Politics and esthetics -- strange bedfellows, but the two add up to a beautiful and unusual exhibition in "Fragile Diplomacy: Meissen Porcelain for European Courts, ca. 1710-63," now at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture. This impressive loan show combines early European porcelain with a history lesson on shifting alliances in the 18th century.
Meissen was the first European factory to produce true porcelain, the formula of which had been hunted for years at many European courts, which were bedazzled by imported Chinese and Japanese porcelains.
The formula was discovered in 1708 at the court of porcelain-loving August II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. A patent for the Royal Porcelain Manufactory at Meissen was given by August II in 1710. By 1711, August II was using Meissen wares as part of a gift to the King of Denmark.
Rather than organize the Meissen pieces in the show strictly chronologically, guest curator Maureen Cassidy-Geiger establishes the gift-giving protocol of the period and then displays the Meissen porcelains by the courts to which they were presented by August II or his son, August III.
Elaborate gift-giving functioned as part of diplomacy on several levels in 18th-century Europe. Ambassadors were frequently rewarded with gold snuffboxes instead of money, for example. The snuffboxes were expected to be sold as needed. Visitors can compare several gold snuffboxes with Meissen examples, which often would take the place of gold ones. Like gold snuffboxes, the molded Meissen pieces were soon painted not only on the lids but also within, providing a user with a private visual pleasure.
In most kingdoms in Europe, family ties and dynastic successions were cemented with more elaborate gift exchanges. Every delicacy and rarity -- whether food, wine, hunting paraphernalia, animals (often with their trainers or keepers), jewelry, art, books or anything made of exotic materials, was exchanged (and coveted) in varying degrees. Ministers were given hints as to what might please a sovereign or noble. It would soon magically appear.
In 1717, August II sent 600 of his best dragoons to aid Friedrich William I of Prussia. The two royals could not be seen as entering into a trade, especially one involving human beings. A gift was the perfect answer. And for a porcelain-lover like August II, a huge Chinese jar, now called the "Dragoon" vase was part of his reward from the Prussian king. It’s a huge, lidded vase, a wonderful example of late Ming/early Qing blue-and-white ware, once part of Friedrich William I’s own extensive collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelains. It was sent along with many more Oriental porcelains to express appreciation to August II.
Just as Meissen snuffboxes began replacing gold snuffboxes, Meissen soon began replacing Chinese and Japanese porcelains in court gift-giving. The Habsburgs of Austria dominated the German-speaking areas of Europe. One of Habsburg dowager Empress Wilhelmine Amalie’s daughters married the Saxon crown prince, who would become August III. It’s no surprise that she possessed many pieces of Meissen "white gold." Besides several colorful vases from a garniture (or set of vases of various sizes and types, usually suitable for display on a chimney piece), visitors can admire a 29-piece toilet set featuring the Habsburg double-eagle against a celadon background.
A spectacular all-white garniture, comprised of five vases (or vases made from the same molds), was sent to Louis XV of France. They were made to glorify the king, but they also glorify Meissen in their extraordinary three-dimensionality.
The central vase, a direct tribute to the king, has figures of Flora and Fame with a head of Apollo surrounded by the sun’s rays. There is a profile of Louis XV beneath the Apollo with cascading flowers. On the cover, two putti hold a cartouche surmounted by a crown. The other four vases are based on the four elements -- water, fire, air and earth. Earth manages to incorporate Diana and an entire hunt scene with running stags and hounds. Each is a sculptural wonder.
When one of August III’s daughters was married to the dauphin, more Meissen made its way to Paris. Dinner services and dessert services commonly included table decorations. One of the table decorations for the January 1747 wedding of Marie-Josephe de Saxe to the dauphin portrays the three graces, scantily draped and wearing the crowns of France, Saxony and Poland/Lithuania. August III, Elector of Saxony, had been elected to the Polish throne, but was challenged and had to fight in order to keep the title. France supported him in his claims, so this piece is packed with symbolism.
Complete coffee, tea and chocolate services of porcelain were in high demand by royalty everywhere, as formal banquets with multiple courses and entertainments were important parts of court life. A particularly lavish example is a set decorated with gold chinoiseries that was part of a huge selection of Meissen sent to the King of Sardinia in 1725. Its original traveling case is miraculously still intact and is displayed at Bard with the glittering pots, cups and saucers.
There’s even a touch of humor in the show. One satirical English diplomat, Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, ordered a huge dinner service from Meissen featuring real and imaginary animals. On one of several pieces from the service at Bard, you will be confronted by a donkey’s backside, surely one of the set’s commissioner’s best jokes and most lasting.
The climax of the exhibition is the recreation of a royal dessert table. Food historian Ivan Day has organized the place settings, mirrored plateaus, numerous table decorations and sugar-paste baskets filled with sweets in several enticing varieties. (Don’t even think about snatching a taste; there are lots of guards.) The dessert set, called the "St. Andrew," is decorated with the St. Andrew’s cross, the Russian double-eagle and a charming assortment of flowers with lids topped by realistic fruits, vegetables or birds. Once owned by Empress Elizabeth of Russia, it is now in the collection of the Hermitage and is being shown for the first time in the United States.
Curator Maureen Cassidy-Geiger has created an absorbing show. For anyone with the slightest interest in early Meissen or the habits and relationships of rulers of the Enlightenment, the exhibition’s scholarly and engrossing catalogue, edited by Cassidy-Geiger, is also a must. "Fragile Diplomacy" is at the Bard Graduate Center to Feb. 11, 2008.
In addition to being guest curator for "Fragile Diplomacy," Cassidy-Geiger is curator of the Arnhold Collection, considered the most valuable private collection of Meissen in the world. She is guest curator for an upcoming show drawn from the Arnhold holdings at the Frick Collection in March. I can hardly wait.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.