Alexandre Charpentier and Tony Selmersheim belonged to the group Les Cinq (which later changed its name to Les Six and then Les Huit as new members joined) who advertised their ambitions, in an 1898 Paris exhibition, as to integrate art into present-day life and to make everyday items beautiful and meaningful. They, like Emile Gallé, believed in the transformative and redemptive power of the arts to change not just an individual but society more broadly, and even the national economy. Charpentier created the sculptural components of this clock. Originally conceived as a larger figural group it is here employed at half the size. Besides the change in scale, the other difference between the two figural groups is the inclusion of a scythe in this present piece.
Charpentier had begun his career working for a medal maker and this clock incorporates three panels representing the Fates. He was very much at the forefront of the revival of interest in medal-making and low-relief plaques of the period. This art form very much suited the Art Nouveau ethos and the fascination for whip-lash lines.
While Charpentier created the sculptural elements, it was the architect and decorator Tony Selmersheim who designed the case of the clock. Regarded as one of the leading Art Nouveau furniture makers, he worked alongside Victor Horta, Maurice Dufrêne and Henry van de Velde on La Maison Moderne, before forming a highly successful partnership with Charles Plumet. As is the case here, his work was characterised by simple forms that emphasised the structure of the piece, and by flowing elongated stem-like lines that reference nature.
Like so many Art Nouveau works, this clock explores recurring Symbolist themes. The sculptural group surmounting the clock can be seen to represent Time, Age and Love. A young man kisses his lover whilst holding her aloft. Concurrently the man grasps the scythe being wielded by the old man, trying to keep him and it at bay. He represents not only old age but with the scythe offers a reminder of human mortality. Life is a cycle, and the bas-relief panels below depict the Fates from Greco-Roman mythology. In the front panel, Clotho holds a distaff, the left panel depicts Lachesis operating the spindle and on the right Altropos cuts the thread. This imagery is in keeping with the representation of time in the figural group surmount with a beginning and an end determined by another force. Instead of using classical models, Charpentier chose contemporary figures, and in so doing draws a clear link between art and modern life. Art is relevant and should speak to the present. This functional clock has been transformed and elevated by Charpentier and Selmersheim into a meaningful work of art.
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OLIVIA ROSS | JUNIOR SPECIALIST
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