Power porcelain: Exhibit documents royal German ware


December 19, 1993|By Lita and Sally Solis-CohenLita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita and Sally Solis-CohenLita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers Solis-Cohen Enterprises Peter R. Solis-Cohen contributed to this story.

Politics, power, prestige and porcelain, inexorably linked for centuries, are put on pedestals in a new museum exhibit made possible in part by Germany's reunification and political upheaval in Eastern Europe. The interplay between dishes, design, dynasties and diplomacy is examined in "Along the Royal Road: Berlin and Potsdam in KPM Porcelain and Painting 1815-1848," the inaugural exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York. Although the exhibit can be enjoyed simply as a display of beautiful and rare objects, it has layers of meaning as colorful and complex as painted KPM porcelains themselves.

Thirty rarely seen porcelain masterpieces made in the early 19th-century Biedermeier era by Berlin's Konigliche Porzellan-Manufaktur (known by its initials, "KPM"), a factory under the royal Hohenzollern family's patronage and direction, are brought together for the first time in America at the just-opened Bard Center, through Feb. 20, 1994. On loan from KPM's archives and private collections, these majestic vases, plates, plaques and coupes are displayed in a restored turn-of-the-century Beaux Arts townhouse on Manhattan's Upper West Side, directly across Central Park from the mammoth Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The small but stellar exhibition gives visitors the feeling of having been transported in time and place to an intimate European house museum filled with sumptuously molded and painted porcelain fit for display in princely Prussian palaces and presentation as gifts of state.

Also exhibited are about 70 urban, architectural and landscape paintings by Carl Daniel Freydanck (1811-1887), whose views along the nearly 19-mile road linking the dual royal residences in Berlin and Potsdam were meticulously and luminously translated onto richly colored and gilded porcelain surfaces by skilled KPM artists.

Modern photographs of several of the painted scenes, showing scars of World War II bombings and decades of neglect or desecration by East Germany's communist regime, shock exhibition visitors into recognizing that political messages still resonate in the construction, destruction, reconstruction and depiction of monumental palaces and public spaces.

Not to be overlooked is that KPM was established in the mid-18th century to demonstrate that royal Prussia's wealth, power, taste, industry and culture rivaled that of France (home of the illustrious Sevres porcelain factory), Saxony (home of

Meissen porcelain), Russia (site of the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory in St. Petersburg), Bavaria (the Nymphenburg factory's locale), and Vienna (home of Royal Vienna porcelain), not to mention England and China, where the links between the ceramic arts, industry and nationalism were strong and old. The German government's active support and funding of the exhibit also clearly demonstrate that porcelain from KPM's most glorious era again is being presented as public symbols of German national pride, and as pictorial invitations for foreigners to explore the beauty of Germany's landscape and architecture.

The internationally oriented, interdisciplinary Bard Center and its premiere exhibit reveal, as well, that patronage of the arts by the state and by the wealthy and powerful is not just a historical footnote. According to a recent profile in Harper's Bazaar, the center's founder and director, Susan Weber Soros, an art historian in her late 30s, is married to a veritable prince of 'N capitalism, financier George Soros, who escaped Hungary after World War II. According to the extensive publicity materials prepared for the center's opening, Mrs. Soros, frustrated after she didn't get a job in 1990 as director of an academic program at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum/Parsons School of Design, realized that she could put her "dreams into effect by founding a new institution."

Mrs. Soros teamed up with her former graduate school thesis adviser, Derek Ostergard (now the center's academic dean), and found an institutional partner in Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., of which she is a trustee. Funding for the center came from a Soros family foundation; the building's restoration even was planned and supervised by the architects who designed Mr. and Mrs. Soros' apartment. The quickly completed facility and exhibition resulting from this marriage of art and wealth are nothing short of regal, although the center's position in the academic world still remains to be established. If Freydanck were alive today, he might paint an atmospheric view of the center's facade for KPM craftsmen to copy onto a nearly 3-foot high "krater vase" like the stunning ones on display in the exhibit. Appropriately, they're variations on a form developed at Sevres in the 1780s, known as the "Medici vase."

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