Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ceramic Bust of a Boy: Decorative Arts or Sculpture?

Does the fact that it is made of porcelain, a form of ceramic, relegate it to the “minor” or “applied” arts? Yet if it were terracotta it would be considered sculpture. The fact that it is a multiple, cast from a clay model, does that argue that it is a manufactured item not a work of art? Yet bronzes are deemed sculptures and they too are multiples.

To me this bust bridges all categories as a major expression of the Rococo style in what was at the time a new medium for sculpture.

In 1746 Maximilian III Joseph, Elector of Bavaria, started experiments in the creation of porcelain as a means of revenue for his court. But it was not until 1754 that he began to have some success. In 1761 the manufactory moved into a specially constructed building on the grounds of the Nymphenburg Palace, the Wittelsbach summer residence outside of Munich.

A Swiss sculptor Franz Anton Bustelli (Locarno1723 - Munich, 1763) was hired to become the chief modeler and was given artistic directorship of the enterprise. His fame came from his unique interpretation of the Rococo style in the twisting, turning figures that he created at Nymphenburg. Among his best known works are a series of characters from the Comedia dell’Arte which I referred to in an earlier missive. Exceptional in his oeuvre are works of larger scale like this piece that measures 10 inches.

I have known this chubby-cheeked boy all my life because the bust sat in my parents’ dining room. Rosenberg & Stiebel had received on consignment a collection of works of art from Baron and Baroness Louis de Rothschild of Vienna. When the Rothschilds left Vienna and moved to their new home in Vermont, they no longer lived in palaces as they had in Austria, so they de-accessioned many works of art and kept what they could use. Among this large consignment, a third sold quickly, a third went more slowly and the last third became quite difficult to dispose of. From this last group my father acquired our little boy.

A German porcelain dealer had told my parents that the piece was nineteenth century, but somehow, living with it all those years, I never believed it. The modeling and finishing and glaze were just too right. So after my parents died, I photographed it in detail and began researching it. We must remember that the study of art history does not remain static and we learn more all the time. Today there are specialists in the work of this factory who have studied archives, and compared Nyphenburg pieces in collections around the world.

The Munich porcelain dealer Angela Gräfin von Wallwitz was most helpful to me. She saw the piece in original and consulted with the scholar Alfred Ziffer and showed him the photos. He concurred that the piece was of the period of the original Bustelli model and that ours was made between 1760 and 1765.

A conversation I had with Nicholas Penny when he visited our house some time ago highlights the questions that introduce this blog. He is now Director of the National Gallery in London, but he was, at that time, head of the Sculpture Department at the National Gallery in Washington. Taking the bust off of a piece of furniture he said, this is something I hope to acquire for the gallery someday. I said, but it’s porcelain, not a traditional material for sculpture. He responded, This isn’t just ceramics. It’s sculpture. And anyway my department covers sculpture and decorative arts.

There are many works of art that cannot be easily pigeonholed and I personally think that we should stop trying to do so.

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