Jean Dunand, A Lacquered Martelé Pewter Vase, ca. 1929. Courtesy of Christie's.
For an object is language, a link between the creator and the user. Useful, made for pleasure, it is unique archetype –to the extent that it represents an entire class of objects at a given time. The works of Jean Dunand illustrate quite well the case of an artist going beyond himself: fundamentally modest, the artisan was mainly concerned with doing his work well, for his own pleasure and for the pleasure of other.
Before we get into Jean Dunand's background and how he came to work with lacquer, I want to first clear up some things about Art Deco. The term itself comes from the name of the 1925 World's Fair in France, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, where this new style was referred to as "art moderne" or "style modern". Many of Dunand’s early vases, before the use of lacquer in his pieces, were made more in line with the Art Nouveau style of stylized fruits, vegetables and plants, with Dunand gradually moving towards the Art Deco style with geometrical and cubist shapes, incorporating many of the different motifs of the time, and with a particular emphasis on the use of the exotic. Phew! Now that I've managed to get that off my chest, let's move on.
Jean Dunand, vase, ca. 1925-1930. Brass, nickel and lacquer. Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum collections.
Jean Dunand’s decision to pursue a career in the decorative arts came after having already trained for many years as both a sculptor and metalworker, but since he saw the decorative arts as a more lucrative career path than that of just a sculptor, Dunand put all of his energies into decorative metalwork. 1912, however, would be the year in which Dunand’s career was changed forever, when he met the Japanese lacquer artist Seizo Sugawara, contacting Sugawara about lacquering techniques after his discovery of how little was actually known in Paris at the time about this art. Sugawara was similarly interested in learning metalworking techniques from Dunand, and an exchange of workshop secrets was arranged. As a result, Dunand received 13 lessons from Sugawara over a period of only 2 months, with notes and sample boards from these lessons documented by Dunand in his notebook, and with records being taken on everything from how to prepare lacquer, the tools and necessary materials, working procedures, and various decorative techniques and their Japanese names. As Mechthild Baumeister writes in an article about Jean Dunand and lacquer:
Considering that Dunand’s lacquer oeuvre is based on a two month course in Japanese lacquer technique, his ingenuity in this field is remarkable. Dunand was an artist extremely receptive to new ideas and who was, about all, an outstanding, multi-talented craftsman, constantly looking for new inspiration, driven by his own high technical and aesthetic standards…Dunand combined a modern sensibility with a foreign material, thereby making Oriental lacquer highly fashionable in the Art Déco period.
As this quote so eloquently expresses, by utilizing lacquer within his artwork, Jean Dunand was able to take an ancient process and apply it in a way that was highly modern and visually interesting, and his metalworked vases serve as excellent examples of this.
Jean Dunand and Séraphin Soudbinin, Pianissimo Screen, 1925-26. Lacquered wood, eggshell, mother-of-pearl. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Through his career, Dunand created many different types of art, including furniture and other decorative objects, all of which incorporated the lacquer for which he received the greatest amount of fame. In the later part of his career, Dunand became more interested in the technical and craftsmanship aspects of applying lacquer, with much of his later work consisting of collaborations with other artists, who would design a piece, with Dunand then executing either the pictorial sketches in lacquer or decorating the surfaces of sculpture and furniture sent to his workshop. However, of all the pieces created by Dunand, I think it’s his vases, made in the period directly after having learned the secrets of lacquer and before his major collaborations with other artists began, which are a combination of the metalwork that he was already famous for and the lacquerwork which he became famous for, that truly define Dunand as one of the great Art Deco artists. Dunand’s very early vases utilized color through the addition of patinas to the vases, with an acid base for warm tones such as brown and green, with pounded metals such as gold, silver and nickel added into carved cavities. After learning the secrets of lacquer from Sugawara, Dunand was innovative in his use of lacquer on his vases, often combining multiple techniques on one vase, such as the use of patinas, metals, and decorative lacquer. While his earliest vases use lacquer only as a protective coating, as his interest and skill grew, Dunand saw the potential to use lacquer as a “pictorial substance” in his art, from which he began to experiment with designs of his own composition, utilizing the many different lacquer techniques he had learned and perfected.
 Yvonne Brunhammer, Jean Dunand, Jean Goulden (Paris: Galerie du Luxembourg, 1973), 30-31.
 Karen McCready, Art Deco and Modernist Ceramics (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1995), 131.
 Katherine Morrison McClinton. “Jean Dunand, Art Deco Craftsman.” Apollo 116, no. 247 (September 1982): 177.
 Mechthild Baumeister, “Jean Duand –A French Art Déco Artist Working With Asian
Lacquer,” in Postprints of the Wooden Artifacts Group (Miami: Wooden Artifacts Group, American Institute for Conservation, 2002), 3.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 4, 5.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 10.
 Anthony Delorenzo, Jean Dunand (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985), 2.
 Felix Marcilhac, Jean Dunand: His Life and Works (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991), 170.