Which came first, cockerel or the eggs? Review: Russian enamels exhibit shows this art form was much more than just the famous Faberge.

November 22, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The Russian enamel show at the Walters Art Gallery begins with the crow of a rooster. It's an appropriate wake-up call, because this show opens our eyes to an art that most of us are almost totally ignorant of.

As you enter the show, the first object you see is a wine carafe in the shape of a cockerel, or young rooster. Made in Moscow in 1874, his body is a rainbow of enamel colors: blue, red, black, white, green, orange. He proudly wears a crown, his beak is open in full squawk, and around his waist is an inscription that reads, "Drinking is not a hindrance but a stout fellow's delight."

This is definitely not a work for the royal family, one of those Faberge products that whisper exquisite luxury. By comparison, this cockerel -- though technically excellent -- is loud and flashy, a good example of what the St. Petersburgers had in mind when they spoke disdainfully of the Moscow "cockerel style."

This bold, self-confident rooster lets us know that Russian enamels don't just mean Faberge, and welcomes us to the groundbreaking show that proves it: the first comprehensive exhibit on the subject ever organized outside of Russia itself.

"Russian Enamels: Kievan Rus to Faberge" dispels many notions of Russian enamel work that stick in the popular mind because of Faberge, the only exposure most of us have ever had to the subject.

We think of Russian enamels as a late 19th-, early 20th-century phenomenon, but the show reaches back nine centuries to the earliest flowering of the art in medieval Russia. We associate the art with St. Petersburg, but we see here objects representing seven centers of enameling, from Solvychegodsk in the northeast to Kiev in the southwest.

We think of imperial objects made of gold and encrusted with LTC gems, but the show ranges across the aesthetic and economic spectrum from such objects to simple painted enamel medallions from the city of Rostov, turned out by the millions a year in the mid-19th century.

Secular objects associated with wealth constitute most of what we know of enameling -- presentation boxes, cigarette cases and the like. But here we see enamels on icons and crosses of the 18th and 19th centuries that are deeply religious in nature and ascetic rather than luxurious looking.

Among the makers represented by works of imagination and splendor are: Grigorii Musikiiskii, whose enamel miniature portrait empress Catherine I decorates an early 18th century gold and diamond watch; Pavel Ovchinnikov, whose two huge and resplendent bread and salt dishes, each more than 20 inches in diameter, were presents to Emperor Alexander III in the 1880s; Ivan Khlebnikov, who made the delightful cockerel carafe the show opens with. There are two well-known women, as well: Mariia Semenova, who took over her father's workshop and ran it from 1896 to 1904; and Mariia Adler, active in the 1880s and 1890s, who at one time employed 74 craftsmen.

But of course no Russian enamel show would be complete without Faberge, and this one has 22 objects from the Moscow and St. Petersburg workshops, including two imperial Easter eggs.

This significant exhibition brings together works from three collections in this area: the Walters, the Hillwood Museum in Washington and an anonymous private collector, also in Washington.

The 120 objects selected have been given a fine installation -- they glow and glisten in deep green and blue galleries, and the accompanying labels and texts provide a clear, informative explanation of the subject.

For those who want more, there is a catalog by curator Anne Odom, of Hillwood, with an introduction by William R. Johnston, of the Walters.

'Russian Enamels'

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays (to 8 p.m. Thursdays), 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Feb. 23

Admission: By timed ticket (which includes admission to the museum), $8 adults, $6 seniors, students and group tours, free to those under 18.

Call: For enamel show, (800) WAG-EGGS. For other information, (410) 547-9000

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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