MARVELS IN MINIATURE
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,