Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Monsters and Maidens: Amphora Pottery of the Art Nouveau Era Tour Blueprint

Exhibition Dates: November 1, 2009-April 11, 2010


Between 1892 and 1918 the Amphora Pottery Company manufactured thousands of remarkably imaginative and delicately crafted ceramic vessels in its workshop in Teplitz, Austria. From snarling dragons and sea creatures to medieval maidens and lily pads, the wares of the Amphora pottery makers were influenced by artistic and literary movements ranging from Symbolism and Secessionism to Art Nouveau.

Amphora came about as the result of a rare combination of historical and political events. By the late nineteenth century, the country of Bohemia had become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, leading to an influx of German immigrants. This skilled workforce, combined with Bohemia’s Celtic origins, thousand-year history, and rich culture fueled a creative synergy that led to the birth of the Amphora Company. The firm was established by Alfred Stellmacher in 1860, who was later joined by partners Eduard Stellmacher, Hans and Carl Riessner, Rudolf Kessel, and Ernst Wahliss.

Popularity of Amphora Pottery soared in the late nineteenth century. This was particularly the case in the United States, where world’s fairs and expositions offered increased access to international products, and a burgeoning advertising industry drove demand for innovative art objects. American industrial expansion during this period led to increased wealth and prosperity and the subsequent rise of the middle class. Increasingly, it was this class that purchased decorative pottery to embellish the interiors of their homes.

Like other firms of the period, such as Tiffany Studios, that produced decorative art, Amphora objects remained in private homes until future generations decided to part with them. It is surprising, then, to learn that given the popularity of Amphora during the late nineteenth century, this unique—and sometimes bizarre—form of pottery remains relatively unknown today, except for by a handful of collectors. This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to view examples from one of the world’s finest Amphora Pottery collections.
By 1850, with rich deposits of exceptional kaolin clay and a large body of skilled workers, Vienna and Western Bohemia were producing huge quantities of exceptional porcelain wares. Teplitz, the home of the Amphora Company, and possibly as many as thirty other pottery companies in the year 1900, was a small picturesque village in northwest Bohemia—now part of the Czech Republic. In 1900 it was considered a tourist destination and visited by well-known figures such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who came to visit the city’s legendary hot springs and baths.

To make Amphora Pottery, a die—or model—must first be carved from modeling clay with knives and scrapers and polished with abrasive rags to make the clay smooth. The model is placed in a high-temperature oven and fired. After it is removed from the oven, the die is used to make a plaster-of-Paris cast. Refined clay would then be swirled about in this cast until it was one-half inch thick. After the refined clay was dry, the cast was removed, additional detailed carving was undertaken, and the model was ready for decorating with colored glazes. The final piece was then subjected to many additional firings depending on the melting temperatures of the glazes.

Female faces were a popular motif in Amphora pottery. Many portrait pieces were influenced by themes and motifs from Symbolist myths, literature, and religion, in which women were portrayed as idealized and magical nymphs, dancers, and virgins. The Amphora Company is known for its respectful portrayal of the female figure from the very start. This comparison shows a photograph of the young model Evelyn Nesbit that her promoter Sanford White used to promote her modeling career. Amphora produced a line of vases using this image of Nesbit.

Amphora Influences
Amphora pottery designs are influenced by such varying art, design, and cultural movements as Rococo, Symbolism, Japonisme, the Vienna Secession, the Pre-Raphaelites, and even the Arts and Crafts Movement and William Morris. Such influences can be seen in the decorative motifs of many of the pieces in the gallery: insects, flowers, female figures, bats,

1. Figural Ewer, before 1892
2. Vase, circa 1892
3. Untitled, circa 1894
Alfred Stellmacher, often considered the father of Amphora Pottery arrived on the scene in Bohemia around 1860. Many of his earliest pottery designs show influences of the Rococo and Victorian eras, characterized by unrestrained playful and frilly floral motifs. Japanese influences—often referred to as the japonesque—were also prevalent during the early years for the Amphora Company. The objects in this display case represent early Amphora Pottery samples pre-dating the rise of the Art Nouveau style.

1. Western “Cave Dragon” planter, circa 1900
2. Western Dragon vase, circa 1900
3. Venom-spitting Dragon vase, circa 1900
4. Mini-dragon, Salamander, circa 1900
5. Pterodactyl, circa 1900
At the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris, the Amphora Company introduced new models that mostly included dragons, animals, bats, and beasts. Dragons—the notorious reptilian creatures with bulky, scaly bodies and wings that were long written about in mythology—were among the most popular animal-like forms depicted in pottery. Western dragons, such as those on view in this display case, were characterized by wedge-shaped heads, four feet, and enormous claws. They were depicted in various colors. These fantastical and bizarre animal representations were precursors to the Grotesque genre that characterized German art of the period 1920—1933.

1. Octopus and Crab Vase, circa 1900
2. Mini-monster vase, circa 1900
3. Untitled, circa 1900
“Monsters” from the sea—such as squid, octopus, and crab—were popular motifs for vases that were eagerly sought by collectors enamored with dragon-type imagery.

Spider Woman, circa 1900
Among the most sought-after of Amphora portrait pieces, this rare Spider Woman vase depicts woman with closed eyes and long golden tresses, whose face is framed with a butterfly headdress, golden crown, and a spider web. Four opals have been affixed to further ornament the piece. Compare the Spider Lady from 1900 to the decoration of a vase made with the same mold (above right) to see how both the designer and the chosen materials were crucial to the final outcome of an object.

Summer Queen, circa 1894
Summer Queen is from one of the most well-known lines of Amphora Pottery in the Art Nouveau style. The falcon, long a symbol for intelligence and pride, appears in Arthurian Legends, Irish myths, and the Old Norse Edda. Compare the profile of the woman on the vase to the print by famed Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha (right). Although the profile format is similar, Mucha’s portrait is soft and feminine, while Amphora’s presentation of the woman with a falcon headdress is samurai-like and serious.

Vide Poche (sundries tray), circa 1898-99
One favorite Art Nouveau theme was the figure of a woman with flowers. Around 1900, artists Alphonse Mucha and Jules Cheret helped to popularize the “flower ladies” theme—known at the time as femme fleur—in widely-distributed posters and advertisements. The maiden depicted on this object emerges from a lily pad colored with the green glaze that became known as the signature color of the Amphora Company.

Women in the Storm, circa 1900
In Art Nouveau design, women were often depicted in peril, as the imagery on this vase suggests. A similar motif was employed by Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt in his 1902 Beethoven Frieze (detail at left).

Vase, circa 1900
From 1897-1899, the Amphora Company was at the height of its Art Nouveau production. This vase displays rich colors and exotic water lilies with sinuous handles based on a form designed by Paul Dachsel, one of the partners in the Amphora Company.

Semiramis/The Moth Series, circa 1900
The name Semiramis was given to this series of vases by critics in the early 1900s who associated its ornamentation with Semiramis, the Queen of Assyria. Although collectors have referred to the pieces as “moth vases” for decades, the insects depicted are actually butterflies. German journal articles and reviews from the period always referred to them as schmetterling—which translates to butterfly.

These vases are affixed with gres bijous—porcelain jewels—that were fabricated using clay, glazed with different colors, and then fired before they were cemented into place.

Pelican Planter, circa 1900
This planter, adorned with three birds, provides a fine example of the gres bijou—or porcelain jewelry—technique employed by the Amphora Company. In an effort to add nuance to pottery designs, the company adopted a technique invented by French goldsmith Rene Lalique that used materials such as pearls, ivory, and diamonds to embellish objects. The Amphora Company fabricated faux-porcelain jewels in clay, glazed them, and fired them before affixing them to finished pottery pieces.

Bat Planter, circa 1900
The Bat Planter is one of the rarest and most ambitious objects made by the Amphora Company due to its large size and the intricacy of its design and ornamentation. Advertisements for the Bat Planter (left) appeared in many German-language magazines around 1905. Only four examples of this piece are known to remain in the world—one of which is in the National Museum in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

The display of pottery from Austrian firms in the nineteenth-century world fairs marked the entry of Amphora into the American pottery market. In the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the Amphora Company displayed a remarkable selection of unusual wares. Amphora was also presented at the 1895 California Midwinter International Exposition held in San Francisco (seen in the adjacent wall mural). During that era, a great deal of Amphora pottery was sold and distributed to collectors throughout the United States. The Amphora Company’s American distributor was Bawo and Dotter in New York City.

Tour Framework

  • Ask guests what kinds of responses the Amphora pottery provokes in them.
  • Explain that Amphora Pottery is an important but under-recognized body of ceramic art from the period at the very end of the nineteenth century and the very early years of the twentieth century.
  • Ask guests what kinds of motifs they see in the work.
  • Explain that Amphora pottery is famed for its motifs of animals, feminine figures (maidens), and dragons (monsters).
  • Explain that the pottery is also deeply influenced by the rise of Japonisme, a nineteenth-century development beginning in the 1860s that lead to a meteoric rise in all things Japanese—especially in fine and decorative art. Japanese art was exhibited at the London International Exhibition (1862), the Paris Exhibition Universelle (1867), the Vienna Universal Exhibition (1873), and very widely throughout Europe after 1880.
  • Explain that it was the Worlds’ Fairs, in part, that lead to the rise of Art Nouveau, in general, and to Amphora pottery, in particular, at its height.
  • Explain that The Worlds’ Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (1893) and the Worlds’ Fair Exhibition Universelle in Paris (1900) both offered enormous numbers of people exposure to Amphora pottery, helping to cement the reputation of the company in the realm of art nouveau.