Think Picasso, Dali, Chagall, Warhol, Niki de Saint Phalle, Bernar Venet and Keith Haring, whose artworks feature on the labels of a Bordeaux first-growth wine, a classification reserved for only the best of the best. The brainchild of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who inherited Château Mouton Rothschild in 1922 – after his great-grandfather Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild acquired the Pauillac estate of Brane-Mouton at auction in 1853 and added the family name to it – he turned age-old tradition on its head and spearheaded a revolution in the wine world. While the wine from every vineyard in the Médoc had always been sold in casks to Bordeaux merchants in charge of maturing, bottling, labeling and marketing, leaving the owner with no rights over the end product, Baron Philippe introduced the ground-breaking idea in 1924 of bottling the complete harvest before it left the estate, transferring responsibility back to the owner.
Today commonplace, it was a major change to the status quo at the time. His second radical initiative was transforming what were staid, functional wine labels into identifying, quality trademarks that bore his name and signature…. and miniature works of art. Respected by the art world as a legitimate body of work that provides an intimate look into the lives of a well-regarded family and the changing times in which they lived, the Château Mouton Rothschild Artist Collection is today a highly sought-after collectable. I sit down with Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild, sixth-generation family member and co-owner of Château Mouton Rothschild along with his siblings Philippe Sereys de Rothschild and Camille Sereys de Rothschild, to discuss the history of the iconic artist label.
Tell me about your grandfather Baron Phillipe de Rothschild’s relationship with the arts.
He was not what you could call a collector: he was not someone who collected just for the pleasure of collecting. There was always a purpose. When he bought an art object, it was for the Museum of Wine in Art, but he was not, properly speaking, an art collector. Each piece that he bought was for Mouton. His obsession was really Mouton and to make it a place of art and beauty. His intention behind buying art or calling for artists to work for him was always to be at the service of wine, to be the servant of Mouton.
He started making these artist labels because he wanted to be different?
My grandfather’s initial link to art was the château bottling, which was very revolutionary at the time, to have the entire harvest bottled at the château and to have the presence of the owner at the château. He really wanted to change this place to do something different here. He felt, before anyone in his family, that there was something to inaugurate and to improve in the wine world. His motivation was the fact that Mouton was classified a second growth, and art was a way to say he was different because he was the only one doing that at the time. The label was not as it is today. What is interesting at Mouton and what is different from other brands is that we did not start on an artistic basis only at all. The use of art was not just for art’s sake. There was an intention to ask Jean Carlu, a very modern Cubist poster designer, to design the 1924 label in a very special way to make an extremely different label from previous labels of Mouton. It’s like a flag that states this new decision to do the entire château bottling at Mouton. There were other poster designers that were much more conventional than Carlu, who did the posters for the Communist Party. His designs were very new. Everything was completely iconoclast with this label: the form, the artist himself, his background as a poster designer who designs a message intended to be widely published to promote a product or an idea. This was so new in Bordeaux, which was very conventional at the time in its habits and its labels that it was not well received at all. My grandfather had to change because there was strong protest against the artist label, so he did not continue it. He started again, but in 1945. It’s rather recent that a lot of wine or champagne brands are working with artists, but our field is restricted to the label. We don’t do exhibitions of young artists or sculptures in gardens. What is important for us is the label and the original work of art given to Mouton in exchange for wine and the close relationship of the artist with the family.
The artist label created in 1945 was to mark the end of WWII, but then why did Baron Philippe continue it the following years?
In his memoirs, he is very perplexed. He doesn’t know what to do at all in 1946 because there was nothing to celebrate, so he continued with a friend of his, Jean Hugo, who was the great-grandson of Victor Hugo, the very famous French poet and author. It’s true that he could have stopped and come back to a very traditional label, but he had a passion for labels, which I discovered in his archives that were in the hands of my mother. When she passed away, I had access to my grandfather’s archives and I discovered the myriads of labels for Clerc Milon and Château Mouton Baron Philippe Rothschild that he invented with a local designer and were never were published. He thought about new designs and was perpetually thinking about how he could improve. He was a pioneer at the time to have this obsession with what the consumer was going to see on the bottle.
How did your mother, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, perpetuate your grandfather’s vision?
What my mother inaugurated was to put the original works of art on stage and less backstage, and she came up with the “Paintings for the Labels” exhibition. While traveling for the company in the United States, my mother was invited to an elegant mansion, where she saw framed Mouton labels hanging in the entrance hall. She was really surprised about why they framed the labels, as they’re not the original artworks. That’s how it struck her that the originals must be somewhere. There was a sudden shift in her mind, and she thought there might be something to be done with the originals, so that’s why she started searching for the drawings. She found where my grandfather had put them because they did not interest him. My grandfather was the label. For instance, as a Christmas card, the reproduction was not just the work of art, but the whole label. It was very important for him that below the work of art, you had Mouton to not forget its roots, this amazing terroir that exists nowhere else and is not reproducible.
How do you select your label artists?
The artist must be like Mouton: an extremely well-known artist who does not need Mouton to promote his or her art. It’s important that we like the artist, what the artist creates and the artist’s career.
You must have a long wish list of artists…
A guest list, I would say. The artists are like guests. There are quite a few on my list, but not so much.
The artist who created the most recent Château Mouton Rothschild label was Olafur Eliasson for the 2019 vintage. Why did you choose him?
I really enjoyed his exhibition at Versailles, which was one of the most successful, the way he inserted his art into a place that is already hugely important in art. The idea of contemporary art at Versailles is a brilliant idea, but it’s a real challenge for artists to insert themselves. It’s amusing because he used the sun for our label, and his work at Versailles was on light and shadow, grace and disgrace, in favor with the king and not in favor. There was this work on day and night and it was very subtle, very interesting, very intelligent. The Philippine de Rothschild Foundation had supported his Versailles show without at all the idea of Olafur for the label because when we are working with an artist, we don’t think of another artist immediately. It was because we have very close links with Versailles. That was really a coincidence. Before Versailles, needless to say that I knew Olafur. I mean, who doesn’t? He’s been very well known for a long time now, and secretly I told myself one day I really would like him as the artist for a label.
Describe the scenography by French designer Hubert Le Gall for the Paintings for the Labels Room at the château, which you just reopened to the public by appointment only after renovations.
What exhibition designer Hubert Le Gall has done is wonderful, but often like people of talent, they have a dimension of discretion. If you’ve visited before, you can see the improvement, but what is wonderful is it is not something very revolutionary. He really accompanied the exhibition, bringing many little details, new things, like the map of where the labels and original artworks have been exhibited, but it’s a whole set of ideas that makes the place better.