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by Brook S. Mason
|"Golden Years of Fabergé: Objects and Drawings from the Wigström Workshop," Apr. 12-May 19, 2000, at A La Vieille Russie, 781 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10022. Admission: $15 to benefit the Thai Support Foundation.
A new chapter has opened in the history of Fabergé, the legendary jeweler to the czars. The New York gallery A La Vieille Russie has mounted an extraordinary exhibition showcasing the recently discovered Fabergé design sketchbook, largely consisting of watercolors, and a selection of the treasures made after the illustrations.
"Golden Years of Fabergé: Objects and Drawings from the Wigström Workshop," highlights the achievements of Henrik Wigström, Fabergé's head designer from 1903 to 1918. Though actually titled "workmaster," Wigström was no ordinary shop steward. At one point, this father of four led a workshop of some 500 artisans, goldsmiths, enamelists and jewelers. He is best known for the neoclassical Napoleonic Imperial Egg dating from 1912, which is on view in the show.
The sketchbook is filled with 1,000 watercolors to scale entirely by Wigström's hand, and gives a sense of the freshness and delicacy of his designs executed from 1911 to 1916. "The folio had been lost for close to three quarters of a century," explains Paul Schaffer, co-owner of the Fifth Avenue establishment, which was founded in Kiev in 1851. Schaffer spent more than two years researching and identifying actual objects pictured in the album. He also contributed essays to the facsimile book, Golden Years of Fabergé: Drawings and Objects from the Wigström Workshop, which serves as a catalogue for the show.
If for no other reason, gallery goers should visit the exhibition for the watercolors, which give insights a lifestyle of opulence and preciousness. There are cigarette lighters in profusion, bellpushers for summoning servants, cardcases and even a liveried elephant carrying a clock. What is surprising in light of the ornate ostentation associated with Fabergé is the chasteness of some designs. Take the cigarette lighter enameled in brilliant blue and gold -- the Rothschild family racing stripes. It's haute riche minimalism.
The sketchbook's palette of soft but subtle green, a blush of lavender and sumptuous silvers is impressive. Plus, comparing the life-size sketches with the actual objects immediately highlights the superb craftsmanship. Fabergé buffs will appreciate the range of objects, which runs from candlesticks and clocks to royal memorabilia like a diminutive gold column complete with a miniature of Nicholas II.
If ever there was an Easter show in the art world, this could be it. In addition to the renowned egg, on view are more than 100 Fabergé works actually pictured in the folio. Institutional lenders include the Hermitage, the Kremlin, Catherine the Great's Pavlovsk, the Thailand Royal Collection and the Forbes Museum. In addition, a number of private collectors have contributed works of dazzling skill.
The objects from the Thai Royal Collection have never been exhibited outside Thailand. Interestingly, the son of the King of Thailand lived in St. Petersburg and the two royal families forged links spanning some two centuries. On view is a miniature sleigh in gold and pale pink enamel from the Thai collection.
This exhibition is bound to draw crowds. "Vieille Russie's 1983 Fabergé show racked up lines around the corner," recalls Schaffer. Following its closing at the Fifth Avenue gallery, the exhibition will travel to the New Orleans Museum of Art, where it will be on view from June 17-Aug. 20, 2000.
Golden Years of Fabergé: Drawings and Objects from the Wigström Workshop by Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm, Peter L. Schaffer, Mark Schaffer and Alice Milica Ilich (Alain de Gourcuff Editeur, $95.)
BROOK S. MASON writes on art and antiques.