Inventory Number MAC180
Size 14" H x 9.5" Diam.
Country of Origin France
Year Made C. 1900
Lévy-Dhurmer is thought to have designed the mushroom vase, although this has yet to be definitively established. Considering its depth of symbolism, his authorship seems irrefutable. The shape of this vase, conical, round at the base, and square at the top, is a form given architectural importance by the addition of four the caps are painted on the body of the vase. Behind the cluster of mushrooms is a thorny brier. This Lévy created by portraying the below-ground structure of the mushroom, (the mycelium, made of thread-like hyphae) as a decorative web. Although the mushroom vase was made both during and after Lévy’s tenure at the Massier studios, it cannot be considered reproduction ware. The design stipulated the use of handles as stems, but each vase was painted with a unique palette and pattern of mushrooms. These different color schemes appear to depict different times of day. Model illustrated in Barol, Jean. Céramiques Art Nouveau: Collection Jean et Paulette Declein. (Vallauris, France,1995) 35. Model illustrated in Forest, Domique. Clément Massier: L'introduction de la Céramique Artistique Sur la Côte D'azur.(Vallaurius, France, 2000) 27.
-Description by Christopher Baker
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Clément Massier came from a family of potters, first established at the end of the eighteenth century in the Mediterranean town of Vallauris. Specializing in garden and ceramic cooking wares, the business grew over the years so that, when his father died in 1871, young Clément inherited a flourishing company. Along with his brother Delphin, he continued his father’s production in Vallauris, though soon demonstrated a desire to go beyond the family’s area of expertise. From 1876 and 1880, he worked in Sèvres with ceramist Optat Millet and participated in the 1878 Exposition Universelle. Back home, however, a rivalry grew between his brother and him, which resulted in the establishment of a second factory in the same town. Clément moved to Golfe-Juan in 1883 and founded his own company, which grew to 120 employees within a year. Featuring an exhibition hall and gallery--and ideally located on the railway linking Paris to Lyon and the Mediterranean--Massier’s factory quickly became a popular tourist destination.
While garden ware still constituted the core of his production, Massier began experimenting with luster effects, developing his own method with the assistance of the Italian ceramist Dominique Zumbo, whom he hired in 1879. The first luster glazes obtained in 1884 were presented at the National Industrial and Fine Arts Exposition in Marseille in 1886 and were derived from Hispano-Moresque prototypes. The arrival of symbolist painter Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer (1865-1953) the following year, first as a designer and then as artistic director of Massier’s atelier, further advanced this endeavor. With the assistance of Lévy-Dhurmer, Zumbo, and apprentice François Rizzo, Massier developed what would later become his enduring contribution to ceramics in this period.
The 1889 Exposition Universelle was a turning point for the Massier, and drove him to try new metallic luster glazes and decorative effects through etching, painting and stamping. In 1888, English poet and critic Cosmo Monkhouse praised Massier’s atelier in The Decorator and Furnisher, remarking, “without wishing to disparage any of the efforts of English ceramicists, it seems certain that in this particular branch of pottery, M. Clément Massier is supreme both in taste and skill.”[i] Massier triumphed at the 1889 Exposition and was awarded a gold medal due to these glazes. Several important figures of the time acquired his metallic luster glaze vases, such as the Prince of Wales for the Malborough House in London and Edward C. Moore, the artistic director of Tiffany & Co.[ii] In the official French report of the exhibition, Jules Loebnitz, another major ceramicist of the time, wrote of Massier’s display: “This exhibitor has made considerable progress in the past few years: his pastes are stronger and sounder, and his enamels more varied than they used to be. He is also exhibiting important and remarkable applications of metallic reflects. All the pieces in this style, which appear curious not only because of their shapes but the shimmering effects of their iridescent enamels, have been met with well-deserved success and quickly found buyers.”[iii]
The evolution of Massier’s production in the early 1890s is very much indebted to Levy-Dhurmer’s approach to ceramics as a new artistic medium for his Symbolist inspiration. While most of the shapes used during this period had been designed earlier, they were covered in naturalistic decoration, sometimes applied in successive layers. This layering technique, which accentuated the impression of depth, was indebted to pastel painting, a discipline in which Levy-Dhurmer excelled. Beneath these layers, spiders, starfish, seaweed, algae and butterflies remain barely identifiable. As Martin Eidelberg noted, Massier’s work offers an intimate view of nature, a closer look than is normally possible in the “real world.”[iv] His interpretations represent various settings, chosen for their symbolic capacity, from the bottom of the sea and its strangest creatures, to the stars and moon. Levy-Dhurmer’s designs invite the viewer to abandon the conscious mind, and represent different facets of nature, which, like dreams, are alternately serene and frightening. Beautiful insects and flowers exist along shimmering undergrowth and thorns that call to mind the darker aspects of the human soul and speak to the anxiety associated with the last decade of the nineteenth century. As Levy-Dhurmer later remarked about his time with Massier “through my very craft, through the extraordinary colors with which the fire adorned the ceramics, I strove to materialize my inner dreams.”[v]
Moving beyond the first faithful copies of Hispano-Moresque models made in the 1880s, Massier obtained a diverse palette of iridescent effects. From purple to green, the changing colors that envelop Magical Mushroom Vase give the impression that the ceramicist was attempting to depict the entire light spectrum. The more one looks at the object, the harder it becomes to define it. From its peculiar shape—its floating neck and unusual handles—to its mushroom design, the vase escapes rational comprehension. It evokes an almost primordial origin, an impression reinforced by its iridescent glaze, which is more reminiscent of a meteorite than Hispano-Mauresque lusterware. Like a prehistoric, terrestrial mushroom, the enigmatic, asymmetrical vase seems to be in continual motion and the complex decorative elements result in a marvelous, phantasmagorical object.
In the 1890s, Massier was not the only one producing this type of metallic lustered wares, though other ceramists who, after him, covered their pieces with comparable metallic effects never obtained the same level of perfection in terms of either iridescence or motif.[vi] Massier’s iridescent vases were shown in December 1895 at the opening of L’Art Nouveau, whose aim was to promote new trends in the arts and erase the traditional distinction between fine and decorative arts. At the peak of his fame, Massier’s production was reviewed worldwide by numerous journalists. Among them, Eva McDonald Valesh dedicated a full-page article to Clément Massier after her visit to his atelier in 1896. She intentionally reinforced the myth around the iridescent technique, mentioning with a playful tone, “Do they [the workers] know the secret? No, that lies within Massier’s brain.”[vii] She also mentioned the role of Massier’s wife, Mary, who appears to have had a crucial role in running the marketing side of the business. “Madame Massier remarked, as I selected a tiny luster vase: ‘Americans have better taste than other people. The English, for instance, care nothing for art’... The compliment to American taste may have been merely a bit of flattery. Even so, it is the first kind remark I have heard of our people since landing in France.”[viii]
The death of his wife in 1900 was a significant blow to the potter and after 1901, Massier systematically added the first letter of her name to his own initials, incising “MCM” on the underside of his pieces. This period represents another critical juncture in his career. After his daughter Louise’s marriage in 1904 to Jean-Pierre Leca, an infantry captain, Massier began giving portions of his property to his daughters and, in 1910, entered into a partnership with Louise. World War I had dramatic consequences on the family’s production and delivered a final blow to the potter, who died in March 1917. Massier’s daughters took over but never managed to revive the company, which closed soon after their father’s death.
[i] Cosmo Monkhouse, “Vallauris and its allies,” The Decorator and Furnisher 12 (July 1888): 118.
[ii] “Fancy trades supplement to the Pottery Gazette,” The Pottery Gazette 13 (August 1, 1889): 21. The Moore vase decorated with oak leaves remained in the family collection until it was given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by John C. Moore in 1940 (Inv. 40.139.3).
[iii] Jules Loebnitz, Exposition universelle internationale de 1889 à Paris, “Rapport du Jury international. Classe 20 - Céramique” (Paris, Imprimerie Nationale: 1891), 237.
[iv] Martin Eidelberg, “Massier and French Decorative Arts of 1900,” Clément Massier: Master of Iridescence (New York: Jason Jacques Gallery, 2007), iv.
[v] J. Uzanne, “L. Lévy-Dhurmer,” Figures Contemporaines tirées de l’Album Mariani (Paris: Henri Floury, 1899), unpaginated: “[…] je m’efforçais d’atteindre, dans mon métier même, dans les couleurs extraordinaires dont le feu revêtait les poteries, la réalisation de mon rêve intérieur.”
[vi] The iridescence effect was not only sought after by ceramicists in Europe and America, it also had been praised by several glass firms since the 1880s, from the Austrian firm of Lobmeyr to Louis C. Tiffany in the United States.
[vii] Eva McDonald Valesh, “Golfe Juan Pottery. Interview with Massier,” The Galveston Daily News, June 14, 1896.
[viii] Valesh, “Golfe Juan Pottery,” 10.