Despite occupying only one room at Bellevue Arts Museum, Chris Antemann’s exhibit Forbidden Fruit is an expansive and lush experience. Its compact display of so many precious objects around a towering, central “Love Temple” aptly recalls the banquets of the Ancien Régime, an era that is significant to porcelain. However, for Antemann, the exhibit also refers to our current social climate of shifting morality, stark class distinctions and decadence. For years, her oeuvre has given a contemporary spin to works inspired by Baroque banqueting sets, but to produce work at the scale seen in Forbidden Fruit simply was impossible…until Meissen came calling.
The Meissen porcelain manufactory was the first in Europe, established in 1710, just after its founding chemists created their first true, hard-paste porcelain. For decades, Europeans had tried and failed to discover the proper recipe for porcelain, and it took countless experiments, vast resources and more than a little cultural espionage to figure it all out. Porcelain was a precious commodity and a great status symbol for royalty, merchants and other bourgeois imitators. The recipe was closely guarded, and to this day only a handful of Meissen employees know its secrets. Collectors are assured of the quality of a porcelain object when they see two crossed sabers in brilliant cobalt—Meissen’s trademark, the oldest in the world.
It was quite a surprise to Antemann—an Oregon-based artist with no immediate connections to Meissen—when the current CEO contacted her directly, asking if she would like to become an artist in residence at the manufactory. Only a handful of artists internationally have received such an invitation, but the pairing of Antemann and Meissen is especially sound, based on Antemann’s subject matter. For Antemann, it was a golden opportunity. The process of making porcelain is extremely labor intensive and requires access to molds, costly materials and large kilns. There were projects that she could only dream of doing without the resources of a manufactory such as Meissen. However, the relationship between the artist and Meissen was far from one-sided. Meissen remains a cloistered, traditional operation. It has dozens of skilled artists in-house, but to maintain relevance the leadership must look outside the region.
The residency program is a relatively new concept, but the troubles for porcelain manufacturers began a century ago. Porcelain maintained its status as a precious commodity through the 18th and 19th centuries, but the 20th century saw dramatic cultural shifts and tastes. For one, the world wars devastated central Europe, sapping resources and wiping out generations that would have carried the torch of the trade. Beyond that, the advent of Modernist design and philosophies utterly scorned adorned, florid styles such as Meissen’s.
Porcelain was a medium that allowed individual European nations to distinguish themselves. Before it, faience ceramics (such as Delftware) mimicked porcelain’s appearance—Chinoiserie to suggest the coveted “real thing.” Porcelain collections were a form of entertainment and central to great banquets. Kings and nobles had entire chambers devoted to it, and when they could commission their own works from European makers, this changed the nature of porcelain drastically. Allegorical works might depict victories over other nations, to be displayed alongside scenes of courtship and child-like figures. The lucid fragility of porcelain was one of the most refined ways to convey a distinctly western, patriarchal supremacy.
Among manufacturers, to distinguish one’s porcelain required more than a trademark. Design became supreme, and motifs emerged that became part of larger aesthetic and craft movements throughout Europe. Specific flora and fauna, cartouches depicting landmarks, the specific dress of figurines: All of this and more became signatures of national identity in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After the world wars, the search for a unified national identity only intensified, and the florid, “feminized” forms of preceding centuries became anathema to entire sociopolitical movements that valued streamlined, “virile” objects that thrust into the future, away from the decadent past.
These were not good turns of fortune for Meissen. Cheap, mass-produced dishes and a lasting, minimalist sensibility have winnowed the company’s clientele to a relatively tiny class of devoted collectors. To increase the allure of its wares, Meissen works with resident artists to produce limited editions. The success of these editions employs dozens of specialized artists and artisans at the manufactory (many of whom are now part of a family legacy) while creating works that enrich our understanding of the medium and Meissen’s own legacy, thereby making its other wares more desirable.
That brings us back to Antemann, whose work refers back to the first century of European porcelain, the salad days of porcelain and Meissen itself. “Salad days” is a fitting term for the subject matter, too, as Antemann’s scenes are rich with vegetation, flowers and piles of ripe fruit. Among this fecundity, jeunesse dorée cavort in various states of undress. Always central is a female figure. Sometimes objectified, sometimes in firm control, she’s always the one who commands attention, with a baroque coiffure piled high and tight-fitting slips. The young men often look drunk or distracted, stripped to the waist or fully nude.
At a glance, it appears as a racier version of the courtly love scenes characteristic of Baroque porcelain, but Antemann subverts the patriarchal overtones of that era through the positioning of her figures and, most of all, through their expressions. Antemann’s faces are her personal calling card; they are long but youthful, with almond eyes and plump lips that emote subtly. She cites Johann Joachim Kändler as a forerunner, as he was one of the first artists to distinguish himself through subtle, believable gestures and expressions. He also made a grandiose, erotic “Love Temple” sculpture, and Antemann’s work is less an homage than it is a new vision through a feminine lens.
The feelings we see in Antemann’s women are difficult to express in a word, yet familiar. In the sculpture “Ambrosia,” the importunity of a youth’s advances register as weariness on the face of the woman as her body recoils, ensconced in the aft seat of their love boat. Male attention brought unalloyed pleasure and affirmation to women in baroque depictions. In Antemann’s works, the women are at least more in control of their emotions if not the situation, and their lack of control should inspire discomfort in the viewer.
It’s far from dour, though; Antemann displays great wit throughout the show. I laughed aloud at the absolutely perfect side-eye of the woman in “A Strong Passion.” The passion of the man in the scene is directed toward a vase in one hand. He is gazing blankly at its colored surface, and she looks at him while sipping tea, visibly annoyed at being ignored. It’s a scene we see today all the time, if one simply switches a smart phone for the vase. There is a history lesson in this, too, as the captivating vase has a multi-colored image of flowers, which was a later invention as new glazes and pigments were worked into porcelain production. A credenza behind the two figures is loaded with blue porcelain, so this scene alludes to the transfixing power of new technology and design. Meanwhile, we cannot help but sympathize with the woman whose living color is seated just next to the young aesthete. (Her shift displays a blue vase containing a lush bouquet, more grand and colorful than what he sees in his hand.)
Antemann plays with the male gaze in every way. Her small sculpture “Little Maid” shows a woman on all fours with a tray of sweets balanced in the small of her back. In context, it can be seen as a strategic statement—empowerment through expressing and understanding one’s sensuality as a woman—but in isolation such a figurine could look debasing. It needs the context of the show. So does the massive, nine-light porcelain chandelier in the far corner, but for different reasons: It is impressive and aesthetically consistent within the exhibition, but on its own, viewers with more modern personal tastes would find it garish, myself included.
To develop a consistent aesthetic that renews what is old is no mean feat. To make a microcosm of it that is so poignant and accessible to viewers is the sign of a true artist. Tastes have changed, but the themes in Forbidden Fruit are perennial: Love and lust, power and play, forthrightness and secrecy. Atop the massive “Love Temple” at center, four figures represent the seasons: Male spring and autumn, female summer and winter. There is nothing hoary about the latter; all are eternally youthful, gazing outward with reserve as young revelers dine and pose for each other below. Though fragile and rigid in form, there is a constant movement implied through its sinuous designs. Porcelain shrinks and warps unpredictably during firing, so there are gaps between some of the architectural elements of the temple. Such imperfections are part of the humane charm (and collectibility) of porcelain sculpture, but here they also emphasize fragility, leading to more ambiguous readings. These disparate parts for now maintain a fragile unity, but perhaps an impending ruin. Après nous le déluge…
Antemann’s collaboration with Meissen gives viewers a peculiar perspective of the present through a medium both stigmatized and nostalgized by association with antique malls and grandma’s hutch. One need spend but a little time with this exhibition to be relieved of such musty stigmas, thanks to its frank eroticism and subversion of gender dynamics. For those familiar with porcelain, it is especially satisfying to see early tropes of European porcelain—its imperialism and patriarchy—revisited with more explicit female power.
Yet, to what extent are these figures empowered? Like Antemann’s women’s gazes, the work is not so declarative. The statement ends with an ellipsis and the viewer must ask the questions. Is there any satisfaction in ending with a question mark?