MEISSEN, Germany — Of his extensive collection of ceramics, Oscar Wilde once remarked: “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.” What Wilde felt he was increasingly failing to “live up to” was probably the sort of bourgeois respectability that is often symbolized by a set of good porcelain — something, he was surely aware, to which even a spectacularly talented gay man in Victorian Britain could never hope to aspire. It is a sign that Wilde was onto something that most people only deploy “the good china” a few times a year, on major holidays; the rest of the time, we keep it neatly tucked away so that it won’t get broken. When we move, each piece must be individually protected in bubble wrap. It’s exhausting.
In the realm of aristocrats and kings, however, “the good china” refers to something altogether different. In 18th-century Europe, huge Chinese porcelain vases were eagerly traded for prisoners of war, and Enlightenment-era “arcanists” (that’s inorganic chemists to you and me) were kidnapped and imprisoned as they zeroed in on the formula for making true porcelain, a process previously known only in East Asia.
This summer, I visited Meissen, Germany, the mother ship of European porcelain, at the invitation of artist Chris Antemann, who has been engaged in a unique collaboration with the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory since 2012. I jumped at the chance to see this place I had read about as a graduate student. I imagined myself exploring the Baroque treasures in the nearby city of Dresden in my low-top chucks, à la Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette, though perhaps wearing less makeup and following a much nerdier itinerary.
Antemann, a cheerful American with roots in Eastern Germany, lives in rural Joseph, Oregon, where she and her husband, Jakob Hasslacher, run a ceramic residency called the LH Project. She grew up in Western Pennsylvania in a household where the music and visual culture of Rococo Northern Europe got heavy airplay. Museum visits, music lessons, and string quartet performances introduced her to Mozart and Beethoven, and to the beguiling scenes of pleasure and scandal painted by Boucher, Fragonard, and Watteau. Growing up in an average middle-class US household, she had a grandmother who collected Hummel figures, and she developed an awareness from an early age that there were parallels in the kinds of objects she saw around her and those she viewed in museums: American kitsch had well-hidden aristocratic roots in the sculptural porcelain of factories like Meissen. Antemann saw in the demure and prim world of Meissen figurines a humor, complexity, and perhaps a self-conscious campiness that most people miss.
In graduate school at the University of Minnesota, the artist studied the products of Europe’s great porcelain factories, many of which had survived the revolutions that their original royal and aristocratic patrons had not. She began sculpting her own pieces in porcelain, decorating them in the fruity color palette of the originals but creating risqué tableaux that did more than hint at debauchery. Shown with Massachusetts-based Ferrin Gallery and at various ceramics exhibitions around the globe, her signature neo-Rococo scenes of courtly life attracted attention.
One day in 2010, an email appeared in her inbox from Dr. Christian Kurtzke, Meissen’s CEO. Once she was able to confirm that the email was genuine — that she wasn’t in fact being teased by a friend who knew of her long-simmering love affair with the factory — she flew to Germany to discuss the possibility of an artistic collaboration. Four years later, she has opened a solo exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, and the Meissen collaboration has come full circle, as the works that comprise the show are Antemann’s retelling of the factory’s story. “Using MEISSEN’s technical prowess and assistance, I was able to build large, complex sculptures that act as architectural background for new dramas directly inspired by the origins of the porcelain figurative tradition and its role in 18th-century dining culture,” Antemann told me. I was fortunate enough to see her at work in the Meissen studios and to meet the men and women who work there (some for decades) making molds, gilding the edges of teacups, painting flowers, loading kilns, and casting figures.
The Meissen factory began life as a secretive test kitchen where scientists in the employ of Augustus II of Saxony-Poland, better known as Augustus II the Strong (1670–1733), became the first Westerners to develop “true porcelain” outside of China, Korea, or Japan. Augustus suffered, rather happily, from what he described as “maladie de porcelaine,” or porcelain sickness. Before Meissen’s resident alchemical sleuths Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus and Johann Friedrich Böttger could reproduce porcelain themselves, Augustus spent dizzying sums to acquire Chinese and Japanese ceramics for his collection in Dresden. Though it was nearly destroyed in 1945, the Zwinger Palace has been largely restored and still contains his collection — one of the world’s finest — of nearly 20,000 ceramic objects. The installation seems to go on forever as one wanders the opulent halls. Recently reinstalled with an ebullient, Rococo-inspired design by American architect Peter Marino, the Porzellansammlung is a statement of pure power and global reach by a ruler who relished the chase above all else. According to Professor Dr. Ulrich Pietsch, director of the Porzellansammlung at the Staatliche Kunstsammelung in Dresden, the collection is especially rich in porcelain from the Ming Dynasty in China, particularly the reign of Emperor Kangxi, a contemporary of Augustus II the Strong who lived from 1662–1722.
But importing all these wares, though it was a show of power, wealth, and cosmopolitan savoire faire, left something to be desired, and Augustus pushed his team to develop a native porcelain that would both free him from trade with the East and open up new artistic and decorative possibilities for his collection. In 1709, Böttger introduced a substance called kaolin, or “china clay,” into the mixture of a porcelain clay body. The resulting fired ceramic specimens were tough, translucent, and white — the real deal. Thus ended centuries of European attempts to mimic the look of Chinese porcelain by using “soft paste” white clay or tin-glazed darker ceramics to make them appear white.
In the early 1730s, the aesthetic of Meissen porcelain began to change: once the manufactory could replicate Asian ceramics with great verisimilitude, Augustus developed an interest in the creation of original pieces unique to his realm. Meissen’s director, Count Heinrich von Brühl, discovered a volume of botanical drawings by Johann Wilhelm Weinmann, and these images formed the inspiration for a European style of floral decoration that characterizes Meissen to this day. During this same period, famed head modeler Joachim Kaendler (1706–1775) created porcelain figures inspired by characters from the commedia dell’arteand designed to act as permanent versions of the elaborate sugar sculptures that had graced courtly banquet tables for decades.
The tone of it all was joyous, inspired by motifs from the Renaissance, classical antiquity, and famed European painters, especially Antemann’s beloved Watteau and Fragonard. The objects were elite, refined, very expensive, and a little sexy. The figurines evolved to become a kind of performance art, centuries before such a thing was even conceivable, as they simultaneously reflected and were a part of the ritual of courtly dining. The last word in fashion for men and women of the nobility and haute bourgeoisie could be found in the elegant waistcoats and crinolines of the characters emerging from Meissen’s studios.
Antemann’s new works speak to the passionate collecting and cultivating habits of Meissen’s grandfather, Augustus the Strong, and hint at a parallel between the acquisition of beautiful objects and the desire for love and sex. The pattern painted on the female figure’s body in “A Strong Passion” (2014) mirrors the painting on a vase being held carefully by a man who seems equally drawn to both.
“Ambrosia” (2014) is a work inspired by the famed “Swan Service,” which came about as the result of a pitched battle between Kaendler and painter Johann Höroldt about the extent of painted decoration required for tableware. Kaendler believed that the subtle, low relief of the swan service was enough to make the objects outstanding, but Höroldt wanted to show off his virtuosic technique. In the end, Kaendler triumphed, and the “Swan Service” bore only a noble crest and a few small highlights, allowing his modeling to shine through. Kaendler was made head of production at Meissen after this, suggesting that a clash of creative minds can result in the occasional enduring masterpiece.
The Antemann work that speaks most powerfully to the preciousness of porcelain itself is called “A Delicate Domain” (2014), and it depicts a collector watching with a concerned expression as a maid cleans a set of figures with a brush. This is not the first time that Meissen figurines have been shown admiring tiny, ultra-miniaturized versions of themselves; since collecting is so much a part of Meissen’s history, the theme is enduring. What is amusing and witty about “A Delicate Domain” is the obvious concern of the man watching the maid: the scene disrupts the elite nonchalance and practice of ignoring the help as they go about their tasks — a servant attracts the fascination of her master.
Rococo has always been about seduction. But its flowery aesthetic, distant from us in culture and time, can make objects designed to delight and disarm seem stuffy and out of date. Antemann’s sculptures offers an invitation for the rest of us to explore the world in which Meissen was established, and in so doing, they suggest a new way of looking at the originals, too. Demure though they may appear, Meissen ceramics emerged from a context of desire, in which people were bewitched by fashion, sugar, sex, gossip, and inventions. Antemann’s work builds an elegant footbridge to an age that has more in common with our own than we might think.