There comes a time in everybody's life, especially when drinking, when one scrutinizes labels previously ignored. Have you ever read an entire can of Bud? Did you ever try to count the "Es" on a pack of Camels?
That impulse, heightened grandly, is encouraged by the objects in "Mouton Rothschild: Paintings for the Labels," the exhibit that goes on view on Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Yesterday at noon, in honor of the show, a semisplendid luncheon was held at the museum. The white Mouton-Cadet '83, poured out with the soup, was, to be blunt about it, undistinguished. Well, what did one expect? It costs $4.49 a bottle. Just as undistinguished is the art in the exhibit. Did you expect great artists to save their major masterworks for bottles of wine? But then they served the rack of lamb -- and saved the afternoon: With it came the pie ce de re'sistance, the Mouton Rothschild '79 ($44 a bottle).
Now that wine was impressive.
So was the PR.
You need big names? How about these: Jean Cocteau, Georges Braque, Salvador Dali, Henry Moore, Joan Miro', Marc Chagall, Robert Motherwell and Andy Warhol. These international art stars are among the 37 who -- in exchange for costly cases of the stuff -- have been commissioned through the years to design the little illustrations on Mouton Rothschild's labels.
The folks who make the wine also brought to town three important daughters -- Pablo Picasso's Paloma, John Huston's Anjelica, and Baron Philippe de Rothschild's Philippine. They looked prosperous and grand and rather Christmassy togther: Paloma, whose hair could not be blacker, was dressed in Christmas green; Philippine, whose hair is sort of reddish, wore a dress of Christmas red. Anjelica wore black.
Anjelica has been busy making "Prizzi's Honor," a movie directed by her father about the Mafia. It also stars Jack Nicholson, the man she goes with. She was asked if they consumed much Mouton Rothschild. She said, "Sure. We drink the best."
Also on hand were two real, living artists: Arman, who did the la- bel for 1981, and sculptor Richard Lippold, whose design appeared on the vintages of 1959.
Arman said he was paid for his picture -- of damaged violins -- with 20 cases of wine, "half of them from my year, half from previous vintages."
Lippold, who wore checkered leather boots, said his payment had been only six cases of wine. Told that Arman (who, like Sabu, uses just one name) had been given 20, he blinked and pondered. "Well," he said at last. "Good for Arman."
Bigger art stars than Lippold or Arman have been intrigued by labels. Andy Warhol, for example, has given much attention to Campbell's Soup's and Brillo's. Robert Motherwell has frequently been pleased by the special blue of packages of Gauloises. Jasper Johns has immortalized both Ballantine Ale ("Brewer's Gold") and Savarin Coffee. The result has been a number of impressive works of art.
None so grand are in this show. But there is no doubt at all that Campbell's Tomato Soup, Savarin Coffee and even Brewer's Gold are considerably less tasty than Mouton Rothschild '79.
The mastermind behind yesterday's events was not present in the flesh. He is Baron Philippe de Rothschild, a man who understands the workings of the world.
He understands competition: In the 1920s he raced cars and won the endurance race at Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix. He also understands wine: In 1924, he conceived of the idea of having his bottled at the vineyard, mis en bouteille au cha teau. Before that it had been sold, in barrels, to local wine merchants who bottled it themselves. He understands show biz: The baron coproduced France's first talking movie. He understands politics as well: In 1973 -- to the astonishment of the wine world -- he got his Cha teau Mouton Rothschild promoted from a second-growth Bordeaux and named a premier cru. "Now that was incredible," said Arman.
The baron, it is clear, also understands the pleasures of the rich. "I had never known," writes John Huston in the show's catalogue, "sheets to feel the way Mouton sheets felt at night. So smooth, so fresh against the skin. One day, passing an open door, I discovered why: two maids were ironing a bed with flat irons."
The yearly commissioning of works of art for labels began at the end of World War II, when the baron ordered up a decorated bottle to celebrate the Allied victory. The war had changed his life. The Germans had requisitioned his cha teau, and because he was a Jew, he had been imprisoned by the Nazis (he escaped in January 1943). His wife, the Countess Pelletier de Chambure, was not so fortunate. She died in the Ravensbru ck concentration camp in 1945.
The first label wasn't much. Designed by Philippe Jullian, it showed Winston Churchill's "'V' for Victory" wrapped in vines.
"Everybody hated it," said the Baron's daughter. "In Bordeaux, everybody made the worst remarks. The next year we also expected to draw a theme from history, but the most interesting event in 1946 was the assassination of Gandhi -- and that didn't seem appropriate." A landscape by Jean Hugo was commissioned instead.
Except for a charming 1947 ink sketch by Jean Cocteau, the label art remained undistinguished until 1955. That year the baron was able to commission a charming little sketch of a half-filled glass and a bunch of grapes from Georges Braque.
"That," said Philippine de Rothschild, "opened all the doors."
Other big-name painters soon agreed to follow where the great Braque had led. In 1957, Pavel Tchelitchew drew a wine-splash and a ram. ("Mouton" in French means sheep; the word shares a root with "mutton.") In 1957, Andre' Masson drew a fish. In 1958, Dali, returning to the sheep theme, spelled out his name in the curlicues of a ram's curly fleece.
The handsome 1964 Henry Moore shows three golden goblets. The 1967 Ce'sar is baffling: it shows eight metal bolts. The 1969 Miro' is a typical Miro'. The 1973 vintages display a 1959 painting by Picasso. The newest work on view, the 1982 label by John Huston, might have shown a still from one of his movies. Instead he made a watercolor of a dancing ram, perhaps a traipsing tup.
A glass or two of Mouton Rothschild '61, consumed before examining these unimportant pictures, would certainly enhance one's enjoyment of this show. The Smithsonian Institution's Traveling Exhibition Service will send it on a two-year tour of the United States after it closes at the Corcoran Feb. 24