back to a specific temperature and the work is cooled gradually and very slowly. This is how Picasso was able to grasp the intangible : The light, naturally pure and whole, modeled and refracted through thousands of « gemmes » that constitute each work made in Gemmail.

Picasso Femme dans un fauteuil d'osier 95.5 x 76 cm

Picasso and the Gemmail

Picasso discovered the Gemmail in 1954 through his friend Jean Cocteau at the Malherbe art studio where he had the opportunity to discover the technique of this original and new form of art. Picasso contemplated the great possibilities that this new artistic expression could offer him to illuminate all his master pieces. He decided to create his first Gemmail art work « Femme dans un fauteuil d’osier » in 1954. He was fascinated by the light , the material and the transparency achieved and then created his self portrait « yo » , followed by the « Femme d’Alger » which he produced several variations at the same time. It was at this time that Picasso realizes the importance , the novelty and the modernity of this new form of artistic expression; he stated enthusiastically : « A new art is born: The Gemmaux » . He then decided to create sixty major works, reproducing his most prized paintings.

Picasso shared his discovery and his creations with George Braque.The two artists had tried to introduce volume and a new perception of shapes through cubism. Braque who was always looking for new artistic techniques and materials was won over by the Gemmail and created several works himself. He stated : « If I were thirty years old , I would be known as the Gemmist Braque ». The first exhibition representing a retrospective of Picasso’s works was held in March 1957 at the « Grande Galerie du Faubourg Saint Honoré ». The event was a great success and more than half of the works were acquired by important collectors such as: Raymond Loewy, Stanley Marcus, Nelson Rockefeller, The Prince Rainier of Monaco, the Rothschild family, the Weisweiller family, the emperor of Japan etc…

Picasso, second from left, in the 1950s. A glimpse of “Seated Woman With Red Hat” is visible at the bottom of the photo. Credit Hagley Museum and Library. “

In the years 1950-1960 the Gemmaux works of Picasso traveled the United States being exhibited in the most important museums : Metropolitan Museum of Art – Art Institute of Chicago – Denver Museum of Art – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh etc … today some of these works can be found in private collections in the United States, in Japan and in Europe as well as in other museums. The remainder of these works are still in the possesion of the same family; the owners unwilling to part with these art works, knowing the importance given by Pablo Picasso to this work which has been exhibited in important museums. In 1964 Raymond Nacenta organised an exhibition of a retrospective of Picasso’s Gemmaux works at the the « Galerie Charpentier « , the most famous gallery for contemporary art of that time and which is today known as Sotherby’s.

The Gemmail exhibitions

FRANCE February 1956 Exhibition in Monaco with S.A.S le Prince Rainier de Monaco March 1957 Retrospective Picasso, Gallery du Faubourg St Honoré, Paris 1959 Museum Galliera, Paris 1961 Exhibition in Monaco, Chapelle de la Paix, with S.A.S le Prince Rainier de Monaco 1961 Museum Galliera (second exhibition) February 1964 Gallery Charpentier, Paris

Picasso Potrait de Picasso par liu-même 54.5x35 cm

U.S.A. May 1959 Corning Glass Museum, New York August 1959 Denver Art Museum Septembrer 1959 Metropolitain Museum of Art, New York January 1960 Carnegie Institute February 1960 Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio April 1960 Art institute of Chicago May 1960 New York Design Center June 1960 Inauguration de l’agence Air France, New York Septembrer 1960 Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh Septembrer 1960 Virginia Museum of fine Art, Richmond, VA Octobrer 1960 Museum of Fine Art, Boston Octobrer 1960 The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Novembrer 1960 Minneapolis Institute of Arts Novembrer 1960 Cincinnati Art Museum January 1961 High Museum of Art, Atlanta February 1961 Saint Louis Art Museum August 1961 Roswell Museum, Nouveau Mexique

JAPAN 1998 Exhibition : Museum Tobu, Tokyo 1998 Exhibition : Museum Sogo, Nara 1998 Exhibition : Museum of Modern Art Ibaraki, Mito 1998 Exhibition : Museum of Art Matsuzakaya, Nagoya

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