Marion Delarue: Nature and Artifice

Article  /  Artists
Published: 29.04.2019
Glen R. Brown Glen R. Brown
Glen Brown
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Curvaceous compositions in gray and glistening jet black, the neckpieces of Parisian artist Marion Delarue’s “Cracheh” series conjure historical allusions through visual analogy and the deliberate juxtaposition of natural and synthetic materials. Inspired by the coiffures of the Joseon dynasty in Korea, which enhanced a woman’s own tresses with the addition of thick, exuberantly coiled plaits of human hair, the “Cracheh” neckpieces probe the boundaries of excess, where style threatens practicality, and ornament aspires to dominate the body that supports it.
Implicit in Delarue’s works is a commentary on the practice of altering natural features of the body toward conventionalized conceptions of beauty, often at the expense of a natural balance of proportions. At the same time, the “Cracheh” series reflects the more general interest in negotiation between nature and artifice that has characterized Delarue’s work for nearly a decade. With one surface of their bands sealed in hard, multilayered coats of organic lacquer, the neckpieces signal respect for the natural. The other surface reveals their formation from slit bicycle inner tubes of vulcanized rubber, reflecting an equal interest in the synthetic.

In 2010, Delarue, then a master’s student in the contemporary jewelry department of the École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs de Strasbourg, considered studying abroad as a means of acquiring technical skills that she felt were under-emphasized in France. Memories of a childhood fascination with her grandmother’s Asian antiques collection led her to select an exchange program with the glass and ceramic department of Nam Seoul University in Cheonan, South Korea. She arranged to study concurrently in the ottchil (traditional natural lacquer technique) department at Pai Chai University in nearby Daejeon. In France, synthetic lacquer is all we have, she explains, but I wanted to come back to the real material that has been worked in Asia for two thousand years. You can put it on anything to make it really strong, and I planned to use its properties by lacquering an inner tube. It’s long work. You have to apply the lacquer layer by layer, waiting twenty-four hours in between. You couldn’t do this with synthetic lacquer because it’s very fragile, but natural lacquer can go on anything. 1

Enthusiasm for unfamiliar and challenging techniques has been an impetus to many of Delarue’s series, but technical exploration has always proceeded in tandem with reflection on conceptual issues. The Cracheh series constitutes on one level an abstract interpretation of the visual properties of historical Korean hairstyles, and a traditional aesthetic in which lustrous black was paired with gold (the valve covers of the Cracheh inner tubes have been coated in gold lacquer in reference to the tteoljam, or ornamented gold hairpins, once used to secure the artificial tresses). Equally important was the inspiration that Delarue took from an apparent contradiction inherent in the extravagant historical hairpieces, given the revulsion she observed among contemporary Koreans regarding any human hair that had become detached from the head. These neckpieces are in part about the uneasy relationship between the dead hair of an artificially conceived fashionable adornment and the natural shiny, beautiful, living hair of the women who wore them. If the Korean phobia of dead hair, so different from the perspective reflected in the Western historical tradition of preserving hair in lockets and mourning jewelry, is not just a modern development, then Joseon coiffures suggest that the compulsion to adhere to conventions of style was once so strong that it could even repress a deeply engrained cultural disgust.

If Delarue seems to betray scepticism toward imposing artificial conventions of beauty on the body, she does not condemn artificiality in general. In fact, she has actively explored the benefits of ersatz materials for ornament. Through two additional stays in South Korea in 2012 and 2013 — during which she produced Cracheh II and Cracheh III — she took advantage of the glass and ceramics facilities at Nam Seoul University to realize a project that had failed in previous attempts as a student in Strasbourg  and at the Estonian Academy of Arts: the fabrication of artificial agate.

Delarue’s Agate Jewels series, comprised of fifteen bracelets and a necklace, constitutes a technical triumph in which glass was fused with porcelain — not as an outer glaze but rather as an inner core. Conceived as stones to be worn without the need of settings, the Agate Jewels were cast in open-topped, multi-part plaster molds as vertical tubes approximately ten centimetres tall. The first step in the process, which consisted of filling the molds with a gray porcelain slip infused with bits of porcelain grog, then pouring out the excess slip, left a thick gray granular coating on the floor and walls of the mold. The next step, once the layer of slip had been permitted to dry to a sticky consistency, was to fill the remaining space between the walls of gray slip with a combination of white and colored porcelain slip, and to set into it broken bits of glass and additional large chunks of gray porcelain grog. Once dry and removed from the molds, the resulting porcelain and-glass cylinders were fired to a high temperature in a computerized kiln, then cut with a diamond saw to create flat rings that could be polished like natural agates. 

While the Agate Jewels might carry connotations of industrialization, each was produced as a unique object. Only one bracelet could be cut from each cylinder, given the tendency of gravity to increase the thickness of the gray porcelain layer as it pulled the slip downward. The right balance of gray porcelain and glass core generally occurred about midway down the cylinders, though this could not be confirmed in any case until a ring had been cut — just as the banding and coloration within a geode cannot be known until a cross-section has been exposed. As a consequence, the process of creating the Agate Jewels, for all its artifice, ultimately reflected less the efficiency of the industry than the serendipity of nature. I wasn’t always happy with the patterns, Delarue notes. Sometimes the glass broke too small, and sometimes it didn’t break enough and ended up not looking like rock, but I was trying to leave things to chance as much as possible. My point was to complete the process in the way that agates are formed in nature: you have a hole in the rock, and a siliceous liquid gets inside and builds up to form the stone. 

In a variation on the play between nature and artifice, the mingling of the natural and the cultural in the hybrids of mythology served as the starting point for a unique feathered collar-fastener, titled FengHuang, that Delarue produced in France following a 2014 residency at the Inside Out Art Museum in Beijing. The work makes titular reference to a Chinese mythical bird widely interpreted in the West as a phoenix; just as important is the play of nature and artifice within it and the connection of this dynamic to the artist’s willingness to pursue mastery of challenging and time-consuming traditional techniques — or, as turned out to be the case with the production of FengHuang, to develop a parallel version of a traditional technique. Delarue wanted to learn the Imperial Chinese tian-tsui feather craft, in which iridescent blue kingfisher feathers were painstakingly affixed to gilt silver mounts to create spectacular tiaras, hairpins, and fans, but was disappointed to discover that the few masters still practicing the technique were unwilling to teach it to foreigners. Undeterred — and with the aid of French and Chinese collectors of tian-tsui and advice from Beverly Jackson, American author of Kingfisher Blue: Treasures of Ancient Chinese Art — she developed her own featherworking technique, incorporating the kind of cast rice paper pulp supports and glue that, according to her research, may have been employed in shenyang, another Chinese feather marquetry technique traditionally used for flat (rather than three-dimensional) work. 

In reference to the hybrid nature of the fenghuang — specifically, its imagistic and symbolic relationship to actual bird species, as described by the French scholar of Chinese literature Jean-Pierre Diény — Delarue meticulously fashioned her collar fastener from the tiny cranial feathers of roosters, ducks, pheasants, and peacocks, as well as the wing feathers of two endangered cranes, cut into smaller bits. The latter had to be scavenged, under the aegis of difficult-to-obtain authorization, from molt in the avian enclosure of a wildlife park. These organic materials, once set in place, produced the effect of a head or breast of an imaginary bird. The point was to glue the feathers carefully in one direction, mixing different feathers from different birds on one piece, Delarue explains. I worked with farms, buying the heads. Picking the feathers, you have to be super precise. You have to collect the feathers depending upon the style, shape, and color. The heads of some birds have ten different kinds of feathers.

Though she originally envisioned a series of collar-fasteners in the Chinese lucky number five, one for each color in the fenghuang’s plumage, Delarue found that the scarcity of crane feathers rendered the plan impractical. The following year, however, she began a series of shoulder brooches similar to FengHuang, though realized in a range of colors and patterns and in a different form. The Parrot Devotees, as the brooches of this current body of work are titled, are designed to ride like jaunty cockatoos or macaws perched on wearers’ shoulders. Here artifice is not only the method but theme as well. The feathers, a minimum of three types in each brooch, are selected deliberately from those of species commonly farmed for human consumption: turkey, partridge, pigeon, pheasant, quail, duck, goose, guinea fowl, and chicken. In the context of parables, these are the sorts of birds that might envy their finer-feathered brethren and aspire to a higher roost, only to find that vanity, like pride, precedes a fall. After all, enhancement of nature through artifice too often and too easily becomes excessive, even addictive.

Such a moral seems thinly veiled in Delarue’s 2015 Exquisite Corpse series, which consists of two necklaces of cast porcelain tubular beads that conjure in their biomorphic shapes and colors macabre intimations of dismembered and reassembled body parts. Produced during a residency at the Clayarch Gimhae Museum in Changwon, South Korea, the necklaces refer to the Surrealist game of generating strange, adventitious composites in imagery or text by passing a folded page from one participant to another, each of whom was required to contribute words or a sketch without a clear sense of what had come before, or any inkling of what might follow. Like their Surrealist namesakes, Delarue’s Exquisite Corpses are unsettling because the individual parts display an integral perfection and internal logic that only imperfectly carries over to the composition as a whole. The graceful organicity of the parts ironically contributes to a lumpy, unpredictable composite in the form of the necklace. In this respect, the works were Delarue’s response to a dangerous fashion trend that she observed at the time of her residencies: South Korea had the third-highest number of plastic surgeons in the world, the rate of high-risk invasive cosmetic procedures was at its peak, and  a Gallup Korea poll reported that a third of all female respondents between the ages of 19 and 29 had undergone some form of cosmetic surgery. Many Korean women desired a doll-like look, and they used plastic surgery to achieve it, she recalls. There were really precise norms, even in centimetres — your face should be this long, this large — and the whole body, the harmony, was less important. I found that surprising.

Delarue has made a career of negotiating effective relationships between nature and artifice, always with harmony as an implicit end. The Cracheh neckpieces, with their vulcanized rubber flip sides of organic lacquer perfection; the Agate Jewels, each imitating the fortuitous work of nature within the rigid precision of perfectly circular molds; the FengHuang collar-fastener and the Parrot Devotee shoulder-brooches, which conjure the artfully plumed breasts of imaginary birds from the organic and painstakingly harvested feathers of real ones: each of these series unites nature and artifice, but not in any facile harmony. The time-consuming character of Delarue’s techniques speaks effectively against that notion. Instead, their harmony is manifestly, deliberately difficult – as difficult, in fact, as any harmony of nature and human will be, beyond the confines of art.


1. This and all subsequent quotations of Marion Delarue are excerpts from an interview of the artist conducted by the author on May 8, 2018.

About the author

Glen R. Brown is a Professor of Art History. Elected to membership in the International Academy of Ceramics, Geneva, Switzerland, he has written extensively about contemporary and historical ceramics.   
His publications have appeared in more than thirty different journals, including Ceramics:  Art and Perception; Céramica; American Ceramics; Ceramics Monthly; American Craft; Sculpture; Ceramics Technical; Temperature; Sculpture (Beijing); Ceramic Review; Kerameiki Techni; The NCECA Journal; and World Sculpture News.
In addition to writing about ceramics he has authored many publications on contemporary metalwork, jewelry, and textile art and is a regular contributor to Ornament.  Since 2004 he has been an Associate Fellow of the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.  He is an advisory board member for the Cub Creek Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, Appomattox, VA and a former treasurer of the Kansas Artist Craftsmen Association.