Porcelain may conjure up images of some dusty vases or figurines on your grandmother's shelf. But a new exhibition at the Dresden City Museum showcases a modern, artistic interpretation of this precious material.
In the porcelain industry, Dresden is a city known worldwide for its rich history and craftsmanship. A new exhibition in the Dresden City Museum, called "Dresden Porcelain: Myth - Representation - Inspiration," shows that porcelain art can be much more than fine china and traditional figurines.
Richard Stratenschulte, head of public relations for the museum, said the show, which opened earlier this month, isn't what people would necessarily expect from Dresden porcelain.
"The aim of the exhibition is to go back to the roots of Dresden porcelain, which is a big name in and of itself in English. So on the one hand we wanted to show the beginning of porcelain here in Dresden, but we also wanted to show how porcelain is used today," said Stratenschulte. "This is quite important for us because porcelain is not known and not normally used as a material for art objects."
Out of the kitchen cupboard
Walking into the exhibition, the visitor's eye is first drawn to a corridor of five modern busts, at the end of which hangs an ornate porcelain chandelier that is more than 100 years old. This juxtaposition of old and new is exactly what the curators aimed to capture.
Most of the modern pieces are white, the classic porcelain color. The five busts in the corridor, created by Dresden-based artist Olaf Stoy, are all white porcelain with distinct gold accents. Stoy combines conventional porcelain colors with unconventional designs.
One of the busts, titled "White Rabbit," combines the head of a rabbit and the body of a woman. Stratenschulte said this figure could be an interpretation of the Playboy bunny, but also serves as a reminder that porcelain art can make critical social statements. They're not just pretty decorations.
"We wanted to show that porcelain today is much more than a cup or plate or something like that. You can't use these objects, but you can live with them," said Stratenschulte.
An alcove of the exhibition is blanketed in a perfect rectangular sheet of broken porcelain. Artist Else Gold, who created this piece, asked members of the community to give her their broken pieces of white porcelain along with the story of how it was broken. Gold then pieced the shards together to create a floor installation. Each fragment was laid individually without adhesive and the whole thing took five days to complete. The topography of the porcelain rises and falls with personal memories of anger, accidents, loss.
Gold's work shows that porcelain is not just a material to be placed in the kitchen cupboard. Porcelain busts, sculptures, and paintings, glazed or unglazed, are all represented. There are even several porcelain chess sets on display.
A changing art
Traditional Dresden porcelain, however, doesn't come up short in the exhibition. Several large, ornate vases from the early 20th century are a reminder of what made the craft so famous in Dresden. Porcelain from Dresden is known in particular for its colorful handmade flowers, free-hand paintings, gold accents, and detailed fretwork.
These rich details and craftsmanship are what originally made porcelain a statement of wealth and lifestyle. Stratenschulte explained that porcelain was rare during the 18th century and only the extremely wealthy could afford it. During the 19th century, following the French Revolution, the growing middle class started buying porcelain, which greatly expanded the industry. By the end of the 19th century, industrial production methods led to lower porcelain prices and manufacturers focused on creating brands to protect their designs.
The decline of the porcelain industry came in the 20th century as the destruction of two world wars had left precious materials like porcelain obsolete. The Dresden porcelain industry started gaining popularity again after German reunification in 1990. To compete in the market, Dresden manufacturers, like the Saxon Porcelain Manufactory, have relied on their brand name and quality.
Irene Jäckel, the manufacturer's sales manager, said the Saxon Porcelain Manufactory focuses on creating traditional porcelain models and designs, yet they also help foster modern porcelain art. They offer residencies to porcelain artists from all over the world. Their current artist-in-residence is Olaf Stoy, one of the many artists whose work is featured in the City Museum's exhibition.
The Saxon Porcelain Manufactory has also loaned several pieces to the City Museum, including several traditional vases and white porcelain animal figurines. "This craft is made by people with so much love for details and that is, I think, what makes it so special and what will continue in the future," said Jäckel, adding, "It is made by people for people."
The future of porcelain
In the exhibition, a quote is projected on the wall that captures the essence of porcelain as a versatile yet enduring material: "Porcelain is like an actor; it can never deny itself completely," by Charlotte Sommer-Landgraf.
Stratenschulte hopes interest in modern forms of porcelain will continue to grow, even after the exhibition closes on October 14. "It would be great to not only show Dresden artists, but what is going on in general - to keep the arts alive," he said. "To receive examples, and on the other hand to give something back to the world."