Michael Yonan: “Porcelain as Sculpture: Medium, Materiality, and the Categories of 18th…”

Michael Yonan: “Porcelain as Sculpture: Medium, Materiality, and the Categories of 18th…”


– Our next speaker, Michael Yonan, is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Missouri. He’s the author of Empress Maria Theresa and the Politics of Habsburg Imperial Art, that was published by
Penn State Press in 2011. And of Cultural Aesthetics of
Eighteenth-century Porcelain, co-edited with Alden Cavanaugh,
that appeared in 2010. As well as numerous articles on the arts in 18th century central
and northern Europe. Michael’s book Messerschmidt’s
Character Heads: Maddening Sculpture and
the Writing of Art History will be published by
Routledge this coming summer. Michael is also the editor
of a new book series called The Material
Culture of Art and Design that is for Bloomsbury Academic. And he’s also the series
editor for Ashgate, now Routledge’s, Histories
of Material Culture and Collecting, 1700 to 1950, which I’m pleased to say included one of the center’s publications
several years ago on British Models of Collecting
and the American Response. This afternoon, Michael
will present his thoughts about porcelain as sculpture,
meaning, materiality, and the categories of
18th century collecting. Please give a warm welcome to Michael. (audience applauding) – Okay, thank you everybody. Okay, there we go, we have a light. The story of porcelain’s
beginnings in China, the institutionalization of its production under imperial authority at Jingdezhen, the role it played in several major early modern global economies, its rise to the ne plus ultra of ceramics in 18th century Europe, and the complicated
history it has had since. All of this regularly
attracts the attention of both scholars and the popular viewer. To summarize its significance, it may be enough to note following the historian Robert Finlay, that porcelain was the
first truly global product. A medium for objects produced not only for specific sites and uses,
but for international exchange. The European discovery
of porcelain at Meissen, quote discovery, of porcelain at Meissen, and the subsequent development
of European manufactories, as well as the commercialization
of porcelain production at heritage houses like Meissen and Sevres are likewise standard components of our history of 18th century collecting. And furthermore, as the scholarship of Maureen Cassidy
Geiger has demonstrated, porcelain was of central importance to international diplomacy in
the form of diplomatic gifts. We may then surmise from its historical and critical importance, that porcelain’s role in the histories of 18th century collecting
is securely understood and its place in the
classificatory systems that structured the arts confirmed. Yet I would hesitate to say that. Well studied though it is, porcelain’s significance to 18th century collecting practices is
surprisingly complex. To locate porcelain within a
punitive history of ceramics, and therefore of the decorative arts, gives the interpretor one
view of its importance. To understand it as part of
a broader history of art, gives a different one. The problem arises out of modern art historical classifications, which tend to locate influence
within specific media, rather than across them and this results, in turn, from academic specializations that encourage scholars to look carefully at one kind of art and sometimes
less closely at others. There was a parallel
problem in the 18th century, in that what defined
the boundaries of art, quote art, was in a
state of transformation, one for which porcelain found
itself right in the middle. Porcelain objects status as art, or better said, what kind
of art porcelain was, was subject to great
variation of explanation depending on context, the
type of object in question, and its heritage. At the root of the problem
is the ontological status of the art object itself,
a big subject indeed, but luckily our focus this afternoon is on collections of sculpture,
which helps me narrow it. In a sense, there is no good
reason not to describe a room, like the porcelain cabinet
at Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin, as a sculptural collection. It brings together three
dimensional objects and arranges them in a
carefully conceived display, the purpose of which is to draw attention to the objects themselves and
their aesthetic qualities, characteristics that
would be largely at home in many other kinds of
sculptural collections. Yet few of us would call
this a sculptural collection. Our hesitation has 18th century origins and my goal today will to
be map out this situation to show how porcelain
almost became a high art, namely sculpture, in an early moment in its European production. 18th century collections moved closer to transforming porcelain into sculpture than at any time since, but we shall see that in porcelain’s seductive
materiality laid both its potential to reach that
goal and its limitation. Let us begin by talking a
little bit about materiality. Materiality is not, as so much art historical writing assumes,
synonymous with medium. One component of a work
of art’s materiality is in fact its medium. It matters enormously whether a painting is made of oil, tempura, or acrylics and the possibilities
that each medium allows, as well as the limits that it proscribes are an essential component
of that work of art and ideally should play a role in the scholarly interpretation of it. But once a work of art is made, its medium becomes incorporated into the broader materiality of its culture, which is better described
as how medium creates the status of the artwork as a thing that interacts with other things to form a specific material world. This material world is forever in flux, changing over time, and
within a material world, different materialities interrelate, carry meanings, clash with each other, or otherwise inflect how individuals understand how the world functions. Imagining how an object fits within the philosophical, ethical, perceptual, and economic structures
of the given moment is one way to understand its materiality, which produces a much
broader, and to my mind, more exciting way of
talking about an object. Probably in your mind at this moment is the question of how we
designate something as a thing. This is a major philosophical question that I will not attempt to
solve in a simple paper. But let me say with great circularity that we know a thing is a thing because we encounter its materiality. Its special, seductively shiny materiality was of course one component
of what made porcelain so desirable among 18th
century collectors. It is also paradoxically
what made porcelain difficult to understand as sculpture. Even when porcelain was
used for figural modeling that directly mimicked the dynamics of viewing small scale sculptures. We shall come to that in a moment. But nowhere do we encounter this confusion about porcelain’s materiality more than in the earliest court attempts
to collect and display it. We can see this clearly in the most famous sculptural display of
the early 18th century, porcelain sculptural display, albeit one that did not survive for long. And we know it today through
preparatory drawings, which I will show you, namely
the porcelain collections put on display at the
Japanisches Palais in Dresden under the supervision of the
Polish-Saxon elector king, Augustus the Strong,
whose place in the history of European porcelain is,
of course, very secure. Augustus was so fascinated
by Asiatic porcelains, that he pushed local philosopher artisans, Walter Ehrenfried von Tschirnhaus and Johann Friedrich Bottger, to create porcelain in Dresden, leading to the development eventually of the Meissen manufactory. And of course Augustus amassed staggering amounts of porcelain, both Asiatic and European in origin, numbering into the tens of
thousands of individual objects. Just as a slight aside, there
may be a direct connection between this famous collection
of porcelain in Dresden and the Prussian one that
I showed you a moment ago. Scholars have proposed that Augustus only became interested in creating such an enormous display for
his porcelain collection after visiting Berlin in 1709, to which he traveled to form an alliance with Prussia and Denmark against Sweden. During that trip, he certainly
visited Charlottenburg and may have had this room
in mind when overseeing the designs for the displays
at the Japanisches Palais. The building was not a
palace in the usual sense, it was not a courtly residence, but instead a gigantic
show space to be used in receptions, ceremonies,
and diplomatic visits. The building’s history
has been well studied. I would mention recent scholarship by Cordula Bischoff, Ulrich
Pietsch, and Samuel Vitvar for the knowledge they have imparted to our understanding of
its genesis and function. Today I shall emphasize two aspects of its interior arrangement and design. The first concerns the
way in which the display of the royal porcelain
collection was conceived. The second is the range of objects on view and how they might be classified as sculpture, decorative
arts, or something else. Although the documentary record for the Japanisches Palais is rich, our understanding of
exactly how porcelains were displayed in its
interior is imperfect, as they were dismantled around 1770. We know something of
its possible arrangement from a series of drawings for the interior produced by a group of
Saxon court architects, each of which grappled with
issues of how to present the elector’s porcelain collection in a most appealing manner. The first drawings come from the studio of Matthias Daniel Poppelmann, well known as the architect
of the Zwinger palace, but also put into service to
outfit the Japanisches Palais. In one of several
drawings for the project, in this case showing a
display of porcelain object in the palace’s upper story
and dating from around 1730, we find something remarkably close to the example from Charlottenburg. Ornate shelves and pedestals are arranged across the surface of the wall. Resting upon them are
porcelain vases, tureens, and some small animal figurines. Also sketched into the
design are Asiatic pagods, the smiling Buddha like figures, smirking masks, candle sconces, and tendrils of purely
ornamental filigree. These function to incorporate
the objects displayed into a rich and fantastic Asiatic theme. In this respect, Poppelmann modifies the well known wall display templates provided by Daniel Marot in his highly influential
Nouvelle Cheminee of 1712, which were extremely influential
in guiding the display of porcelain and other precious
objects in noble interiors, and particularly so in Germany. Poppelmann’s display positions
the porcelain objects in it as components of the
interior architecture, as largely fixed entities
within its design. In a sense then, porcelain
here asserts its presence through its purely formal qualities, alongside whatever wisps of narrative might be implied through
the figural elements. The point is to see
porcelain as part of a whole. Whether we can call this
a display of sculpture, however, is not so clear, although one might note
that it operates here more like architectural sculpture in that it adorns a space as
part of a decorative program. In so far as architectural sculpture might be conceived as a
sculptural collection, so too might that designation
apply for this room. And in so far as the
porcelain objects meant here are primarily meant here to be seen and seen within a decorative patterning, they might come closer to sculpture than they otherwise would. The sharp eyed among
you might have noticed that Poppelmann’s design is
somewhat old fashioned for 1730, in case you’re into that. And apparently that is also how it looked to Augustus the Strong, since the elector king
brought in a second architect to offer an alternative conception
of the palace’s displays. This was the French born
Zacharias Longuelune, active in Dresden, who
produced a series of drawings for the palace’s interior around 1735. Not only do these designs arrange the porcelain objects in the
palace entirely differently, updating them in a way
understood as the French manner, they imply a different conception of the porcelain object as a material entity. Here is one of Longuelune’s drawings for a room on the palace’s ground floor. Of course we should remember that, as with many 18th century
architectural drawings, this one represents several
options for potential building, it is not a view of any
actual segment of wall. I show it here to provide insight into the concept behind
porcelain’s display as Longuelune understood it. In it we find, once
again, porcelain arranged in patterns on the wall’s
surface and also on pedestals, as in Poppelmann’s drawings. But something important has changed, the balance between wall ornament and porcelain object has been rethought, with the porcelains given
greater presence and emphasis. Indeed, they become the
primary decoration of the wall, not simply one component among
many decorative elements. The result is that individual objects are easier to apprehend
as discrete pieces. The result is also to
let each object speak, if one can say that,
more directly for itself. We also know from a memorandum written by Longuelune around this time, that there were practical considerations behind this structure of display. In it he remarks that the advantage of displaying porcelains like this is that it enabled the
objects to be moved around, removed from their place
on the wall and held, and were broadly to allow
new objects to be switched in for others according
to the patron’s wishes. The flexibility of display
also reveals Longuelune’s understanding of Augustus’
collection practices, since it indicates that
the collection as a whole could be improved as new and presumably better quality porcelain
pieces were acquired. The porcelain as individual objects are not fixed constituent
parts of the room but rather are individual pieces with their own independence. They operate more like a collection and less like the architectural
elements of the wall. And here I brought in
an additional drawing just to show you the two conceptions. With that in mind, we
can think a little bit about whether portability brings these objects closer to sculpture. I would suggest that transferability works against the idea that this was a sculptural collection
in the conventional sense. Of course much sculpture is portable and small scale sculpture, particularly bronzes like
the ones we just saw, need not be understood
as permanently affixed to any particular site but
rather as movable elements of a collector’s holdings. But the idea of porcelain
objects being interchangeable according the desires of a collector, detached from the wall
and held in the hand, and at least theoretically,
if not actually used. And that’s an issue with
porcelain in displays like this is that they were often
not used as plates, but the theoretical idea,
this sort of possibility that they could be is there. All of those combine to
work against the idea that this was conceived
as a sculptural display. It’s a slippery point but the question of porcelain’s status
clearly concerned Longuelune, who in the text just mentioned, warned that the objects
portability worked against the collection being appreciated as art. The display needed to be handled, he said, with great care, lest it take
on, and excuse my French. (speaking in French) That it would look too much
like a richly outfitted store. This comment tries to
deflect the criticism that collecting porcelain was
a purely commercial endeavor and its display needed to
avoid easy conflation with, to use Barbara Maria
Stafford’s wonderful phrase, gaping at heaped up goods. Longuelune’s comment might surprise those of us accustomed to thinking about porcelains economic
importance to Dresden, which is emphasized
heavily in the literature. But in it, and the designs
for the Japanisches Palais, I think we can locate Longuelune’s worry that many viewers would not
understand porcelain as art. Another place where this tension arises is in the four sculptural roundels he proposed to decorate
the palace’s grand gallery. These were to represent
allegorical figures of painting, sculpture,
geometry, and chemistry. Porcelain combines all of these, since mastery of each is required in order to produce a porcelain object. Porcelain is therefore a kind of meta art, one not reducible to sculpture, yet emergent partially from it. With Longuelune’s display,
we can see that porcelain could transcend artistic hierarchies, thereby avoiding easy classification and that ultimately is the point, to compete with traditional
high arts via a new medium. One of the reasons that
Longuelune’s designs de-emphasize porcelain’s
sculptural potential is that the Japanisches
Palais was to contain a space in which porcelain approached
sculpture in a purer sense. This was of course the celebrated gallery of Meissen animals, modeled
by Johann Joachim Kandler. And counting among them, some of the most famous
exemplars of ceramic art. Indeed they are legendary,
notable for their beauty, but more than anything, for
the technical achievement they represented for the emergent European porcelain industry. These were intended for a
special wing of the palace, a separate set of galleries from those we have just discussed. We know very little about
how they were arranged but the sheer number of them,
around 80 survive today, and the diversity of their subjects suggests a full, busy installation intended to impress and awe. And there are many of these, they’re in museums all over the world but I brought in one
of the local examples, this is the nanny goat with kid at the Metropolitan
Museum down the street. The animals large scale tested the limits of Meissen’s abilities. Records show that Kandler
and his assistants struggled to perfect procedures
that would allow porcelain to survive firing at this scale and with this level of detail. Viewers have long noted
that they push porcelain into the realm of sculpture, they actually are sculpture
in the purest classical sense of a three dimensional figure alikeness intended for observation and display. But we should recognize what they meant when placed in galleries
in the same building as porcelain plates and vases, like the ones we have just considered. Their inclusion in the Japanisches Palais certainly encourages the
collection as a whole to be considered a sculptural one. The Kandler animals were house
on the palace’s second floor, in rooms only accessible
once the visitor had perused a range of cabinets filled
with other kinds of objects. Ones with formal and functional analogs with more humble kinds of ceramics. After seeing those, one would arrive in the Kandler galleries and see that Meissen had one-upped the visitor’s understanding of what porcelain could do by transforming it into pure sculpture. Meissen ingenuity enables porcelain to become sculpture in
a conventional sense. This echoes a widespread,
longstanding European fantasy, which is that other parts of the world, in this case China, may have
created wonderful products through inventive technologies but only Europe could take
that and turn it into art. Furthermore, the Kandler animals invite several different paragone procedures, and I was very happy to
hear Dr. Baker refer to the paragone because that’s
exactly what’s happening here. Invited as viewers are to
compare Meissen objects with other kinds of ceramic art. Between porcelain and marble,
which both rely on whiteness, much beloved in 18th century aesthetics, to achieve their effects. And I would further suggest
between porcelain and bronze, the closest analog for the objects of this intermediate scale. And in this paragone,
porcelain was intended to win, not least because many of the
Kandler animals were colored. This simple addition answers a longstanding criticism of sculpture, namely that it could never
attain the realism of painting because so often it was monochromatic. It is precisely porcelain’s materiality that achieves this complex set of artistic and social resonances. But although the Kandler
animals invite the idea that they are a collection of sculptures, indeed it is hard to
see them any other way. Whether they then confer onto the rest of the collection the status of sculpture, whether they transform
the Japanisches Palais in its entirety into a sculptural
collection is less secure. Perhaps they do, or
perhaps they simply show that some porcelain could
be become a collection but not all porcelain can do that. Their separation from the
other galleries in the Palais might only serve to confirm that they are a special kind of object, a sculptural collection
made out of a material that is not always sculpture inherently. To conclude, we might ask
whether the Japanisches Palais was influential in advancing
porcelain’s popularity and claim to artistic significance. The obvious answer is yes, it was certainly famous in its own time and served exactly the function that the Saxon-Polish court wanted it to, to impress visitors and
to aggrandize through art, Dresden’s claim to be a first order player in European cultural politics. Its influence really requires
no additional clarification. But whether it served to change notions of what comprised a sculptural collection and whether porcelain could become the preferred medium for
a sculptural collection, there the answer would
have to be that it did not. In the wake of Meissen’s success, several other 18th century
porcelain manufactories took up the possibility that porcelain could be a medium for sculpture. This trend is especially visible in Italy and was carried to its furthest by the manufactory of Carlo Ginori, a Doccia, Sesto Florentino near Florence, an important early porcelain manufactory with roots in the Du Paquier
manufactory in Vienna. Ginori made the sculpturalization of porcelain a major industry project. To show just one example, we see here the famous Medici Venus in its marble incarnation from antiquity and next to it, a 1702 bronze
version of the sculpture, made of course to smaller scale and intended for a different
viewing environment. And here we see that Ginori produced a porcelain version of the
sculpture in the 1740s. This particular design, interestingly, was reproduced in at least
five different sizes, intended for different
collections, different collectors, and each required porcelain
components to be fired and then assembled into the final product. The joints cleverly disguised by the figure’s choker,
armbands, and loincloth. And this was not a unique piece, Doccia produced other copies
of other Roman sculptures, including busts of emperors and even celebrated groups
like the Laocoon Group. The idea here is that
small scale porcelains could be like bronzes,
small scale sculptures, collectable by various segments
of the 18th century elite. Yet as the century progressed
and porcelain began to be made in larger amounts by manufactories across the continent, as well as the continued
importation of porcelain from Asia, the medium began to
lose some of its allure. The materiality of porcelain changed, even as the medium itself stayed the same. This, I propose, had
the effect of confirming porcelain’s location in the
emergent decorative arts and emphasizing its place
within the realm of ceramics and not the high art of sculpture. Porcelain had its sculptural moment at the first half of the 18th century but the very materiality
that gave it that chance, also eventually created
its exclusion, thank you. (audience applauding)

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