Enamels at the Hermitage

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on March 2, 2010

Enamels of the World 1700-2000 from the Khalili Collections
Hermitage, St Petersburg, 8 December 2009 – 18 April 2010

Throne table Guangzhou (Canton), 1736-1795 Gilt copper, painted enamel, 37 x 90.5 x 42 cm

Due to popular demand Enamels of the World 1700-2000 from the Khalili Collections, being exhibited at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, has been extended until 18 April. This is the inaugural presentation of a remarkable new facet of the Khalili Collections, perhaps best known for the their unparalleled Islamic and Japanese art. The exhibition features some 320 pieces selected from approximately 1,200 works in the enamel collection.

Enamelling has been an essential accomplishment of the virtuoso jeweller for more than 3,000 years, and many ancient works rank among the treasures of European and Asian art – to the extent, perhaps, that it tends to be popularly, though
misleadingly, identified with ancient and mediaeval art.

Novelty scent spray, attributed to Mouliné, Bautte & Co. or Moulinié & Bautte, Geneva, circa 1805 Gold, translucent and painted enamel, agate and seed pearls, 11 x 5.5 x 1.4 cm

Partly because of this, its history since 1700 or so has become the province of highly specialised scholars often working in ignorance of their colleagues’ work in closely related fields, which is especially paradoxical since enamellers themselves have always been highly mobile. The rapidity of travel and the ease with which motifs and techniques could be transferred, virtually from one end of the industrialised world to the other, in the 18th and 19th centuries, has given their work a truly international dimension. Many of their names are little known to the general public. Professor Nasser D Khalili’s achievement has been not just to present their work but to show them working in a global environment and, whether European or Asian, transcending the boundaries of national frontiers or individual enterprise. The historicist taste of the 19th century, imbued by the conviction that the traditions of the past dynamically influenced the arts of a nation, went hand in hand with the conviction that exotic art could be exploited to revive them. This was as true of Meiji Japan and Qing China, as of Tsarist Russia, Victorian Britain and Ottoman Turkey.

Drawn by the most humble Muhsin known as ‘The Aleppan’, Iran, ca. 1800

The exhibition includes splendid enamelling by the most prestigious European masters. The firm of Fabergé is represented by twenty-six works including a combined timepiece and photograph frame, while the work of Feodor Rückert, a workmaster who regularly supplied Fabergé, is seen in three items dating from different periods of his career including one of his great masterworks, the Ol’sen kovsh. The eminent French master Jean-Valentin Morel is also represented by three works, among them the very last that he made. The genius of René Lalique, which was so fêted at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, may be appreciated both on a small scale with a corsage ornament and on a large scale with a remarkable surtout de table. At the same Exposition, the firm of Cartier also enjoyed great critical acclaim and the exhibition features fifteen works by Cartier, among them clocks, cigarette cases and vanity cases. Much of the enamelling produced in the Islamic lands is the work of anonymous craftsmen. However, the exhibition includes a rare signed example, a gold box signed by Muhsin, known as ‘the Aleppan’, an artist working at the court of Fath ‘Ali Shah.

Timepiece Laurent, Paris, 1793-1794 Painted marble and gilt-metal, copper with opaque, translucent and painted enamel with paillons, 40.8 x 26 x 16 cm

As a whole the collection magnificently displays the great variety of work produced by enamellers ranging from precious personal accessories such as jewellery to clocks, vases, and even pieces of furniture. Similarly striking is the element of fantasy employed in their creation, for example the scent spray formed as a pistol, the scent issuing from a flower that emerges from the muzzle when the trigger is pulled, or the evening bag made by Aloisia Rucellai in 1968, where the folds and ‘watering’ of moiré silk have been extravagantly replicated in engraved gold and enamel. Equally remarkable is the variety of techniques used to decorate these pieces including cloisonné, painted and plique à jour enamel. At the same time fascinating differences may be noted in the use of the same technique in different locations such as China and Japan.

The impact of patronage is well illustrated by many works in the exhibition. Specific commissions include the small almanac made for the Empress Marie-Louise, second consort of Napoleon I, to commemorate the birth of their son, the King of Rome, and the casket made for Elisabeth, Queen of Roumania, which she gave to the French painter Jean Lecomte de Nouÿ. Other works were made to order for royal and imperial households; among these are the Russian cigarette case by Hahn with a diamond-set imperial eagle and the pair of Japanese vases by Hattori Tadasaburo which incorporate the Imperial kikumon. In other instances enamelled works of art were used to commemorate an event such as the spectacular charger by Pavel Ovchinnikov that was presented by the city of Moscow to Emile Loubet, President of the French Republic, during his state visit to Russia in 1902.

Edited by Haydn Williams

Historical revivalism is a major theme covered by the Collection. The rise of nationalism during the 19th century encouraged artists to study the past in the hope of defining national identity. In northern Europe the Gothic era was thoroughly reviewed while in Russia interest focused upon the art made before Peter the Great’s policy of westernisation. Filigree enamelling, a traditional technique practised in the cities of Moscow, Velikii Ustiug and Solvychegodsk, was revived. One of the leading exponents of this was Pavel Ovchinnikov, the maker of the imposing double-handled kovsh. Widespread interest in the past also stimulated collectors to seek antiques for their collections. The scarcity of authentic examples, combined with great demand, soon led to the production of imitations that made good the shortfall. One of the most noted makers of such work was Reinhold Vasters and the exhibition includes three spectacular examples by him, among them the large covered bowl applied with jewelled gold and enamel mounts. Other masters drew on the past in a more informal and fanciful way as can be seen in the charger by Herman Ratzersdorfer or the timepiece by Vever frères which was exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889.

The importance of the Khalili Collection and the number of wonderful pieces made by Russian craftsmen make its unveiling in one of the world’s greatest museums, the State Hermitage Museum, entirely appropriate and in keeping with Professor Khalili’s wish to share his collections with the world and to promote greater understanding between people of different cultures.

Exhibition catalogue: Haydn Williams, ed., Enamels of the World, 1700-2000 : The Khalili Collections (London: The Khalili Family Trust, 2009), 450 pages, ISBN: 9781874780175, $75

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