Until March 15 Santa Barbara's Museum of Art will exhibit a collection of original artworks done for the labels of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a premiere claret. Featured are the works of some of the world's most respected artists, such as Picasso, whose design appeared on the 1973 vintage; Chagall, 1970; Dali, 1958; Cocteau, 1947; Motherwell, 1974, and Warhol, 1975.
"Our label art is fast becoming as prominent as our wine," said Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, who with her celebrated father Baron Philippe de Rothschild is co-owner of the vineyard. "The collection will attempt to show how each artist met our criteria, that is, to convey a sense of quality and distinction establishing continuity and recognition with each year's vintage. The original paintings will be shown, as well as a series of drawings and sketches, illustrating the various stages in development of the final label. I must add there is no correlation to the quality of the vintage to the efforts of the artist."
At the opening exhibition, visitors could not contain their curiosity as to how much each artist was paid. "Of course they are paid only in wine, and why not, isn't art for art?" the baroness said.
Compensation actually consisted of five cases of good years of Mouton wines; that is, wine ready to drink on delivery of the finished label, plus an additional five cases of the specific vintage for which the label was fashioned. The artists have become so identified with "their" vintage that consumers have been known to order a case of the Dali or the Picasso, etc. Like the wines, the labels have developed a following of their own.
Jacob's Ladder Theme
The latest label design for the vintage of 1984 was done by Yacov Agam, who was born in 1928 at Rishon Letzion, one of Israel's traditional wine-growing regions planted in the last century with funds supplied by the Rothschilds. Today, Agam resides in Paris, where he designed the '84 label, which depicts a wide staircase in linear perspective featuring the colors that typify his work.
He described it as an interpretation of Jacob's Ladder, the biblical stairway to heaven as seen by Jacob in a dream, with the suggestion that to climb the ladder, one must have inspirations of the kind found in the wine.
Art on labels is copied around the world these days, but initially it was a concept started by the baron in 1927 for the vintage of 1924. That label was created by Jean Carlu, an architect and stage designer friend of the baron. In 1918 Carlu lost his right arm, but that apparently did not prevent his achieving popularity as one of France's best commercial artists and graphic designers.
For Baron Philippe, the Carlu-designed label was supposed to be a beginning and an end to Mouton label artwork. It actually was an updating of the original acquired by Baron Nathanial Rothschild (of the English branch) in May of 1853 when the vineyard, then known as Chateau Brane Mouton, was purchased. Renamed Chateau Mouton Rothschild, it consisted of 86 acres of vines in the township of Pauillac.
Done in a 1920s style, the Carlu label featured Mouton's ram's head in black and gray alongside a pale brown chai (cellars) and five arrows indicating the family arms of the five Rothschild brothers who moved from ghetto beginnings in Frankfurt, Germany, to become Europe's most important bankers during the Napoleonic era.
A Form of Celebration
The label was also a form of celebration, because in 1924 the entire harvest was bottled at the chateau. This launched the era of chateau bottling in Bordeaux as well as a new period of trust between chateau proprietors and the world's wine lovers. Until then, many chateau wines were sold under the labels of negociants and merchants who purchased the wines for their own account and bottling.
At the time, Mouton was a second-growth claret under Bordeaux's Grand Cru Classe system established in 1865. It was not changed until 1973 when the chateau was elevated to first-growth status. There has been no other change in the rankings, so 1973 has become a benchmark year, which makes the Picasso label an even greater collector's item.
For those who knew Baron Philippe, it was no surprise that he would commission art renderings for Mouton labels. As a young man he counted top artists, designers and playwrights as personal friends. It was a surprise, however, to the ever conservative Bordelaise negociants and vintners, who promptly considered the labels as a novelty that would not survive many vintages. For a number of years it seemed they were right, since it was not until 1945 that he commissioned another artist to design a label.