An American in Meissen

Forbidden Fruit: A Collection of Antemann Dreams

Portland Art Museum, 2014

An historic porcelain factory in the hills of Saxony has its very own collection, invisible to the eye, but richer and more precious than the finished products of its kilns. Though there are rooms here filled with thousands of plaster moulds and centuries worth of subtle variations on a single form from the manufactory’s line of tableware and figurines, the collection that makes the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory irreplaceable comprises the memories, expertise, and skills of the people who work here. Passed down, mastered, and refined in an unbroken chain through political upheaval and social change, the knowledge that permeates this place is more priceless than any object, and more fragile than porcelain itself.

Since 2011, American artist Chris Antemann has been navigating her way through this collection, working in the studios of the MEISSEN artCAMPUS® at the legendary Manufactory in Germany’s easternmost state. Meissen’s oeuvre is in certain ways frozen in time, and, paradoxically, it is precisely this continuous dialogue with the past that has kept it vibrant to the present day. It is not just the finished objects that Antemann has been studying as she interprets MEISSEN®’s repertoire of designs and techniques through the prism of her own sculptural work. Rather, it is the chance to collaborate with the people who make the objects – an interaction that has transformed both her and them – and that have given Antemann such rich inspiration for her new work. 

The term “porcelain figurine” conjures the images of two distinct settings, seemingly very much at odds with one another: a glass case in the 18th century galleries of an encyclopedic museum, and the meticulously dusted mantelpiece in a lower-middle class living room. Both displays are redolent with sentimental feeling, a sweetness that seems almost willfully out of step with reality. Both feature the permanent, joyous expressions of tiny porcelain characters, evidently tickled by something they’ve seen or heard, sporting a devil-may-care cheerfulness that defies explanation. There’s a complex story in how these distantly related figurines – the older generation with a royal pedigree, and the younger set, a staple of mail order – came to symbolize such different social worlds in the settings they inhabit. As objects, they are not so different, really. As collectibles, their divergent paths in life show us what happens when a rare and precious substance is conquered by mass-production and globalization. 

Thanks to its proliferation as the stuff of inexpensive souvenirs (to say nothing of modern plumbing fixtures), it cannot be read as a pure luxury good in the 21st century. Yet it continues to signify refinement, both physically and culturally: Rococo period rooms in museums across Europe and North America make clear that this thin, white ceramic and its elaborate polychrome decoration were the place settings of la dolce vita, while hardier souls, we are led to assume, made do with rougher, simpler pottery, and eschewed luxuries like sugar, chocolate, and exotic fruits. Antemann’s sculptures are modern stories of desire. They seem inspired by the unfulfilled passions that the original Meissen figurines only hint at, and the pleasure-seeking world we are invited to imagine by the music, fashion, and painting of the Rococo period. 

Antemann, whose childhood introduction to porcelain included ancestral Hummel figures and was of a decidedly American bent, now finds herself at the epicenter of European porcelain’s origin story. Her sculptural work wraps its arms around all the ambiguity and tension that porcelain carries with it. MEISSEN®’s claim to ceramic fame is that it was the birthplace of European porcelain in 1708, that is, the first place in the Western world where porcelain’s key ingredient, kaolin, was first discovered used successfully to make porcelain outside of China. Like most luxury producers in 18th century Europe, it was the pet manufactory of a powerful ruler, in this case the voracious collector Augustus II of Saxony-Poland, known as Augustus the Strong (1670-1733). Augustus suffered (happily) from what he described as “maladie de porcelaine,” or porcelain sickness, going to great lengths to acquire porcelain from China and Japan, ultimately amassing over 20,000 objects. 

In the early 1730s, the aesthetic of Meissen porcelain® began to evolve: once the Manufactory met the initial challenge of replicating Asian ceramics with great verisimilitude, Augustus shifted his focus away from acquiring exotic porcelain from overseas and developed an interest in the creation of original ceramics unique to his realm. MEISSEN®’s director at the time, Count Heinrich von Brühl, brought a volume of botanical drawings by botanist Johann Wilhelm Weinmann into the manufactory, and these images formed the inspiration for a European style of floral decoration that characterizes MEISSEN® to this day.

The last word in fashion for men and women of the nobility and haute bourgeoisie could be seen in the elegant waistcoats and crinolines of the characters emerging from MEISSEN®’s studios. The settings in which these figurines were first enjoyed were rooted in theater. Famed head modeler Joachim Kaendler (1706–1775) created porcelain figures inspired by characters from the familiar Commedia dell’arte, sporting costumes that identified them, and designed to act as permanent versions of the elaborate sugar sculptures that had graced courtly banquet tables for decades. 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. Sandwiched chronologically between the sober Baroque and Neoclassical styles, the Rococo was an expression of wit, pleasure, and playfulness. The interior decoration of Rococo rooms was designed as a total work of art, in concert with clothing and objects.

Antemann’s fascination with MEISSEN® lies in precisely the sweet spot (quite literally) where decorative arts take on the narrative power of sculpture precisely because they are decorative, and thus woven into the fabric of social ritual. Where the figures of Kaendler’s day would flirt and tease, Antemann’s sculptures have taken the subtext of desire and forbidden attraction to a bolder place. Since 2006, she had been creating sculptures in porcelain that were inspired by MEISSEN®, but had an expressive and even provocative content. Figures gaze at one another not with coy shyness, but with clear desire. Men and women frolic in pairs, or more, dining at opulent tables heavy with fruit and sweets, and hide from one another in wooded glades or behind 18th century furniture. Her 2013 work “Love Temple Forbidden Fruit” depicts an outdoor banquet in a lush, classical temple, inspired by the “Temple of Honour” in Dresden.

In a wonderful confluence of 18th and 21st century technologies, MEISSEN® CEO Dr. Christian Kurtzke chanced to discover Antemann through a Google search for porcelain figurines. Immediately cognizant of the wit and talent he was looking at, he contacted Antemann about the possibility of a collaboration, and the rest is a new chapter in MEISSEN®’s history. The artCAMPUS® where Antemann works is relatively new, but the long history of MEISSEN®’s artists interpreting and reinventing its repertoire of themes and forms dates back to a move towards a more Neoclassical style in the latter part of the 18th century. The Manufactory’s museum contains Arts and Crafts, Vienne Werkstatt, and Art Deco works from the first decades of the 20th century, rather incongruous socialist-themed works from the GDR period (1949-1990), and tableware and figures inspired by cultures from around the globe, from Europe and Asia to the United States. Artists and designers visited MEISSEN® and worked there on a temporary basis, including some European design legends like Henry Van de Velde and Peter Strang.

Learning the language and the culture as she creates works that are inspired by, but not copies of, MEISSEN®’s historic porcelain figures, Antemann has had the rare privilege of working with MEISSEN®s artists, or “colleagues,” as they are known here. Like many American artists who work in ceramics and have a taste for European decorative arts, Antemann arrived at MEISSEN® dazzled by the presence of so many important figures in the history of ceramics and the array of historic objects both in the MEISSEN® “depot” and in the Porzellansammlung in Dresden. Room after room in the studios here house expert makers whose specialties are highly refined. There are modelers and there are plaster mold experts. There are china painters, and these are distinguished by specialties, such as figure painters, flower painters, or “Watteau painters” with expertise in depicting rococo scenes. There are gilders, and there are colleagues who paint large-scale tiles, making grand versions of tiny painted scenes found on historic pieces. Their desks are set with their paints, supplies, single-hair brushes and turpentine, alongside children’s drawings from home, photos of loved ones, radios and efficient set-ups for making tea. In the years that she has been at MEISSEN®, Antemann has forged lifetime bonds with some of the modelers and painters, who have collaborated with her, incorporating both the historic motifs and the hand-memory of the Manufactory into her sculptures.

MEISSEN®’s story is told anew through the pieces Antemann has created since she has been here, with particular emphasis on the culture of dining. She is inspired by the entire context that produced the famous figurines, not just their forms and styles, or the early modern alchemical wizardry that made their creation possible. Nothing like these works has ever been produced at MEISSEN® before, but with the enthusiastic response of collectors and admirers from around the world, it seems that Antemann’s signature way of interpreting the Manufactory’s rich history has struck a nerve with a new audience. The costumes and styles of the Kaendler era can cause contemporary viewers to feel distant from the content of the sculptural works, and the popularity of MEISSEN® with older collectors of the porcelain tableware can leave younger buyers feeling a bit out of step if they inherit a set. Antemann’s work shows contemporary audiences that the aesthetics of MEISSEN® are not actually frozen in time, but have for centuries been the backdrop for an evolving story. We may see luxury, desire, and passion differently today, but they existed then as they do now. Antemann’s fascination with MEISSEN®’s history, ironically, has freed its rococo spirit to do in today’s world what it has always done best: seduce.