PITTSBURGH — Baron Philippe de Rothschild has taken famous art off the wall and put it on bottles of his exclusive wine. Now his daughter is once again hanging those labels in art galleries around the world.
In the traveling exhibit, "Mouton Rothschild: Paintings for the Labels," Baroness Philippine de Rothschild has gathered the many labels her father commissioned from such artists as Chagall, Picasso and Dali for his Chateau Mouton Rothschild, one of the world's most celebrated wines.
The exhibit is in the middle of a five-year tour of the United States under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution.
"The exhibition is a sort of strange affair," she said at a recent opening at Carnegie Mellon University. "Is it art? Is it wine? What it is really is art put on bottles of wine, which happened to be art themselves."
For about the first 10 years after World War II, the labels were painted by Rothschild's artist friends. Since then, other artists have wanted to design them.
That's partly because the pay-in-kind was wine--10 cases of Chateau Mouton Rothschild that, like fine art, increases in value over the years. The artists get some cases from the year they have illustrated and also a few cases from any other desired year.
The most recent vintage, 1985, sells for $76 a bottle in the United States. Older vintages cost hundreds of dollars, said the baroness, who is vice president of her father's company, La Baronnie.
Rothschild first established the "designer label" tradition in 1924 when he became the first French vintner to bottle his wines at the chateau instead of selling them in barrels to wine merchants to bottle, label and sell.
To draw attention to the new practice, the baron had graphic designer Jean Carlu produce a label featuring a Cubist ram's head -- Mouton means ram in French and the ram is the baron's astrological sign--cocked over the square buildings of the chateau.
No other art was commissioned until 1945. That label, which features a "V" for victory surrounded by a vine, was drawn by artist Philippe Jullian to commemorate the end of the war.
"My father put that on the label only for the idea of celebrating this new freedom, freedom recovered," the baroness said. "The next year, because people liked it, he said 'Let's go on.'
"But in 1946, the event people were talking about was Gandhi's death. Unfortunately Gandhi had never touched a drop of wine, so nothing could be done about Gandhi or the event. Gandhi indirectly helped my father figure out that the interesting part was the art, not the event, and that the art would remain but the event would pass."
Most of the paintings are variations of the theme of wine, grapes, the ram or the joy of drinking. Some, however, such as Hisao Domoto's 1979 label depicting bright, radiating colors, have little, if any, connection to wine.
The late Andy Warhol's 1975 label features a photomontage of the baron. Robert Motherwell's 1974 label is a shapeless, black form on a gold background. The 1973 label is a drawing of nude women by Pablo Picasso. The 1969 label by Joan Miro is dominated by a blood-red grape surrounded by the blue and yellow of the Rothschild racing colors.
Most of the artists never intended that their work for Chateau Mouton Rothschild would leave the confines of a basement cellar or wine rack, Baroness Philippine said.
"I can tell you that none of those painters, when they did those things, ever thought for one minute they would be shown, whether in Pittsburgh or anywhere in the world," she said.
However, the baroness was determined to have their other sketches, tools, newspaper clippings, poems, photographs and any other background on the artist or the work accompany the full-scale drawing.
As a result, the shoe box Bernard Defour used to sketch his drawings is part of the exhibit for 1963 label, as is a clump of weeds Hans Hartung used to make sweeping yellow and black strokes for the 1980 label.
The 1986 label is a secret and won't be revealed until next year because the wine is aged about 2 1/2 years before it is bottled, said the baroness, who helps choose the artist.
What she looks for in future labels is "pleasure."
"I would hate to choose a label, however well-known the painter would be, that wasn't in accordance with my own taste," she said.
But after all is said and done, the drawing is still a label and has to be able to function as such.
"A painting can be very good just as a painting, but not good on the bottle," she said. "We would never decide on choosing a painting without having seen it on the bottle."