The Martel brothers in Saint-Jean-de-Luz
Called on by Robert Mallet-Stevens for the interior design of the Basque port's casino, the sculptor twins created a frieze celebrating the Atlantic province. Far from being in a folky vein, this brilliantly asserted its creators' modernism.
In his beret, the solid figure of a fisherman with massive shoulders attracts the eye, making play with the contrast between the receding lines of the nets. The plaster sculpture seems to be built in broad geometric volumes, vibrant with light and shade. You will have recognised the inimitable style of the Martel brothers, champions of a synthetic Art Deco they sometimes simplified to an extreme degree. They chose the subject of their work to harmonise with the building it was to grace for a long time: the Casino de La Pergola in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. After the First World War, the picturesque fishing port became a fashionable bathing resort, where the architect William Marcel built a hotel in 1923, together with its requisite gaming establishment. Four years later, his colleague Robert Mallet-Stevens took over the project and completed the interior design, using Louis Barillet and Jacques Le Chevallier for the stained glass, and Jean and Joël Martel for the sculpted decoration. To enliven the upper part of the walls in the reception hall, the two artists designed a group of eighteen bas-reliefs in staff. The subjects were scenes of daily life, Basque festivals and views of towns in the coastal region. Somewhat surprisingly, they also included scenes from the New Testament, including a remarkable Saint John the Baptist, now in the Musée des Années 30 in Boulogne-Billancourt, a commune in the western suburbs of Paris.
Symbiotic decoration and architecture
This huge work, now lost due to the various transformations carried out after 1950, was uncontestably one of the most successful of the Martels' decorative series – and there were not a few. Their main qualities lay in their sense of rhythm, which alternated compositions in close-up (the figures) and from a distance (the landscapes), and in powerfully stylised characters. After studying at the Paris École Nationale des Arts Décoratifs, which they entered in 1912, the twins Joël and Jean Martel decided to devote themselves to sculpture as a duo, creating both official monuments and smaller-scale projects, often edited in stoneware or pressed glass. But other more avant-gardist projects resulted from their collaboration with architects, particularly the most radical of them all: Robert Mallet-Stevens. Striking examples were the reinforced concrete Cubist trees they presented at the 1925 Universal Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Arts, and the bas-relief for the entrance hall of the Villa Noailles in Hyères (1923-1928), as well as an incredible polyhedral mirror for its sitting room. And when the star of functional architecture took on the interior design of the Villa Cavrois in Croix (completed in 1932), he commissioned several reliefs from the Martels, including a panel illustrating games for the children's playroom.