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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2006

Meissen porcelain: Europa's bulls in the China shop

Special to The Japan Times

Fragility can sometimes add to beauty -- one of the reasons for the affection for the short-lived cherry blossom. The more fleeting, unstable, or breakable something is, the less likely its beauty will be taken for granted.

News photo
Zeus disguised as a bull in ceramic artist Friedrich Meyer's "Europa on the Bull" (19th century); bottom: figurines from Johann Kandler's "Monkey Orchestra" (18th century)
News photo

Fragility is definitely part of the appeal of old porcelain such as the "Triumph of Amphitrite," a late- 19th-century piece made from 18th century molds designed by the great ceramic artist Johann Kandler. A lavish, baroque figurine, it is a typical example of the famous craftsmanship from Meissen, Germany, and is on display as part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum's "Prachtvolle Porzellene aus Meissen" exhibition.

Looking at some of the pieces here, like the equally delicate and ornate "Apollo Riding the Chariot of the Sun," a 19th-century piece also from Kandler's molds, you feel inclined to hold your breath, and it's no wonder the 19th-century German philosopher Schopenhauer compared Meissen works to "frozen music."

The 198 items in this exhibition (which will tour various parts of Japan until November) were formerly the property of Naoko Ito, a native of Utsunomiya City, who recently passed away before she could realize her dream of opening a Meissen museum in her hometown. That such a quality collection dedicated to Saxon pottery could be built up in a provincial Japanese town is a testament to Meissen's mesmeric appeal.

But why is it so popular?

"It's not just Meissen," the museum's chief curator Machiko Takanami says. "Japanese like other famous makers of European porcelain, like Wedgwood from the United Kingdom and Sevres from France. Part of this appeal is because these famous names act like brands. But, also, when I started working on this exhibition, I noticed that some Meissen works had the influence of Japanese Imari porcelain."

"A Flower-shaped Bowl with Flower Pattern" (1730s) and "Flower-shaped Bowl with Plum and Partridge Pattern" (18th century) are not only Japanese in shape, but so too in their decoration, with stylized botanical motifs such as the zig-zagging line of a plum tree branch. These pieces, along with "Teapot Decorated with Gold Paint and Figures" (ca. 1735) -- clearly Chinese in inspiration -- reveal that Meissen porcelain started out mimicking the "white gold," as porcelain was then known, that was part of a worrying trade imbalance with the East in the early 17th century.

The full story is wrapped up in the scientific and industrial miracle that was transforming Europe at the time. A young alchemist named Johann Bottger (1682-1719) was imprisoned by Augustus the Strong, ruler of Saxony and Poland, because he imprudently boasted that he could manufacture gold from other elements. Unable to produce such a miracle, Bottger instead turned his attention to cracking the secret of Chinese hard paste porcelain, successfully reproducing the formula in 1708. Combined with the discovery of large deposits of kaolin clay near the town of Meissen, the breakthrough meant that Saxony was able to challenge east Asian porcelain makers, with the added advantage of being close to their market.

"At first they imitated Chinese and Japanese porcelain," Takanami observes. "Then they mixed elements of their own, until they created their own style."

The rise of a distinctive European style in what was originally an Asian medium is the most fascinating aspect of the exhibition. In east Asian pieces that reached the West, decoration was usually secondary to form and function. With Meissen works, however, decoration gradually started to gain the upper hand until, with the figurines, function was lost altogether.

Employing great European artists like Kandler (1706-75) and Friedrich Meyer (1723-85), Meissen incorporated Europe's rich artistic vocabulary into its designs with a panache that was rarely matched by Eastern ceramics, especially with its figurines, many of which play on European myths and allegories. Meyer's design "Europa on the Bull" (19th century) has a beautiful, deceptive calm that obscures the later part of the story, when Europa is kidnapped and raped by the bull, who is actually Zeus in disguise.

While Wedgwood pottery embraced a simpler, starker neoclassical style that came into vogue in the late 18th century, Meissen is marked by the early 18th-century milieu of Baroque and Rococo taste in which it was born. It favored ostentatious, often overcrowded decoration, as in the allegorical "Pitchers Decorated with Painted Scenery and Figures in Relief" (19th century), in which the lavish imagery literally transcends the dimensions -- in the pitcher representing water, a mermaid breaks the two-dimensional sea to assume three-dimensional form.

While modern critics might see the excessive decoration as tacky, another way to look at the works is as examples of proto-surrealism, expressing wild flights of fancy and imaginative leaps of faith. There is definitely something very Dadaesque about the "Monkey Orchestra," designed by Kandler around 1765.

Despite their fragility, the pieces convey a tremendous amount of energy. Many of the figurines are modeled to express movement, while the profuse decoration emits its own warmth and power.

Thus in Meissen porcelain we see the constant striving for artistic and technological effect that characterized Europe at the time, and which catapulted the small Saxon town into an international artistic and industrial center. In these delicate masterworks the sinews of Europe's ascendancy are as discernible as the muscles on the Europa bull. That the bull is in this particular "China shop" only makes the whole effect all the more impressive.

"Prachtvolle Porzellene aus Meissen" will be at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum until Jan. 22; also at the Hagi Uragami Museum April 8-May 28; the Ebetsu Ceramic Art Center June 10-July 30; the Kushiro City Museum of Art Aug. 5-Sept.; and finally the MOA Museum of Art in Atami Oct. 1-Nov. 26. For more information about the show in Tokyo, call (03) 3443-8500 or visit www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp.

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