Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 3, 2022
Imogen Hart and Claire Jones, eds. Sculpture and the Decorative in Britain and Europe: Seventeenth Century to Contemporary New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020. 320 pp.; 103 b/w ills. Cloth $130.00 (9781501341267)
Diana Davis, Oliver Fairclough, and John Whitehead, eds. French Porcelain Society Journal "Ceramics as Sculpture," Special Issue, vol.3. London: French Porcelain Society, 2020. 280 pp.; 153 color ills.; 43 b/w ills. Paper £20.00 (14798042)

Why talk about sculpture and the decorative arts together? A number of scholars, such as Penelope Curtis, Martina Droth, and Claire Jones (the latter coedited both the volumes reviewed here), as well as the exhibitions Taking Shape: Finding Sculpture in the Decorative Arts (Henry Moore Institute and J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008–09) and Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention, 1837–1901 (Victoria & Albert Museum and Yale Center for British Art, 2014–15), have convincingly made the case for doing so. The fact that this approach still feels novel more than a decade after the question was first put forward is testament to the stubborn legacy of modernism’s separation of sculpture, decoration, and the decorative arts. Like many of modernism’s myths, such invented divisions did not exist prior to the middle decades of the twentieth century, and were tenuous even then. However, in terms of how sculpture is displayed in museums, taught in the academy, and popularly understood, they have proved persistent. Both the exhibition catalog Sculpture Victorious and Jones’s book Sculptors and Design Reform in France, 1848 to 1895: Sculpture and the Decorative Arts (Routledge, 2018) showed that in the nineteenth century, artists such as John Thomas and Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse created, with little to no resistance, both sculpture for official exhibition venues and industrial designs for mass consumption. If we consider the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau, divisions are no longer helpful or meaningful.

The two volumes reviewed here usefully further the study of the intersections of sculpture and the decorative across twenty-five wide-ranging chapters. Turning first to “Ceramics as Sculpture,” a special thematic issue of the French Porcelain Society Journal, the chronologically arranged chapters examine the work of Luca della Robbia in the fifteenth century through to the Richard-Ginori Factory in the 1920s. The chapters in between consider the output of Meissen, Villeroy, Wedgwood, Claude Michel (called Clodion), Sèvres, and Buen Retiro. Considering the reiteration of the differences between sculpture and ceramics in the study of European art, Jones astutely notes in her introduction that “research is disrupting such [distinctions] . . . by highlighting the cultural and ideological role of ceramics” (xv). In subsequent chapters, several authors place ceramics in the broader context of prints or interiors, a vital interdisciplinary approach that greatly broadens our understanding of the medium. For example, when considering the thirteen-foot-long porcelain table centerpiece made in 1786 for the abbey in Zwettl, Austria, Matthew J. Martin considers the more utilitarian dessert service (now lost) that was ordered at the same time, as well as the music of Joseph Haydn and the ceiling frescos in the abbey’s library by Paul Troger, showing how the iconography of the latter two were reflected in the ceramic figures of the centerpiece in an “iconographic game” that could entertain erudite diners (93). A black basalt bust of Antinous as Bacchus by Wedgwood & Bentley (ca. 1774, a recent addition to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection) is the subject of an insightful chapter by Iris Moon, while Clodion and the sensual appeal of terracotta is discussed by Elizabeth Saari Browne. A great deal of specialist knowledge is on display in this volume, and paired with numerous illustrations, the majority in color, the reader has much to gain.

In the second volume under review, Sculpture and the Decorative in Britain and Europe, edited by Jones and Imogen Hart, we find five chapters of the twelve concerned with the interplay between sculpture and architecture. Two of these focus on single buildings—Saint George’s Hall in Liverpool and the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh—employing close looking to unravel the iconographic schemes and treating architecture, in Hart’s words, as “one large, complex, composite sculpture” (185). The first essay in the volume, by Margit Thøfner, considers how the flourishes in Baroque music might relate to the decorative elements of a wooden altarpiece dating from 1667 at the Skt. Mortens church in Næstved, Denmark, created by the carver and organist Abel Schrøder. Marjan Sterckx and Nina Lübbren examine women as creators and consumers of sculpture in late nineteenth-century Brussels and interwar Germany. The volume closes with three chapters on contemporary British sculpture and the decorative by Lisa Wainwright, Laura Gray, and Bridget O’Gorman.

The standout chapters in this volume are by Melanie Polledri and Michael Hatt. The former considers a ceremonial drinking horn by William Goscombe John, the Corn Hirlas (1898), today found in the collection of the St. Fagans National Museum of History. Polledri unpacks the complex balancing act that the object and its maker performed, between articulating Welsh national identity and, at the same time, showing allegiance to the British Empire. She opens her chapter with the thought-provoking question, “What is it about the alignment of sculpture and the decorative that permits the articulation of national identity?” (141). Hatt answers this question by explaining that sculpture’s adaptable and repeatable aspects, that is, its decorative qualities, are “precisely what enables sculpture to function politically” (51). Hatt brings the question of sculpture and the decorative into productive contact with the study of empire and global exchange, focusing on what he terms the “interconnected itineraries” of a ship’s figurehead, a medal commemorating Bertel Thorvaldsen, and a carving of a ship and a Henta board from the Nicobar Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean (51). Hatt’s bold engagement with the nationalistic, imperial, and racially specific aspects of European sculpture neatly refines the question of the relationship between sculpture and the decorative, which sometimes is in danger of tipping into the merely semantic, and brings it into dialogue with the more urgent and ongoing question of Europe’s imperial legacy.

Hatt’s exemplary chapter highlights where a number of authors writing for the volume “Ceramics as Sculpture” could have usefully pushed their arguments into similar areas. An editorial note to Sarah-Katharina Andres-Acevedo’s chapter on Johann Joachim Kändler’s figural groups explains that the term Blackamoor is archaic and offensive; the term and the racist depictions of Black servants in the Meissen pieces illustrated should have been investigated in the body of the chapter (41). The same issue occurs with the use of the words oriental, exotic, and pagod in Errol Manners’s chapter on “The Early Sculptural Porcelain of François Barbin at Villeroy and Paris.” At some point a coating of white paint (now removed) was applied over the black surface of Wedgwood & Bentley’s bust of Antinous; however, Moon does not pursue the implied discomfort of a black bust of a Classical subject in her otherwise very thorough account of the piece. Although she briefly mentions Wedgwood and Sons’ antislavery medallion from around 1787, the question of race, sculpture, and decoration is left to one side. It is especially helpful to imagine what Hatt’s approach foregrounding European imperial activities might have added to Sabrina Leps’s chapter on Meissen porcelain and sacred sculpture, which includes a discussion of a ceramic group belonging to Maria Josepha, queen of Poland, depicting the death of St. Francis Xavier. This group includes what Leps refers to as an “Indian,” a figure wearing a feathered headdress, who is being urged by a soldier holding a spear to focus on the body of the dead missionary. I make this observation as coeditor of a publication on Victorian majolica that should have engaged more seriously with the ceramic’s imperial themes, as pointed out in a review by Rachel Gotlieb (review of Susan Weber et al., eds, Majolica Mania: Transatlantic Pottery in England and the United States, 1850–1915, Journal of Design History, October 11, 2021). It is no longer sufficient to simply reference the important work of Adrienne Childs (see, for example, “A Blackamoor’s Progress: The Ornamental Black Body in European Furniture,” in Resignifications: European Blackamoors, Africana Readings, edited by Ellyn Mary Toscano and Awam Amkpa, 2016, 116–26; and “Sugarboxes and Blackamoors: Ornamental Blackness in Early Meissen Porcelain,” in The Cultural Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain, edited by Michael Yonan and Alden Cavanaugh, 2010, 159–77). Scholars must take it on themselves to engage more closely with race as depicted in all manner of European decorative objects. As Hatt suggests, perhaps it is this approach that might finally break down the divisions between sculpture and the decorative arts.

Jo Briggs
Jennie Walters Delano Curator of 18th- and 19th-Century Art, Walters Art Museum