When art meets wine, champagne loves it
(Post based on a conversation held at the Payne Whitney Mansion in New York City on October 26th, 2022 during a fund-raiser dinner presented by the American Friends of La Cité du Vin).
In 1973, Château Mouton Rothschild paid tribute to Pablo Picasso, who passed away on April 8th of that year, by decorating the Premier Cru Classé with an Atelier Mourlot printed label reproduction of the 1959 master’s painting, Bacchanale. A century before, in 1874, Louise Pommery created the first brut champagne and became famous for patronizing art and artists.
To celebrate the symbiotic relationship between art and wine, which was highlighted in the 2022 Cité du Vin exhibition ‘Picasso, the Effervescence of Shapes,’ the American Friends of the Cité du Vin invited Maïlys Vranken, President of Vranken Pommery America, and Éric Mourlot for an exclusive conversation. “There are serious dinners in New York,” said the co-host of the evening, France’s Cultural counselor in the United States and director of Villa Albertine Gaëtan Bruel, “and there are joyous ones; this one is a mix of both.”
So, while tasting a vertical of Pommery Champagne, including a Blanc de Blancs Apanage and a Cuvée Louise 2005 paired with a dinner prepared by Tastings NYC-SoFlo and Alain Ducasse veteran chef Laetitia Rouabah, Maïlys Vranken and Eric Mourlot told the tales of their artisanal companies’ own relationships with art and artists.
Just as Mouton Rothschild has had a long tradition of mixing contemporary art with labels, Champagne Pommery has often commissioned works by artists in recent times, not only for its POP collections, but also to exhibit at its domain in Reims, France. Under the leadership of Nathalie and Paul-François Vranken, current owners of Pommery, a contemporary art exhibition is held annually in the 18-kilometer-chalk-pit wine cellars located 30 meters underground.
Hailed as France’s most visited private contemporary art exhibition, the most recent #ExperiencePommery, ‘Rêveries,’ presents artworks from all over the world, explained Maïlys Vranken. “A dream is a lightness and enjoyment, where our conscious desire lies,” she said during the dinner.”
Bacchus and wine are a common theme for artistsÉric Mourlot, President of Mourlot Editions
#ExperiencePommery is a modern approach to art that Louise Pommery herself started when she built the Tudor Elizabethan’s inspired style domain of Pommery and commissioned sculptor Gustave Navlet to carve a series of four 6-meter-high and 15-meter-long bas-reliefs. Each of them is sculpted directly on the chalk and symbolizes the allegory of the bacchanale.
Bacchus and wine are a common theme for artists, Eric Mourlot explained. The Mouton Rothschild collection of labels is an expression of this artistic interest in wines: David Hockney, Annette Messager, Rufino Tamayo, Nikki de Saint Phalle, Setsuko, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, George Braque, and Jean Cocteau are among the artists whose wine-inspired work has adorned one of their bottles. However, Mouton Rothschild has also used artworks by artists who could have been more interested in the art of the table as a source of inspiration. Among them were artists with whom Eric Mourlot’s grandfather Fernand worked and whose lithographs are available through Mourlot Editions: Miró, Chagall, Buffet, Soulages, Kandinsky, Poliakoff, and Yaacov Agam, for instance.
“Chagall painted from poetry and narcissism,” Éric Mourlot said. “Matisse from spirituality and Léger talked about the modern world and workers.”
To Picasso, however, the pleasurable senses of food and alcohol were a constant source of inspiration. “Wine was very important in his work,” Éric Mourlot explained, “as were the big tables, all these vegetables and fruits and meats and always the big carafes of wine. It revealed his personality of loving life and lust. Picasso painted from the gut.”
The art that the house of Pommery commissioned or purchased could sometimes be directly related to champagne or even be very practical.
All artists express their dreams through our Pommery cellars with monumental art installationsMailys Vranken, President of Vranken Pommery America
In 1903, a master woodworker and Art nouveau pioneer, Emile Gallé, was asked to decorate a wine barrel of 75,000 hl (imagine 100,000 bottles in one barrel). Called Le Grand Foudre and on permanent exhibition in the grand hall of Domain Pommery, this artwork was used until 1973 and has served as a symbol of Franco-American friendship. The Grand Foudre, presented at the Saint Louis World Exhibition in 1904, features America as a sphinx with a native American face, a woman representing entrepreneurship, and the Statue of Liberty echoing Reims Cathedral carved on the bottom of it. Each detail refers to one of the two countries and the cities of Reims and New York. “France is represented as a woman seen from the back, standing in the vines, offering a glass of Pommery Champagne to her transatlantic cousin,” Maïlys Vranken explained.
Pommery, however, is also known for being a patron of the art, plain and simple. They award the annual Pommery Prize in partnership with the Armory Show—and in 2022, the prize went to Cuban artist Reynier Leyva Novo for his piece, What it is, what it has been. In addition to a sum of $25,000, the Pommery prize includes an invitation to create a new work for a future #ExperiencePommery in France.
Sometimes the interaction between artist and wine—or vice-versa—wanders on an unexpected path.
In the late 1880s, as Louise Pommery needed to delay the grape harvest date to achieve the required maturity to create her brut champagne, her competitors started spreading rumors of bankruptcy, and winegrowers feared for her payments. “To silence these rumors,” Maïlys Vranken said, “Madame Pommery quietly acquired the most coveted 1857 painting by Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners.” For a week, people wondered who the man who bought the masterpiece was. Could it have been an American? When the name of Louise Pommery was announced, all rumors about her financial state vanished, and she later donated the painting to the Louvre Museum.
As art was a strategic tool for Louise Pommery, it was also an intelligent way to befriend a lithograph printer at Atelier Mourlot.
“Picasso was assigned, among my grandfather’s 150 employees, one of the seven or master printers, Monsieur Tutin, also known as ‘Le Père Tutin,” Éric Mourlot said. “Le Père Tutin was a very traditional man who did not like Picasso’s work at all. Picasso loved him because he was one of the best printers at the atelier. Every time Tutin would finish an edition, Picasso would give him a print to be nice. Tutin would take them, look at them, stick them under a drawer and never take them home. I think Picasso noticed that. He asked my grandfather about it, and my grandfather told him:
– ‘I see they are all here; sorry, Maître, I just don’t think this is his thing.’
– ‘What does he like?’ Picasso asked him.
– ‘Well, he is really more into wine.
So, the next day, Picasso brought two bottles of Saint Julien instead of giving him a signed print. Monsieur Tutin looked at him and said, ‘Oh, that Picasso, that’s a gentleman.’
I am sure Tutin’s heirs were not so happy about this, but the Saint-Julien is long gone.”