MAR­VELS IN MINIA­TURE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

try­ing to im­i­tate it with, for ex­am­ple, Dutch Delft ware, which is re­ally a kind of faience, or English stoneware — nei­ther of which was as hard, fine or translu­cent as the Chi­nese wares.

It is the enor­mous pres­tige of porce­lain that ex­plains the pop­u­lar­ity of minia­ture porce­lain sculp­ture in the 18th cen­tury, the sub­ject of an ex­hi­bi­tion at the NGV which may re­quire some ef­fort of his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion to ap­pre­ci­ate, es­pe­cially for those who have grown up as­so­ci­at­ing porce­lain sculp­ture with kitsch fig­urines adorn­ing the par­lours of maiden aunts.

There were also prece­dents for minia­ture sculp­ture, as one of the dis­play cab­i­nets in the ex­hi­bi­tion re­minds us. Desk­top-size bronzes were pro­duced in the 16th and 17th cen­turies — here we have a small Flag­el­la­tion in sil­ver by Al­gardi — while ivory minia­tures had been com­mon in Byzan­tine and gothic art and re­mained pop­u­lar in the baroque pe­riod, as we see in a re- lief of Venus and Ado­nis. The Chi­nese too had pro­duced minia­ture porce­lain sculp­tures, such as the one shown here of the god­dess Guanyin.

Be­cause the se­cret of porce­lain was first dis­cov­ered in Sax­ony, Meis­sen be­came a fa­mous cen­tre of pro­duc­tion of table­ware and or­na­men­tal fig­urines, and has re­mained syn­ony­mous with the art form to this day, al­though many no­table pieces in the ex­hi­bi­tion come from else­where, in­clud­ing Derby in Eng­land.

The process by which the fig­urines are pro­duced is del­i­cate. First the form must be modelled in clay, and then a plas­ter mould is made; in com­pli­cated fig­ures the in­di­vid­ual parts are sep­a­rately modelled and sep­a­rate moulds are pro­duced. Clay is poured into the moulds, and each piece needs to be hand-fin­ished and pol­ished and joined to the oth­ers. Fi­nally the whole is hand­painted, glazed and fired.

So each of the elab­o­rate pieces in the ex­hi­bi­tion is made in a way that com­bines an ar­ti­sanal form of se­rial pro­duc­tion with painstak­ing crafts­man­ship. Our ap­pre­ci­a­tion of any kind of art is en­hanced by an un­der­stand­ing of the way in which it was made, and this is prob­a­bly es­pe­cially true of any form that is un­fa­mil­iar or for which we may not feel in­stinc­tive sym­pa­thy: once we re­alise the skill and care that have en­tered into the making of each of these pieces, we are in­clined to take them more se­ri­ously.

Or per­haps se­ri­ously is not quite the right word, for in style the porce­lain fig­urines be­long to the pe­riod and sen­si­bil­ity now called ro­coco. In France this was a de­lib­er­ately friv­o­lous style that arose in the wake of the un­re­lent­ing grandeur of the Sun King’s of­fi­cial art — though to be strictly ac­cu­rate, the new style is an­tic­i­pated in the last decade or so of Louis XIV’s reign. In Ger­many, ro­coco took a slightly dif­fer­ent form,

Pi­eta

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