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Friday, 19 April 2019

The Imperial Easter Eggs

Peter Carl Faberge`

It’s almost one a.m., a chilly night before Easter. The year is 1885. In his workshop on Bolshya  Morskaya a fashionable street in St. Petersburg, Peter Carl Faberge` is giving the final finishing touches to a beautiful golden Easter egg. This is no ordinary Easter egg and Faberge` is no ordinary jeweller. He's recently been titled ‘Master Jeweller’ and been awarded a gold medal by Tsar Alexander III. Faberge` had been commissioned by him to make an Easter egg for his wife Tsarina Maria Feodorovna.  The Tsar wanted to present the egg to his wife on Easter and also celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary.

The Hen Egg

The next morning the Tsar presents the egg to his wife. The egg which came to be known as the ‘Hen Egg’, is crafted from a foundation of gold. Its opaque white enamelled ‘shell’ opens to reveal a matt yellow yolk made entirely of gold. The yolk in turn opens to reveal a golden hen that’s resting on a bed of suede edged with striped gold fashioned to resemble straw. The hen contains a diamond and ruby replica of the imperial crown from which a small ruby pendant is suspended. Maria is so delighted with the gift that the Tsar commissions Faberge` to create an egg for Easter for his wife every year. He is given a free hand to design the eggs, the only requirement from the Tsar is that each egg should contain a surprise and be unique.

From then on it became a royal tradition to have Faberge` create this small, mesmerising, jeweled work of art every Easter. Each year he outdid himself, his workmanship and designs became more intricate and elaborate.

 Once Faberge` approved of the design, the work was executed by a team of talented craftsmen under his close supervision. Faberge` was a serious man who did not like small talk. He laid extreme emphasis on fine craftsmanship, creativity, beauty and set very high standards for everyone who worked for him.

In November 1894 the Tsar passed away and his son Nicholas II became the new Tsar of Russia. The newly appointed Tsar kept up the tradition of presenting a Faberge` egg every Easter to the Empress, but now instead of one he commissioned Faberge' to create two eggs. One was made for his wife Alexandra Fyodorovna and one for his mother the Dowager Empress. All together fifty imperial eggs were created; twenty were given to the Empress and thirty to the Dowager Empress.

The Lilies of the Valley Egg

For the Easter of 1898 Faberge` created the ‘Lilies of the Valley’ egg. Nicholas II presented this egg to his wife. The egg is covered in pearls and topped with rose-pink enamel. It’s supported by cabriolet legs of green gold leaves; with rose cut diamond dew-drops. The gold stemmed lilies have green enamelled leaves and flowers made of gold, set with rubies, pearls and diamonds.

The eggs surprise reveals itself by twisting a gold mounted pearl button. When fully raised, three portraits are visible under the imperial crown. Tsar Nicholas II and his two oldest daughters, the Grand Duchess Olga and the Grand Duchess Tatiana.  The portraits are framed in rose diamonds and backed with gold panels, engraved with the presentation year-1898. Today this egg is housed in the Faberge` museum in St. Petersburg.

 Faberge` became extremely wealthy and famous in imperial Russia. In 1900, he was awarded with a gold medal at the World’s Fair in Paris and France recognised this with one of the most prestigious awards, appointing him a Knight of the Legion of Honour. The eggs were made each year, except in 1904 and 1905 when Russia was at war with Japan. Nicholas II resumed the tradition in 1906 and carried it on until 1917.

The Tsarevich Egg

In 1912, the Tsar presented his wife with the Tsarevich egg. Unknown to all except the royal family at that time, Alexi was expected to die of haemophilia and was so close to death at one point that the Russian Imperial court had already drawn up his death certificate. When Alexi survived, Faberge`, who knew about his health created the egg for his mother as a tribute to the miracle of his survival. The egg is 15 cm in height; the outer shell is made from Lapis Lazuli with architectural style gold cage work in a design of leafy scrolls. The gold motifs cover each joint, making the egg look like it was carved from a single block of Lapis.
 The gold work includes two imperial double headed eagles, as well as cupids, canopies, floral scrolls, flower baskets and garlands. Two large diamonds, one on top and one at the bottom are encrusted into the eggs surface showing the initials of the Tsarina, the year 1912 and the imperial crown. Inside the egg the surprise is a Russian double headed imperial eagle with a miniature portrait of Tsarevich Alexi set in platinum and encrusted with diamonds. This intricate frame sits on a base of Lapis Lazuli and can be completely removed from the egg.

T he Winter Egg

In 1913, Faberge` created the winter egg. The Tsar presented this 10.2 cm high beauty to his mother. The exterior of the egg resembles frost and ice crystals formed on clear grass. It’s studded with 1,660 diamonds and is made from quartz, platinum and orthoclase. The surprise is a miniature basket of flowers, announcing the coming of spring. The basket is studded with 1,378 diamonds and is made from platinum and gold. The flowers are made of white quartz and the leaves are made of demantoid. The flowers lie in moss made from gold. This egg was sold at an auction at Christie’s in New York in 2002 for USD 9.6 million to the former Emir of Qatar.

In 1917, Faberge` keeping to the tradition worked on two eggs, but before they could be presented, the Bolshevik’s February Revolution broke out and Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the throne. His entire family was executed the following year. The eggs and many other treasures were confiscated by the interim government. The two final eggs were never delivered nor paid for. In 1918 the ‘House of Faberge` was nationalised by the Bolsheviks.

After the nationalisation Carl Faberge` left St. Petersburg on the last diplomatic train for Riga, finally the family settled in Switzerland. He never recovered from the shock of the revolution and died on September 24th 1920 of what many believed to be a broken heart.

Today, there are ten eggs at the Kremlin Armoury, nine at the Faberge` museum in St. Petersburg, Five at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and three each at the Royal Collection in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Two more are on display in Lausanne, Switzerland, two at Hillwood Estate in Washington, D.C and two at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. There’s a single egg in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, one at the Faberge` Museum in Baden- Baden, Germany. One is also owned by the former Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

The fate of eight imperial eggs remains a mystery. Two eggs are believed to be in the west, these are the 1889 Necessaire Egg, last spotted in London in 1949 and the 1888 Cherub with Chariot Egg, which  seems to have been exhibited at Lord & Taylor department store in New York in 1934.

In 1924 Faberge's sons opened a store called Faberge`and Cie in Paris. Today the company is headquartered in Mayfair in London. 

References: Art History Resources, Wikipedia

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Celebrating Imperfection- Kintsugi

The year is 1460, little Akira sits on a mat in his father’s workshop in Kyoto. It’s way past his bedtime, but he just can’t tear himself away from the beautiful ceramic bowl that has caught his attention the whole evening. He gazes at the beautiful blues and marvels at the many shades of green he glimpses in the glow of the lantern light. His father gently requests him to go to sleep and just as he gets up, the bowl slips from his hands and breaks. Tears well up in Akira's eyes, he can’t believe that this beautiful bowl, which was so flawless has now broken. He falls to the ground next to the shattered pieces and begins to cry. When his father sees what’s happened, he picks him up and tells him not to be upset and that he’ll repair the bowl in such a way that it’ll be even more beautiful than before. Akira’s not convinced however he decides to believe his father. His father is after all the chief craftsman to the mighty Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa.

The next morning as soon as Akira's eyes open to the early morning light glistening through the cherry blossom trees in full bloom, he runs to his father’s workshop. On his father’s simple wooden work table lies Akira’s bowl. It’s in one piece, but it doesn’t look like it did before. Akira is visibly disappointed. The pieces have been joined together and the cracks have been highlighted with what looks to him like gold. Sensing his disappointment, his father sits him down. He asks Akira to try and keep an open mind and to look at the bowl again, but in a completely new way. In his soft, soothing voice he explains that there's a special kind of beauty in emphasising the cracks instead of hiding them. "We must be able to perceive the beauty of the bowl in its entirety with all it's flaws," he says. He goes on to explain to Akira the art and philosophy of  "Kintsugi”.

Kintsugi, literally translates into golden joinery. It’s the centuries old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a special lacquer, dusted with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Beautiful seams of gold glisten in the cracks of the ceramic ware, revitalising it with a new lease of life while celebrating it’s imperfections. Akira’s father tells him that the mighty shogun had sent a cracked ‘Chawan’ or tea bowl back to China to be repaired. When it was returned, Yoshimasa was very displeased to see that it had been mended with ugly metal staples. He asked his craftsmen to find an aesthetically pleasing method to repair the bowl and the art of Kintsugi was born.

There are three predominant styles of Kintsugi. While in each case gold dusted epoxy resin is used to repair the broken pottery, the methods vary.

Crack: Objects repaired using this method, are touched up using minimal lacquer.

Piece Method: In this case a piece is replaced with a fragment made entirely of epoxy.

Joint-call: This method uses similar shaped pieces from other broken wares, combining two aesthetically different works into one unified work of art.

Kintsugi is heavily influenced by the ancient Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi. It’s a sensibility based on an appreciation of the transient beauty of the physical world. Rooted in Zen philosophy Wabi-Sabi celebrates all that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It embodies the appeal of the modest and the rustic, the beauty and serenity of the ageing process, dried falling leaves and the comfort of an old blanket are all examples of Wabi-Sabi. It promotes a completely alternative approach to the western concept of beauty, which celebrates perfection, symmetry and mathematical precision.

Akira’s father explains to him, that if something is cracked or broken its not useless. Once repaired its transformed into something more beautiful. It’s flaws and cracks add to the beauty for they celebrate what it has endured.

Akira hugs his father, he doesn’t completely understand the depth of his father’s words but he knows it's something very important. From the corner of his eye he sees his bowl, the gold in the cracks gleam in the sunlight and he has to agree that it's looking more beautiful than before.

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”- Leonard Cohen

References: My Modern Met, Andrew Juniper

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Supper at Emmaus

In the middle of the afternoon, a man runs frantically on the shore under the fierce summer sun. He is desperate to get to Rome and is trying to catch a glimpse of the boat that has left with all his belongings. He is a murderer, a fugitive, has an infected sword wound, and a raging fever, he is also the most powerful and influential Italian painter of that time. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio died on the 18th of July 1610 at the young age of 38, alone and penniless on a hospital bed in Ponto Ercole.

 Caravaggio was born in Milan in 1571. He moved to Rome in his early twenties, arrogant and rebellious, Caravaggio was a violent man in a violent world. Rome in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century was a difficult place to say the least. Thousands of artists flocked to the city in search of work. The Vatican was a magnet for artists, and each one was competing for powerful patrons in the church .There were no rules and hostilities ran deep. It’s against this backdrop that Caravaggio managed to establish himself as the most famous artist in Rome. It was during this time that he met Ciriaco Mattei. He was an Italian nobleman of Rome and belonged to one of the most powerful and influential families during this period, they held high positions in the church and the government. Mattei, who was a prolific art collector of his time, became a close friend and patron of Caravaggio.

At the height of Caravaggio’s career in 1601, Ciriaco Mattei commissioned him to paint what is widely considered to be one of his most powerful paintings, ‘Supper at Emmaus’.

As the story goes, after Christ’s crucifixion, two of his disciples were walking to a small town near Jerusalem called Emmaus, when they met a man who joined them and agreed to have dinner with them.  The disciples did not know at that time that this third man was in fact the resurrected Christ, he was incognito and so they failed to recognise him.

The painting captures that culminating moment in the narrative when Christ blesses the bread at supper and then vanishes, the disciples realise that this is the risen Christ, it’s the moment of spiritual as well as physical recognition, the moment when the divine enters the everyday world. Painted in oil and tempera on canvas, this 141 x 196.2 cm painting is full of drama. The use light plays a very essential role and underlines the main message of the painting,  Caravaggio is known for his strong use of light and shade known as, 'Chiaroscuro' to add that element of drama and theatre in his paintings. He always used live models, as a result his figures are very real, they’re normal folk they are poor, dirty and their hands are rough.

We can see the disciple in the torn green shirt, literally jumping up in his chair in that moment; his elbow is jutting out breaking into the viewer’s space. The second disciple has his arm spread out in surprise, he seems to be inviting the viewer to come and share this great moment with them.
There is space at the table for the viewer making us a participant in this great event.

Christ’s face is bathed in light, the innkeeper on the other hand, standing in the background remains in the dark, his face in shadow. He hasn’t realised the significance of the moment, he hasn’t seen the 'light'.

The dinner on the table consists of bread, fowl and a basket of fruit.  The food here is symbolic, the fowl is mirroring death, the bread is Christ’s flesh and the grapes in the basket make wine, a symbol of his blood. The fruit in the basket looks so realistic, you feel it’s good enough to eat. The basket itself is precariously placed at the edge of the table, almost asking the viewer to push it back. This is another way in which Caravaggio manages to include us in this great event.

Though the painting was criticised by some of his critics for showing Christ without a beard, Supper at Emmaus, exemplifies religious history painting. It’s timeless quality reaffirmed Carravaggio’s position as the greatest painter of that time.

Caravaggio’s short and tempestuous life matched the drama of his paintings. He got into brawls easily and got arrested repeatedly. In 1606, at the age of 34, he got into a fight and killed a man, instead of facing the law he fled Rome, he went to Naples and then the island of Malta, he finally died trying to make his way back to his beloved city. Caravaggio’s paintings were controversial, popular and hugely influential on succeeding generations of painters all over Europe.

Today ‘Supper at Emmaus’ can be seen in The National Gallery in London. Caravaggio painted a second version of this painting about five years after the first one, it can be seen in Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

References; Andrew Graham Dixon, Smart History