The permanent collection of The Corning Museum of Glass holds sixteen glass panels affixed to light boxes, which were crafted in a mid-20th-century technique that has recently seen a surge in public interest. The panels, made in the 1950s and 1960s, came to the museum in 1993, and are called gemmaux.
Gemmail (plural gemmaux) is a French word that is literally translated as “enamel gem.” The term was coined by the painter Jean Crotti (French, 1870─1958) to describe a technique for layering and adhering pieces of colored glass onto a panel in order to create compositions that are meant to be viewed in front of a light box or illuminated from behind. As a painter, Crotti was interested in the ideas of Cubism, Orphism, and Dada. And with his wife, the painter Suzanne Duchamp (French, 1889─1963), he established the short-lived art movement called Tabu. Crotti wanted to develop an art form that would incorporate light in a new way, and in 1935 he began experimenting with gemmail.
In 1938, Crotti approached the lighting expert and artist Roger Malherbe-Navarre (French, 1908─2006) to assist with perfecting the adhesives and light boxes used in gemmail. Once the process was perfected, Crotti patented the technique. Malherbe-Navarre purchased the gemmail patent and all associated rights in 1955. Crotti continued to work with Malherbe-Navarre until his death in 1958.
Malherbe-Navarre set up a studio in Paris called “Les Gemmaux de France,” where he employed technicians, called gemmistes, to make the gemmail panels. The gemmistes would %%cut%% and arrange hundreds of colored glass pieces into compositions over an illuminated tabletop, affixing them to each other with adhesives. After the panels were fully assembled, they would be immersed in an enamel-type solution, and then were heated in kilns to fuse the glass together. Once cooled, the panels would be mounted onto %%metal%% light boxes that were fitted with fluorescent lamps and electric cords.
In about 1954, Malherbe-Navarre and Crotti had their gemmistes re-create the 1938 painting, Le Coq (The Rooster), by Pablo Picasso (French, 1881-1973). Once completed, Crotti invited his friend Picasso to the studio to see the finished work. Upon seeing the gemmail, Picasso declared, “A new art is born!” He then agreed to sign the gemmail and permitted it to be shown publicly.
The Museum has three gemmail panels by Picasso that are based on original paintings. Le Torse Rose (Pink Torso) [93.3.10] recreates Picasso’s 1906 painting, Nu sur Fond Rouge (Nude on a Red Background), in the collection of the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris; La Bouteille de Pernod (The Pernod Bottle) [93.3.5] is based on Picasso’s 1912 painting, Table au café (Bouteille de pernod) (Table in a Café, Bottle of Pernod), in the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg; and Mère et Enfant (Mother and Child) [93.3.1] recreates Picasso’s 1922 painting of the same name, from The Cone Collection at The Baltimore Museum of Art in Baltimore.
Two other well-known artists who had their artworks interpreted in gemmail at Les Gemmaux de France studio were Jean Cocteau (French, 1889─1963), who stated that gemmaux were “a new expression of beauty,” and Georges Braque (French, 1882─1963), who said, “If I were 30 years of age, I would be the Gemmiste Braque.” The Museum owns one gemmail panel inspired by a Cocteau painting [93.3.4] and one gemmail panel inspired by a Braque painting [93.3.2].
In 1957, Roger Malherbe-Navarre created the “prix du gemmail,” a yearly juried award for young new artists working in the gemmail technique. Many of the gemmaux created by these young artists are original compositions, rather than reproductions of existing artworks. The Museum has two award-winning panels in its permanent collection. Danielle Dhumez won the prize for her gemmail panel, Voiles Heureuses (Happy Sailing) [93.3.12], in 1957, and Louis Gilis won the award in 1959 for his gemmail panel, Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) [93.3.11].
In 1959, The Corning Museum of Glass organized the landmark design exhibition, Glass 1959: A Special Exhibition of International Contemporary Glass. Among the 100 glass objects in the exhibition were four gemmaux. One of them, Paysage Sous Marin (Underwater Seascape) by Michèle Lanoir [93.3.6], is now in the Museum’s permanent collection.
Also in 1959, the first American exhibition on gemmaux, called Les Gemmaux de France, toured the country. One of its venues was the Corning Glass Works building in New York City. Of the 20 gemmaux in this exhibition, eight are now in the Museum’s permanent collection, including Mère et Enfant (Mother and Child) [93.3.1] and Le Torse Rose (Pink Torso) [93.3.10] by Picasso; Orphée aux Feuillages (Orpheus in Foliage) by Jean Cocteau [93.3.4]; Passé, Présent, Avenir (Past, Present, Future) by Jean Crotti [93.3.8]; Voiles Heureuses (Happy Sailing) by Danielle Dhumez [93.3.12]; Jeux d’Enfants (Children’s Games) by Dominique Dalozo [93.3.13]; and Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) [93.3.11] and Pont de Grenelle (Grenelle Bridge) by Louis Gilis [93.3.9].
In 1961, The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG) organized 16 gemmail panels into a traveling exhibition called Masterpieces in Glass, which was planned to be shown in department stores throughout the country. The exhibition was designed to promote fiberglass curtains made by The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. Part of their promotional materials included full-color advertisements depicting gemmaux panels alongside fiberglass curtains. The gemmaux panels remained in the collection of The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company until 1993, when 15 of the 16 panels in the exhibition were given as a gift to The Corning Museum of Glass.
Another gemmail panel in the Museum’s collection, titled The City of Light, was created by Danielle Dhumez about 1960. It came to the Museum in 1968 as a gift from the New York City headquarters of Air France. It was a very large gemmail, measuring approximately 12 feet high by 9 feet wide. Unfortunately, this gemmail was completely destroyed in the flood of 1972.
Gemmaux were very popular in the late 1950s and 1960s. The panels replaced stained glass windows in churches. They were used as advertisements in Paris subway stations. And they were collected by celebrities of the time, such as the industrial designer Raymond Loewy (French, 1893─1986), Monaco’s Prince Rainer III (Monegasque, 1923─2005), and Harold Stanley Marcus (American, 1905–2002) founder of the luxury retailer Neiman Marcus.
The gemmail panels in the Museum’s collection shed light on the interesting history of a unique glass technique. The Museum’s conservators, Stephen Koob and Astrid van Giffen, will continue to uncover details about how these panels were made. All of the gemmaux in the Museum’s permanent collection (except for the one destroyed in the flood of 1972) may be viewed in the collection browser. For those who would like to learn more, the Rakow Research Library has an extensive bibliography on gemmaux.
Corning Museum of Glass. Glass 1959: A Special Exhibition of International Contemporary Glass. Corning, NY: The Corning Museum of Glass, 1959.
Jean Crotti Papers 1913-1973, bulk 1913-1961, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/jean-crotti-papers-7559 (Accessed October 4, 2012)
Karlikow, Abe. “Gemmaux: paintings in glass.” Craft Horizons, v. XVII, no. 6, Nov. 1957, p. 20-23.
Les Gemmaux de France: Story of the Gemmaux, “Two Crazy Men.” [Paris?: Galerie of Art de la Lumiere[sic]?], 1959 (Brooklyn).
Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. A Presentation of Masterpieces in Glass. Pittsburgh, PA, 1961. A traveling exhibit of gemmaux panels.
For a complete bibliography on gemmaux, please contact the Rakow Research Library.