- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

Tucked into a small back room in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, the new exhibit “Alexandre-Louis-Marie Charpentier (1856-1909)” is a refreshing change from all the big-name fare in museums these days. This tiny show of medals, plaques and decorative arts focuses on a forgotten French artist who excelled at a now-forgotten art form, bas relief.

Scholars love bringing forth such figures from the art-history shadows, and Karen Lemmey, an Andrew W. Mellon curatorial fellow, has neatly arranged 59 of Charpentier’s small works within four vitrines, each with its own theme, to illuminate his subject matter and techniques. The slight survey, opening tomorrow, is the first show dedicated to Charpentier in nearly a century and will be followed by a retrospective of the artist’s works that is being organized by the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, according to Ms. Lemmey.

Charpentier was a player in the French art nouveau movement, but few of the pieces in the show, most from one private collection, feature the wriggly lines and floral decorations associated with the style. His delicate, low reliefs of laborers, nursing mothers and famous Frenchmen reflect his academic training and ability to sculpt the human figure with expressive immediacy. They serve as reminders that art nouveau, especially in the medium of sculpture, reoriented established artistic traditions to a new vision of modernity.

A dropout from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied medal engraving, Charpentier exhibited his work at established venues until joining up with the avant-garde in the 1890s. He showed at the influential Paris gallery L’Art Nouveau and with four like-minded artists formed a circle called Le Cinq (the Five) that grew ever larger and was renamed L’Art dans Tout (Art in Everything). “It is necessary to make art part of contemporary life, to make the ordinary objects that surround us into works of art,” the group declared in an ad for its 1898 exhibit.

Applying his talent to the decorative arts, Charpentier upgraded mundane household items such as coffeepots and doorknobs with allegorical figures similar to those that he applied to medals. In one vitrine, dancers cavort within an ebony curve carved for a piano. A muscular male strains across the pewter handle of a scythe-shaped brush used for cleaning crumbs off a table.

Charpentier also shaped plaquettes, small panels, that were integrated into home furnishings and interiors designed by others. He often cast the same image in different materials depending on the practical application. The bronze “Maternity,” a sweet scene of a mother breast-feeding her baby, for example, was translated into glazed stoneware to create a wall tile.

“Jean and Pierre,” portraits of the artist’s infant son and nephew, top a pencil box. Unfortunately, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s stained-glass windows, many of Charpentier’s panels have been separated from their contexts over time, so their intended effect can’t be appreciated.

The only collaborative piece in the show is a striking (literally) clock called “The Flight of Time,” created by Charpentier and Parisian furniture maker Tony Selmersheim around 1899. It shows why Charpentier’s vibrant figural sculpture and the sinuous, nature-abstracted curves associated with art nouveau worked together so well. Stick around, and you can hear the clock chime the hour.

Though the exhibit reveals Charpentier’s versatility, it leaves the false impression that he worked solely in small formats. He applied his considerable skills not only to objects and medals, but to entire rooms and monuments.

One of his most striking interiors was an elaborately decorated art nouveau dining room for banker Adrien Benard, chairman of the company building the new Metro subway system in Paris. To honor French bakers, he carved a stone relief that stands in the square of Saint Germain des Pres in Paris. Too bad photographs of these works aren’t included in the exhibit to round out the picture of this prolific artist.

For the viewer, it may be hard to appreciate Charpentier as part of the artistic vanguard because the exhibit focuses on his accomplishments in an old-fashioned medium, the medal. These diminutive discs, around since the Renaissance, marked important cultural, political and personal milestones and enjoyed popularity in 19th-century France.

Pay close attention, and you’ll realize that Charpentier’s silver, bronze and cast-glass souvenirs have a lot more to offer than those handed out to Olympic athletes and Nobel Prize winners. A friend of the era’s leading sculptor, Auguste Rodin, Charpentier effectively used his own brand of expressive realism to portray the celebrities of his day, including novelist Emile Zola, painter Camille Pissarro and dictionary publisher Pierre Larousse. The artist sometimes modeled his subjects quickly in wet clay, and many of his reliefs reflect the quick, unstudied quality of a sketch.

Inspection of the finely detailed surfaces of his medals — some with imagery so minute that a microscope seems needed — reveals unusual compositions reflecting a fascination with the rapidly changing world of fin-de-siecle Paris. One honors the completion of the Eiffel Tower with a trio of riveters atop a steel girder. Another celebrates the electrification of Paris with a flying female holding a string of lights above an aerial view of the city. Several others pay homage to the achievements of the industrial age, presaging the social realist murals of the 1930s with muscular laborers posed next to machines.

“The face of the world has undergone more change during the last 100 years than it underwent in the previous 18 centuries,” Charpentier said. This exhibit provides only a peek at how he captured that upheaval through art both traditional and modern, and it makes us want to see more.

WHAT: “Alexandre-Louis-Marie Charpentier (1856-1909)”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: Aug. 6 to Jan. 28; Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

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