Near the entrance to "Lalique: A Century of Glass for a Modern World" at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through Jan. 13) one comes upon Rene Lalique's "Suzanne" (about 1924), described in the show's catalog as "a glass statuette modeled as a neoclassical maiden."
Suzanne is virtually nude, her little bosom thrust out in front and her little bottom in back, head turned to the side in a kind of mock modesty, one leg raised in what looks like a Charleston kick, arms outstretched from which a flowing glass drapery falls.
"This model was highly successful commercially" the catalog goes on, and I'll just bet it was. And, too, it certainly shows a high level of craftsmanship in glass. But as art it has about as much relationship to a classical sculpture as a Spiro Agnew watch has to an 18th century tall case clock. Suzanne looks more like a chorus girl whose zipper slipped.
Wandering through this large exhibit of some 150 pieces of Lalique from the 1890s through the 1980s, most of them glass and most by the firm's founder Rene Lalique (1860-1945), it is easy to see that he was a prolific designer, that he was a wizard with glass from tiny perfume bottles all the way up to lighting fixtures and architectural panels for the liner Normandie, and that he had an unflagging sense of what would appeal to the market.
Beginning in the age of Art Nouveau and continuing through that of Art Deco, he created some pieces -- the more restrained ones -- that are really quite handsome, such as a grayish-colored ovoid vase (about 1923) with a pattern of ivy leaves or a mahogany box with five glass panels (about 1920).
But others, including a blue vase (about 1912) inset with glass panels patterned with lilies, or an amphora form vase (about 1924) with a pat
tern of lizards and cornflowers, are downright ugly, for all the technical ingenuity they may display.
And so much of this work is s-o-o-o-o-o commercial. One can admire Lalique's best designs even if one doesn't particularly like them. But when we have seen the perfume bottles and powder boxes for Coty and D'Orsay and Roger et Gallet and Worth and Saks Fifth Avenue, when we have glanced at the ashtray decorated with a little green dog, and the clock with a cute nightingale perched on each number, at the automobile mascots in the form of a female head with streamlined hair or five rearing horses, when we have strolled by the comedy masks as swizzle sticks and the two crouching figures on either side of a place card holder, we begin to wonder whether we're in an art museum or a tres chic department store. What we're in, of course, is the BMA's annual Christmas curtsy to popular taste.
For a pause that refreshes, wander into the neighboring gallery and spend a little time with the companion exhibit, "Posters by Toulouse-Lautrec" (also through Jan. 13). Get acquainted, or reacquainted, with Lautrec's wonderful posters, and with the celebrities of 1890s Paris when Rene Lalique was getting his start: Caudieux, Aristide Bruant, May Milton, May Belfort and of course Jane Avril.