Gemmail: painting with light, sculpting with glass

Bust of a woman
Bust of a woman (detail)
Seated Woman
Seated Woman (detail)
Portrait of Marie-Therese Walter
Portrait of Marie-Therese Walter
Portrait of Marie-Therese
Mother and Child
Queen Isabeau
Woman with a fan
Women of Algiers
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Pablo Picasso

In 1954, Pablo Picasso declared, “A new art is born – the gemmaux!” about a newly invented technology whereby layers of coloured glass are collaged and then fused in a kiln. When lit from behind, gemmaux (plural of gemmail) emit three-dimensional colours that cannot be reproduced on canvas or paper. Picasso (1881-1973) was so enamoured with the process that he consented to “gemmistes” recreating his works and him signing about sixty panels.

Jean Crotti develops Gemmaux

Artist Jean Crotti (1870-1958) developed gemmail “enamel gems” in the 1930s in pursuit of a new way to incorporate light in artwork. Frustrated by the technical problems of adhering glass in a way that maintained colour, he turned to physicist Roger Malherbe-Navarre (1908-2006). Malherbe solved the technical problem, helped to develop the light boxes, and streamlined the production process. Crotti patented the technique and, in 1955, sold the patent to Malherbe.

Les Gemmaux de France

Malherbe set up a studio in Paris called Les Gemmaux de France, where they made the panels. Their output went to churches for stained glass windows, architects who wanted showpieces for public spaces and private collectors. In 1954, Malherbe and his artist friend Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) replicated Picasso’s 1938 painting Le Coq (The Rooster) in gemmail and presented it to Picasso. He loved it and collaborated with Malherbe over the next four years to create the works on display.

Are gemmail panels “real” Picassos? Most art books about Picasso do not mention them, and it is unlikely that he physically arranged the glass in the panels. But it was Picasso who was intimately involved with the creation process. It was he who decided which paintings would be replicated, it was with his insistence that gemmistes use glass shards, not just uniformly cut glass, to create the collage, and his sign-off was required before completion.

One-of-a-kind Picasso

Each Picasso gemmail has an original signature, and unlike a Picasso ceramic, of which there may be hundreds of the same edition, each of these gemmail is one-of-a-kind.

Gemmaux must be appreciated in person; regardless of the image quality, pictures cannot accurately convey the sensory experience provided by physical proximity.

They are designed to be seen with light projecting through the coloured glass. From a distance – and in pictures – the images appear smooth, flawless, and complete. The colours created in light are unlike those on canvas; they are more intense in places and barely noticeable in others. Moving closer to the image makes visible the work’s sculptural aspect, the art’s depth. Shards of broken, uneven glass are layered upon each other in a way that focuses and diffuses light. Up close, the work is chaotic, messy, and even flawed but undoubtedly unapologetically human. Viewing this artwork in person creates a tangible connection with Picasso.   

Portrait of Marie-Therese Walter

Gemmaux have been called a recreation of paintings, but a better description is as a reinterpretation. If you compare the image of the painting Portrait of Marie-Therese Walter with the gemmail by the same name, it is clear they are very different. Each is appealing for different reasons.

Picasso encouraged other artists to work in the gemmail media, but few did, and none created as many as he did. Over time, the practice of creating in gemmail fell out of favour, so they are now a rare sight. But now, as part of French May, nineteen gemmaux of Picasso’s work are displayed at the University Museum and Art Gallery of The University of Hong Kong.

Test & Photos Martin Wray