Hand With Seaweed and Shells, Emile Gallé's Artistic Testament
To celebrate the centenary of Emile Gallé's death (1846-1904), the Musée d'Orsay organises an exhibition centred on the artist's ultimate masterpiece, generously donated to the museum by his descendants in 1990, Hand With Seaweed and Shells. The purpose of this event is to analyse the genesis of this strangely and ambiguously connoted work. Is it a hand emerging from water or one the water is engulfing? Is it therefore a symbol of life or death? Is it an allusion to Aphrodite being born from the foam in the Ionian sea, or to Ophelia floating along the current? But is this hand, despite appearances – fineness of the fingertips, shells looking like rings – really a woman's hand? One can only think of the artist's own hand, as he knew he was condemned by illness in this summer 1904. The life-death duality this piece emanates undoubtedly owed much to this personal situation.
Although exceptional, this work is connected to a whole trend in Emile Gallé's inspiration, nourished by the world of the sea. This is evoked through about fifteen pieces from prestigious collections presented alongside about ten previously unshown pieces that remained in the artist's possession and that demonstrate a stunning wealth of both technical and formal invention in front of the models he observed. All testify to the turn from "decorative" to "symbolic" under the auspices of both poetry and science that fed the artist's outlook and stimulated his research to give the glassy material suggestive qualities unknown until then and endow it with biological life.