In 2011, the American artist Chris Antemann, known for her sculptural compositions in the spirit of the 18th century, was invited to work at Europe’s oldest porcelain factory. The collaboration began as part of the “Meissen Art Campus” creative project intended to attract new international talents and to create conditions for ceramic artists from different countries to realize their conceptions in porcelain.
Antemann found a source of inspiration in the celebrated works of artists of the gallant era, such exponents of French Rococo painting as Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. When it comes to porcelain, the unsurpassed master who embodied the playful spirit of 18th-century culture in small-scale plastic art was the chief modeller of the Meissen factory – Johann Joachim Kändler. It is no coincidence that his so-called “crinoline” scenes that reflect with wit and refinement the courtly life with its festivities and amorous overtones, as well as items from table services and surtout de table centrepieces, serve as a starting point for Chris Antemann’s oeuvre. As with Kändler, her large compositions, originally made from sugar and wood, and later from porcelain, besides decorating a table also served as an amusement for the guests and a topic for conversation over the meal.
The tremendous multipart installation entitled Forbidden Fruit, on which the artist worked together with the Meissen factory’s specialists over a period of two years, is a modern-day interpretation of a festive banquets in a Rococo-era setting. The sculptural ensemble takes the form of a well laid table surrounded by guests placed in an architectural summerhouse. The composition is supplemented by a porcelain chandelier and pyramids of fruit in openwork baskets, with little sculptural gallant scenes.
All the pieces are unique original works. While retaining the beloved Meissen ornamental and sculptural motifs, they display a strong individuality. Taking the historical examples as a basis, the sculptor allows her compositions to tell new tales of love, dreams and desires. The overall impression belongs to our own day, despite the gentlemen’s wigs and the ladies’ tall coiffures. It is not the form that is important for Chris Antemann’s sculpture. For example, the faces of the men and women are practically indistinguishable, the heads and hands are disproportionately large compared to the body. The important thing is the decorative filling, the detailing, the fine plastic elements – the curls in the wigs, the hats and also the painting of floral motifs from 18th-century Meissen porcelain, and the fragments of images from famous Watteau, Fragonard and Boucher paintings that adorn the women’s bodies instead of clothing. The language of contemporary art inevitably references the past, taking inspiration from an era or else disputing its achievements. Forbidden Fruit is more a piece of post-modernist jocular mythology in which irony considerably outweighs gallantness.
In the context of the exhibition, it is a question of the close ties and the relevancy for execution in porcelain of images and whole pictorial groups and motifs from the French painting of the first half of the 18th century associated with the work of Antoine Watteau and his close artistic circle. The display included works of Western European graphic art and creations of the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory from the 18th and 19th centuries from the collection of the State Hermitage that demonstrate the sources and traditions of the gallant scene as a genre in porcelain art.
Bringing together in a single space French engravings and Meissen porcelain of the 1700s, 1800s and 2000s, united by a single theme, makes it possible to see how the artistic ideas and spirit of the Rococo found reflection in different ways in pieces created to please and to amuse, for a play of feelings, humour and wit.
The exhibition has been organized by the State Hermitage and the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory. The curator is Olga Borisovna Baranova, senior researcher at the Museum of the Imperial Porcelain Factory, a department of the State Hermitage.
An illustrated scholarly catalogue has been produced for the exhibition (State Hermitage Publishing House, 2019) with an introduction by Georg Nussdorfer, Managing Director of the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory. The catalogue texts are by Olga Baranova, Liubava Chistova (State Hermitage) and Barbara Domschky (Meissen Porcelain Manufactory).