Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 22, 2011
Ulrich Pietsch and Claudia Banz, eds. Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgeoisie, 1710–1815 Exh. cat. Leipzig: E. A. Seemann, 2010. 400 pp.; 800 color ills. Cloth €49.90 (9783865022486)
Exhibition schedule: Japanese Palace, Dresden, May 8–August 29, 2010
Ulrich Pietsch and Theresa Witting, eds. Fascination of Fragility: Masterpieces of European Porcelain Exh. cat. Leipzig: E. A. Seemann, 2010. 368 pp.; 430 color ills. Cloth €49.90 (9783865022479)
Exhibition schedule: Ephraim-Palais, Berlin, May 9–August 29, 2010

On January 23, 1710, a royal proclamation written by Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland (1670–1733), announced the formation of a new porcelain manufactory established under his patronage within the walls of the Albrechtsburg Castle in the town of Meissen located a short distance from the Saxon capital city of Dresden. The proclamation heralded the discovery by the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682–1719) of a formula for high-fired porcelain of a type commonly known as hard paste that had been developed in China centuries earlier and that was coveted throughout Europe from the time of its arrival there in the fifteenth century.

Triumph of the Blue Swords, Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgeoisie, 1710–1815 (the English-language version of Triumph der blauen Schwerter. Meissener Porzellan für Adel und Bürgertum 1710–1815) and the accompanying exhibition at the Japanese Palace in Dresden (May 8–August 29, 2010) celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Meissen porcelain manufactory. The exhibition was conceived as one of three complementary exhibitions—the other two being The Fascination of Fragility (Ephraim-Palais, Berlin, May 9–August 29, 2010; catalogue reviewed below) and All Nations are Welcome. Three Hundred Years of the Meissen Manufactory (Meissen, January 23–December 31, 2010)—organized for the anniversary year. The exhibitions were intended to commemorate the anniversary, to highlight the indisputably influential role Meissen played in the development of porcelain production across Europe in the eighteenth century, and to bring attention to the Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen that still exists today.

The Triumph of the Blue Swords catalogue includes a series of 13 essays on a range of Meissen-related topics followed by an illustrated compendium of some 530 pieces of Meissen drawn from the collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Porzellansammlung (the core of which was formed by Augustus II and which is, not surprisingly, the most important collection of Meissen in the world today) and numerous private and public European, Russian, and U.S. collections. The catalogue was edited by Ulrich Pietsch, Director of the Porzellansammlung, and Claudia Banz, a Dutch scholar who has most recently curated exhibitions of contemporary artists. The title suggests that the catalogue sets out to cover the period of Meissen production from the establishment of the factory in 1710 to 1815, the date that the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, created the German Confederation of which Saxony was a part. The historic significance of the 1815 date will likely be lost on those who are unfamiliar with German history including, one suspects, many readers of the English edition of the catalogue. Moreover, while the date may have provided a convenient terminus for what is said to be a survey of the first one hundred years of Meissen’s history, it is one that is of little note for the factory, and, in fact, it receives only passing mention in the catalogue.

The history of Meissen’s first one hundred years is presented in two catalogue essays; the first of these is written by Pietsch and covers the early and most important period of the factory’s history, the years 1710 to 1763; the second essay, on the years 1763 to 1815, was written by Anette Loesch. Despite Pietsch’s enviable access to the factory archives and recent significant contributions by a number of scholars to various aspects of Meissen’s production in the decades following its founding, his information is presented in a cursory fashion, and the essay contains errors and unsubstantiated or vague statements. The situation is further exacerbated by bad translation and editing, sadly a problem throughout the publication. For example, in his brief discussion of Augustus II as a collector of porcelain and patron of the Meissen factory, Pietsch fails to fully establish the facts surrounding the acquisition, rebuilding, and furnishing of the Japanese Palace or the importance of the role the palace and the porcelain ordered for it played in the decades between about 1715 and 1735, a subject that was brilliantly covered by Samuel Wittwer in The Gallery of Meissen Animals: Augustus the Strong’s Menagerie for the Japanese Palace in Dresden (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2004).

Pietsch’s inaccuracies surrounding the Japanese Palace include his statement that the architect of the expanded building was Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann. In fact, Pöppelmann was likely the architect of the small palace known as the Dutch Palace that Augustus acquired in 1717, not the expanded palace that became known as the Japanese Palace (Wittwer, 32); evidence suggests this building was designed by a group of architects from the Oberbauamt (Chief Building Office) (Wittwer, 34). Pietsch also states that work at the Japanese Palace was suspended after the death of Augustus the Strong in Warsaw on February 1, 1733; again evidence suggests otherwise. On February 13, only twelve days after the death of his father, Augustus III made inquiries at the Meissen manufactory about the state of the Japanese Palace project. Following a request from the factory arcanists for more time to fill the existing orders, Augustus III personally told the manufactory that “although work on the 910 pieces ordered by his father was to go ahead, he was giving them five years to fulfill the order in its entirety” (Wittwer, 53).

An important aspect of the decoration of the Japanese Palace was a menagerie of large porcelain animals and birds—a project likely conceived by Augustus II himself—that was destined for a long gallery on the upper of the two main floors of the Palace. Orders for and deliveries of these figures began in 1730 and ended in 1736. By the time the project was abandoned by Augustus III, 570 figures had been delivered, many more than the 400 Pietsch mentions. In his discussion of the animal sculptures, Pietsch goes on to say that they were installed in the large Elbgalerie on the top floor of the palace. Drawings for the Japanese Palace clearing indicate that the porcelain menagerie was intended for a gallery on the Neustadt side of the palace, and judging from accounts of eighteenth-century visitors to the Japanese Palace, it would appear that the installation of the figures was never fully realized (Wittwer, 53–4).

The location of the Triumph of the Blue Swords exhibition in Augustus’s Japanese Palace is significant given Augustus’s intention to create here what was essentially a porcelain palace. However, interestingly enough, little mention is made of this in the exhibition, and there was no attempt on the part of the exhibition architect, Juan de Cubas, to recreate any of the several proposed installations for the palace for which drawings still exist today. For a look at an installation of the astonishing collection of the large animals in the Porzellansammlung, one can cross the Elbe River to the Zwinger where a new and bizarre installation—involving gilded rock formations and Chinoiserie-style tents—has recently opened.

Loesch’s contribution on the later period is well-researched and documented and provides a clear picture of the political and cultural environment in Saxony in the five decades following the Seven Years’ War (1757–1763) and the death in 1763 of Augustus III when the Electorate was no longer the powerful European force it once had been. As Loesch points out, the difficult post-war economic situation in Saxony had a disastrous effect on the Meissen factory. In addition, no subsequent Saxon monarch would provide the same sort of financial and artistic support the factory had received from Augustus II, and to a lesser extent from his son. In the absence of the enlightened absolutism provided by these two monarchs, the factory faltered and lost its position as Europe’s premier porcelain manufactory to the French royal factory at Sèvres that had been founded in 1740 and purchased outright by Louis XV in October 1759.

The quality of the remaining catalogue essays is mixed; in a number of cases the information presented is new, in others it is reworked material that has previously been published elsewhere. Among the noteworthy catalogue essays is “In Roman Style: Meissen’s Religious Sculptures” by Daniela Antonin, which looks at the small group of religious figures produced at Meissen during the reigns of Augustus and his son. These objects are closely linked to Augustus’s conversion to Catholicism—that being a prerequisite to his becoming the Polish monarch—and more significantly perhaps to the conversion of his son who along with his devout wife promoted the spread of the religion in Saxony. Maureen Cassidy-Geiger’s splendid essay, “The Hof-Conditorey in Dresden: Traditions and Innovations in Sugar and Porcelain”—a feast of sorts—explores the role of the Hof-Conditorey, one of four departments that owned and administered the porcelain used for dining at the Saxon court. Also of note is Wittwer’s “‘. . . the king of Prussia has requested the rapid completion . . .’ Friedrich the Great and Meissen Porcelain” (a condensed version of an article that appeared in Keramos 208 (2010): 17–80). Friedrich the Great is known to have had a close relationship with the Meissen factory; Prussian troops occupied the factory in the Second and Third Silesian Wars and again during the Seven Years’ War, and, as Wittwer points out, Friedrich’s collection of Meissen porcelain was second only to Augustus’s (139). In his essay, Wittwer presents a more complete story of the relationship between the factory and the monarch than has previously been laid out.

Among the post-1763 objects in the catalogue are several that demonstrate Meissen’s indebtedness to the Sèvres factory in the later part of the eighteenth century. The production of figures in biscuit porcelain, a material that had been the innovation of the Vincennes factory as early as 1751, is the most notable example of this. Despite the success of biscuit porcelain for Vincennes/Sèvres, it was not adopted at Meissen until decades later.

The interrelationships between Meissen and the other European porcelain factories is the subject of Pietsch’s introductory essay in the catalogue Fascination of Fragility: Masterpieces of European Porcelain, edited by Pietsch and Theresa Witting. The catalogue accompanied an exhibition of the same name that was held at the Ephraim-Palais in Berlin, a palace built in 1763–64 by Nathan Veitel Heine Ephraim, a Minister of Frederick II, King of Prussia, whose own fascination with porcelain has already been noted. The exhibition occasioned the assembling of an impressive group of circa five hundred pieces of European porcelain from over forty-seven factories that were active in the eighteenth century including several, like the one established in Ilmenau, Germany in 1777, and one founded by Filippo Cuccomos in Rome in 1761, that are little known. The installation at the palace was the work of the Berlin architectural firm of Kuehn Malvezzi. With the exception of two galleries in which the unfortunate decision was made to make a more “artful” display employing unsympathetic colored fluorescent lighting, the presentation was fairly traditional with the ceramics displayed in floor and wall cases. One of the more successful galleries was a small one entirely devoted to porcelain sculpture. Sadly, in many instances in the absence of any information other than object labels, it was not always clear why the objects were grouped together.

Pietsch’s catalogue essay provides a sketchily drawn summary of the events that took place in and around Dresden leading up to the establishment of the Meissen factory in 1710 and of the influence it had on porcelain factories throughout Europe. Again the facts can be unsubstantiated and in some cases incorrect. For example, Pietsch states that the Meissen figures of monkeys playing musical instruments that are known to have been owned by Madame de Pompadour, to whom he gives undue credit for the establishment and success of the Vincennes-Sèvres porcelain factory, were presumably given to her by Augustus III (17). In fact, it is documented that Pompadour purchased the nineteen figures from the Parisian marchand-mercier Lazare Duvaux on December 24, 1753 (Madame de Pompadour at les arts, exh. cat., Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, 2002, 504–5). The subject of the impact the extraordinary output of the Meissen factory had on art and culture of eighteenth-century Europe is a rich one that deserves more extensive consideration.

Along with Pietsch’s essay, the volume includes short histories written by specialists on the eighteenth-century European porcelain factories (these are arranged more-or-less chronologically based on the date they were founded) and an illustrated catalogue with entries on 375 objects. The concise factory histories make the publication a useful reference, and despite the fact that most factories are represented by less than ten objects—the English factory of Derby, which was one of the most prolific in that country, is represented by four sculptures and a sauceboat—it is rare that one gets to see the full scope and artistry of eighteenth-century production in one text.

The jubilation surrounding Meissen’s anniversary year was dampened a bit by recent research on a small group of porcelain vases that are thought to have been manufactured in England sometime before 1683 and which come closer to anything made in Europe up until that time to replicating Chinese hard paste; their production would predate the discovery of hard-paste porcelain at Meissen by twenty-five years (for more information on these vases see English Ceramics Circle Transactions 20, part 1, 2008). However, the existence of these four small vases takes nothing away from the remarkable achievements of the Meissen manufactory in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Donna Corbin
Associate Curator, European Decorative Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art