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Wednesday, July 4, 2001


'White gold' from a former copycat

The latest in a long line of events held as part of Italy Year in Japan is a show of porcelain by Richard-Ginori, an Italian company that has been molding, glazing and firing since 1735.

A 1907 reproduction of a piece in a service made for the Khedive of Egypt in 1872-74
A cachepot bottle-cooler from 1770-85
A Pompeii plate from 1810-20

Sponsored by embassies and businesses, national-themed years try to raise awareness of the culture and products of the featured nation by appealing to and building on popular stereotypes. However, although Italy is famed for its food, wines, stylish fashion, art and history, it is less well-known for its porcelain, an area where public perceptions are dominated by England's Wedgwood and Germany's Meissen.

Indeed, many of the earlier works, like the blue-and-white plates from the 1740s decorated in the so-called Dutch style, are clearly derivative -- but the essence of the early porcelain industry was its copycat quality.

When the Florentine nobleman Carlo Ginori built his first kiln behind his palace in 1735, he was merely part of a frantic porcelain "race" among European nations keen to emulate Chinese genius in the field and also offset the detrimental economic effects of Europe's high demand for the "white gold." One Saxon official in the late 17th century even went so far as to condemn porcelain as "the leech of Saxony" for the way it drained the state's gold reserves.

At first, as the new European kilns strove to emulate Chinese techniques, they also embraced Chinese designs. Then, gradually, a European sensibility began to emerge, showing itself in a loosening of the formality of overdecorative Oriental designs and a freer use of color.

A large cachepot (1770-85), used as a bottle cooler, reflects this trend with its naturalistic arrangement of multicolored flowers separated by large expanses of white space. The rose forming the centerpiece of this design later evolved into one of the company's early trademark designs, Roselline, of which there are several excellent examples in the exhibition. Small individual roses are also scattered widely on the surface of the cachepot, helping to emphasize the whiteness and therefore the quality of the porcelain. Europe broke away strongly from Chinese influences with the Neoclassical revival of the 1760s, stimulated by the publication of finds from archaeological excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Although clearly part of an Italian heritage, these designs had more impact abroad than at home as they were adopted by competitors, particularly Wedgwood. After 1769, in fact, almost all production at the English kiln was dedicated to dignified Neoclassical designs, while Ginori lagged behind, producing rather saccharine stuff until the appearance of its Alla Pompeiana series in the 1800s. The examples on display show white porcelain adorned with reddish-orange Classical figures on bordered black rondels and rectangles.

During the 19th century, the Ginori kiln lost much of its focus, often straying into the realms of tackiness with lavish, overdecorated works, plates bearing photographs or crude religious plaques. The best items from this period come from a service made for the Khedive of Egypt. Reflecting the vogue for Egyptian themes following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, in these pieces the lush coloring and decoration Ginori specialized in is disciplined by the strong stylization of ancient Egyptian art to create works of stunning beauty.

Ancient Egyptian art was also a major influence in the Art Deco movement of the 1920s and '30s. Led by the designer Gio Ponti, at that time the company pioneered an exciting range of sleek, modern-looking designs like Prospettica, which used perspective techniques to create grids of inverted cubes, seen most effectively on the curved surface of a large 1925 vase.

Works like this harmonize perfectly with the Art Deco interiors of the Teien Art Museum and show that although Ginori often jumped on the ceramics bandwagon, it was also capable of sometimes blazing a trail.

"Ginori: The Tradition and Innovation of Italian Ceramics," until Aug. 19 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, (03) 3443-8500, a 10-minute walk from Meguro Station. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed July 11, 25, Aug. 8. Admission 800 yen, children 400 yen.

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