Enamel glows at Walters Art: New show explores several centuries of Russian workmanship.

November 17, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The exhibit opening today at the Walters Art Gallery is the first in the West to explore the entire history of Russian enamels -- a subject virtually unknown here even though its most famous practitioner, Faberge, is a household name around the world.

Say "Faberge" and people think of opulent, bejeweled bibelots. But the luxurious look of Faberge objects was achieved largely through the masterful use of enameling, which is nothing more than tinted glass fused to a metal base.

It is a process that goes back at least to ancient Greece and has been used worldwide for thousands of years. Thanks to Faberge, those who know of enameling at all probably associate it with the gorgeous objects he created for the Russian royal family and the very rich everywhere -- especially the imperial Easter eggs, with their elaborate designs, their rich colors, their sumptuous uselessness.

But the Walters show, "Russian Enamels: Kievan Rus to Faberge," has another message altogether. The enamel art in Russia is far older than Faberge -- it goes back at least 10 centuries -- and has been used for much more than the creation of expensive toys.

It has been employed on utilitarian, patriotic and religious objects, made in various centers from the familiar St. Petersburg and Moscow to the unpronounceable Solvychegodsk and Velikii Ustiug.

The Walters exhibit, to be seen only in Baltimore, exists because this area is home to three collections from which the show's 120 works are drawn.

The Walters has primarily older works, from the 12th to the 18th centuries. Hillwood Museum in Washington, the former home of heiress and collector Marjorie Merriweather Post, possesses primarily works of the 18th and 19th centuries, especially those related to the imperial court at St. Petersburg. An anonymous private collection, also from Washington, is particularly strong in the "Russian Revival" enamels made in Moscow in the second half of the 19th century.

Put them together, and these collections constitute the most comprehensive holdings of Russian enamels outside of Russia itself. Not only hasn't this show been done anywhere else in the West -- it couldn't have been done anywhere else.

Moreover, it addresses every aspect of Russian enamels. "All the techniques, all the periods and all the places are covered," says Anne Odom, an expert in enamels who is chief curator at `D Hillwood, co-curator of the exhibit with the Walters' William R. Johnston, and principal author of the show's catalog.

That's not to say it addresses every aspect equally. Earlier periods in particular are touched on, rather than covered as thoroughly as later periods. Two small 12th-century pendants less than 2 inches in diameter, for instance, must represent Kievan Rus, the earliest period of Russian enameling.

Kiev, in what is now Ukraine, was the center of the first Russian state, founded in the ninth century. By the 11th century the German monk Theophilus, in a work called "Divers Arts," mentioned Kiev as a famous center of enameling.

The two small pendants, which would have hung from a headdress, are decorated with birds and stylized plant motifs in red, blue, green and white enameling on a gold background. They are not elaborate, but the artisans who created them were already using the two principal techniques of enameling: cloisonne, in which the enamel is held in place by raised strips of metal attached to the metal base; and champleve, in which the enamel is inserted into areas carved out of the surface of the metal base.

Mongol invasions in the 13th century caused the decline of Kiev, and Moscow subsequently arose as the principal Russian city. Five small works from the 17th century, including a decorated coconut shell as loving cup, represent early Muscovite enamel production. By this time, however, enameling was not confined to one center. From the same period there are impressive examples in the style of Solvychegodsk, a northern city near the seaport of Arkhangelsk. The late 17th-century bowls in this style, with their figurative, sometimes narrative centers surrounded with patterns of brightly colored flowers constitute one of the exhibit's high points.

Russian symbolism

The decorative themes here reflect Western influences coming through Arkhangelsk, and the subject matter is at times biblical. But the symbolism employed can tie these works firmly to Russia. Samson wrestles with a lion on one bowl. Samson was well-known to symbolize Peter the Great, and the struggle with the lion represents his early struggles to gain and hold power after he came to the throne at the age of 10 in 1682.

The techniques were Western European-influenced, too. Rather than cloisonne, which used plain strips of wire, twisted wire known as filigree was used to hold the enamel, adding a decorative element of its own. And the colorful effects of these works are achieved by painting with enamel paints on a plain white enamel background, allowing for a much greater decorative latitude.

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