Hawthorne on Silverman (2018)


Silverman, Willa Z. Henri Vever: champion de l’Art nouveau. Arman Colin, 2018, pp. 377, ISBN 978-2-200-61941-1

Melanie Hawthorne, Texas A&M University

Willa Silverman, whose award-winning research on topics as diverse as bibliophile culture and the author Gyp has already established her reputation as a prominent scholar, adds another chapter to the history of the fin de siècle with this scrupulously edited and annotated edition of the 1898 diary of Art Nouveau jeweler Henri Vever (1854–1942). Born in Metz to a family of fine metalsmiths accustomed to supplying military trinkets and caught up in the Franco-German tussles over Alsace-Lorraine, Vever took the family business in the direction of fine arts, establishing himself as one of the foremost designers of art jewelry. He shaped the second wave of Art Nouveau that began in 1895, rivaled but also promoted René Lalique (a glass designer by training, but who also ventured into jewelry design), and established his own unique style of high-end jewelry. Along the way, he made the case that jewelry should be considered one of the fine arts (along with painting and sculpture), making it the new art in “Art Nouveau.”

Silverman gives this backstory in a well-researched preface of ninety-odd pages that explains in detail the factors that shaped Vever’s family history and immediate background and provides context for his rise to prominence. A series of international exhibitions offered exposure for his work, and a period of global peace and prosperity favored the conspicuous consumption that made jewelry a sought-after commodity among aristocrats, robber barons, and wealthy captains of industry. Although originating in the merchant class, Vever rose to prominence and rubbed shoulders with the established elite, a case study in the socially shifting ground of the turn of the century.

The remainder of the book consists of the illustrated and annotated transcription of Vever’s diary for 1898, a year that “begins well” (as the running subtitle reminds us), when Vever is rewarded for his success by being made a member of the Légion d’honneur. Throughout the year, Vever goes on to chronicle daily events from his vantage point as a leading figure of the Art nouveau movement and as the head of a successful business in Paris during the height of the Dreyfus Affair. Vever finds this “vilaine affaire” mostly annoying in the way it dominates and divides public debate (101) and wishes it would hurry up and be over (263), but he astutely observes that it may take another fifty years to discover what's really behind it all (“les dessous,” 101). While much space is taken up with accounts of banquets and dinners (who attended, what was served at each of the numerous courses) and concerts (music historians may relish these details), some of the casual remarks and asides cast light on aspects of everyday life at the fin de siècle, from attitudes towards divorce (legal but still frowned on) to the sport of cycling. Vever is an enthusiast, but he is not alone, and comments frequently on the popularity of the sport that attracts “cyclistes de tout sexe et de tout plumage” (195). Should we be surprised, then, to learn that clever young men had already learned to do wheelies on their bicycles? The concept is so new that Vever has to explain at length what the trick consists of (“Il soulève sa roue d’avant, étant en marche, et continue à pédaler sur la roue arrière,” 108). Imagine!

Other details of daily life abound, and Vever, from his elevated station in life, is poised to sample all sorts of new inventions, from the telephone to vending machines (271). Another novel form of entertainment is the ability to record voices in the comfort of one’s home, though the quality can be uneven. He describes a “séance de phonographe” that results in a somewhat botched “rouleau” that produces only “un affreux râlement, un bruit de friture exaspérée” (168–69), which proves (as though the point needed underscoring) that contemporary dissatisfaction with “vocal fry” is nothing new. These tidbits about life at the fin de siècle have a general interest, but the real substance of Vever’s diary is the light it sheds on certain aspects of the arts. As he himself prophesies: “Ouvrons l’œil en 1900” (204). Specialists of japonisme will relish the details of Vever’s relations with dealers such as Madame Langweil, whom he visits for only the first time during this year (148), and his records of what is purchased, from whom, and for how much.

An extensive bibliography rounds out the volume’s scholarly apparatus that also thankfully includes an index of names, for those wanting information on specific people who may (or may not) figure in Vever’s recollections. Footnotes (so much more user-friendly than endnotes) supplement the text of the diary with relevant notes on people, places, and events. Tracking down such details (full names, dates of birth and death, titles, occupations) can be tedious work, and future scholars will no doubt be in debt to Silverman for having done so much of the basic shovel work on this score and for making this opening onto the art world of 1898 available.