Like an expensive but unsatisfying wine, the exhibition “Mouton Rothschild: Paintings for the Labels” has an appealing bouquet but no full-bodied depth. From the first sip it tastes thin, and neither hype nor hoopla can embolden its flavor.

The exhibit, at the San Diego Museum of Art through Aug. 2, traces more than 40 years of wine labels designed in part by artists under the patronage of Baron Philippe de Rothschild. More a matter of novelty than substance, the show offers us the bitter taste of commercialism rather than the intoxicating spirit of art.

The Baron launched his project in 1924 by commissioning French commercial artist Jean Carlu to design a label celebrating the introduction of a new practice in wine-making: bottling a vintage at the chateau rather than sending it off in barrels to merchants for packaging and selling. Carlu’s lively solution encompasses a stylized depiction of the chateau, its emblem the ram (mouton), and deep wine red arrows in a striking geometric design.

The next artist’s commission didn’t occur until 1945, when the Baron asked young designer Philippe Jullian to sketch a label honoring the Allied victory of World War II. Since then the Baron, and now his daughter, the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, have selected a different artist each year to contribute to the design of the label. Initially, the Baron asked only his friends to do the honor, but since 1955, when Georges Braque’s design appeared, many internationally renowned artists have participated. In the exhibit, their original paintings are presented along with the finished labels.


After Carlu’s 1924 design, the rest are disappointments, because only in this first year was the artist allowed to conceive the entire label, integrating the name of the wine, its year and an image in a unified design. All subsequent artists were allotted only a strip the size of an elongated postage stamp across the top of a traditional, text-dominated label.

Given the minute size of the area (1 5/8 by 4 inches), the artists could do little more than apply a decorative accessory to the label. Several of the artists responded to the theme of the ram, the vine or wine in general, but most simply produced abbreviated versions of their signature style. None of the paintings offer any new or enlightening perspectives on their makers, though some are interesting little works. Sculptor Henry Moore sketched a pair of hands embracing a golden goblet for the 1964 label.

In 1966, Pierre Alechinsky produced a charming drawing of a ram confronting a wine glass. Joan Miro bestowed upon the 1969 label one of his classic abstract compositions, and in 1970 Marc Chagall created a lyrical study on the theme of the vine. Other artists who lent their talents to this promotional escapade, in exchange for several cases of wine, include Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell, Arman, Matta, Salvador Dali, Dorothea Tanning and Leonor Fini.

The basic guidelines given to the artists specify that “the design should be colorful” to contrast with the dark wine and the black, gold and red lettering on the label. The artists since 1965 heeded this advice, and their labels are markedly more vibrant than those of the first 20 years.

Perhaps due to limited color printing capabilities at the time, these earlier designs are confined to the three colors used in the rest of the label. Whatever life these images once possessed withers in the translation from original medium to printed label. They come across as flat and uninspired, doing little to enhance the appeal of the label.

And, after all, enhancing the label’s appeal is what the project is all about--the better-looking the label, the more attractive to buyers. By collaborating with famous artists, the status of the vineyard (already graced with a privileged name) becomes affiliated with the status of the artist; the art of wine-making marries art itself in a classy marketing strategy. It has proved so effective that certain Mouton Rothschild vintages have become more valuable for the label than the contents of the bottle.


In an age when consumers identify quality through the presence of designer labels, the Mouton Rothschild strategy should continue to be a big hit. This exhibit, an unabashed celebration of this strategy, may indeed have a greater, more enriching impact on the wine merchants of this city than its art enthusiasts.