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Decorative Arts, Porcelain Tea Sets, and Mr. Darcy

Archives and exhibitions intern Kaley Ellis joins us again to talk about her discoveries in SAM’s archival holdings.

This month, after an impressive 37 years working at SAM, Julie Emerson, the Ruth J. Nutt Curator of Decorative Arts, is retiring. In recognition of Julie and her career, I am writing this blog entry on an exhibition that featured decorative arts. I am currently cataloguing the exhibition Worcester Porcelain: The Klepser Collection, which ran from August to September of 1985, and featured works that remain in SAM’s collection today.

Upon researching Worcester Porcelain, I was immediately drawn to the film screenings – highlighted in the 1985 Member’s Preview brochure – that were shown throughout the duration of the exhibition, including Tom Jones, Barry Lyndon, That Hamilton Woman, and Pride and Prejudice (the romantic black and white – but slightly less accurate – version, for those of you who know your Austen multimedia). Laurence Olivier plays the dashing hero in both That Hamilton Woman and Pride and Prejudice, and while he is the war hero in That Hamilton Woman – including missing limb and roguish eye patch – I remain drawn most strongly to his portrayal of Mr. Darcy (shocking, I know, but it’s hard to beat his reluctant fall for Ms. Elizabeth Bennet, played by the timeless beauty Greer Garson). These romanticized depictions of 18th century England (excluding, of course the rather depressing tale of Barry Lyndon’s misfortunes) offer their viewers a look at both the time period and the grand estates where these porcelain objects would have been found.

And if these classic films weren’t enough to lure visitors to the exhibition, there was also the promise of a reenactment of the tea scene from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (a delightfully witty play – later made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, Rupert Everett, and Colin Firth, who also played Mr. Darcy in the most famous version of Pride and Prejudice). Here, the actors demonstrate the tea ceremony, a tradition in 18th century England in which a proper tea set was required – according to the exhibition catalogue – containing 48 pieces plus the additional eight mugs required for sipping chocolate (a necessary addition, in my opinion).

Tea scenes from The Importance of Being Earnest. Performed on August 11th 1985 at Volunteer Park.

Tea scenes from The Importance of Being Earnest. Performed on August 11th 1985 at Volunteer Park.

Although these films do not specifically reference 18th century English porcelain, they offer the viewer a glimpse at what would have been their natural setting, in which these objects would have served both an aesthetic and functional purpose. The elegant, romantic, vividly colored, and often Asian-influenced designs of the Worcester porcelain objects hint at the type of lifestyle found on the elaborate English estates during that period – one of luxury and everyday grandeur. In many cases the exhibition space for Worcester Porcelain: The Klepser Collection reflected the dual role of these art works – their functional role as serve ware arranged on elegant tables and their decorative role that shows them displayed in large wall cabinets or featured in individual cases that highlight their artistic value.

 Installation views from Worcester Porcelain: The Klepser Collection (Volunteer Park), 8/8/85 – 9/22/85


Installation views from Worcester Porcelain: The Klepser Collection (Volunteer Park), 8/8/85 – 9/22/85

The production of Worcester porcelain is separated into three main categories based on the period it was created, between the years 1751 and 1776. The first period (1750-55) saw the manufacturing location for porcelain shift from Bristol to Worcester. This period emphasized rococo styled European-scenes (think Fragonard and Boucher) in addition to oriental decorative influences (specifically Chinese – a result of Chinese porcelain that was being imported during the 17th and 18th centuries to England) seen in the graceful landscapes, floral varieties, long flowing robes worn by the central figures, and the animals portrayed. One example from this period can be found at SAM (seen below). The floral decorative pattern and color usage on this vase reflect the stylistic impact that Chinese arts had on the European porcelain market. The second phase of production (1755-65) saw hand-painted designs replaced by a new technique called overglaze transfer-printing, which allowed these luxury goods to be produced at a faster rate and resulted in a period of rapid growth in the porcelain business. The use of this technique – in which patterns and designs become standardized – allowed these pieces to be reproduced quickly and more economically. Furthermore, the sturdy quality of the glaze made it possible for it to hold boiling water without cracking unlike other porcelain products of the time, creating a significant advantage over their competition. Finally, the period from 1765-76, appears to have been one of the most lucrative periods, in which the decorative aspects are increasingly praised, blue underglaze transfer-printing reaches its pinnacle, and color grounds are mastered (Worcester now has the largest array of colors in England, including yellow, green, pink, purple, several shades of blue, and red).

Fluted Vase, 1962. English, Worcester. Seattle Art Museum, Kenneth and Priscilla Klepser Porcelain Collection, 94.103.1

Fluted Vase, 1962. English, Worcester. Seattle Art Museum, Kenneth and Priscilla Klepser Porcelain Collection, 94.103.1

In the end, Kenneth Klepser – Seattle businessman and owner of this impressive collection – viewed these works of art in much the same way as their original owners in 18th century England, as something to be cherished and integrated into his home. These objects act simultaneously as works of art as well as pieces of functional history, creating a more complete picture of the historical setting from which they originated. The combination of the exhibition’s installation space – which highlighted the dual function of these objects – and the events associated with the exhibition provided a successful lens through which audiences could view these art works. However, viewers don’t dismay! While this exhibition is no longer on view, the Seattle Art Museum has a gallery (curated by Julie Emerson) that is dedicated solely to porcelain! This rather splendid room – organized by color and theme – accentuates the intricate patterns and Asian-influences comparable to those highlighted in the Worcester Porcelain exhibition and offers contemporary viewers a chance to see these elegant styles favored by Europeans during the 17th and 18th centuries. Come visit, and see if you can find all the porcelain objects from the Kenneth and Priscilla Klepser Porcelain Collection.

See Julie Emerson’s guide to SAM’s Porcelain Room here.

Scene from Pride and Prejudice (1940), featuring Greer Garson as Ms. Elizabeth Bennet and Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy. MGM Studios

Spring showers in the SAM archives

Drops of Rain, Clarence H. White (American, 1871-1925), ca. 1903, National Gallery of Australia

Drops of Rain, Clarence H. White (American, 1871-1925), ca. 1903, National Gallery of Australia

It’s raining again. I stare as rivulets of water course down the window panes of my room, obscuring the view outside. Beyond my window, the passing cars blur together alongside the chairs that decorate my lawn. Everything assumes a greyish cast. “Welcome to Seattle,” people say. Prior to moving to here, I had never encountered a group of people so fixated on the weather, and I’ve lived in Cleveland where it is not only grey but also claims ownership of “The Lake Effect,” which encompasses all manner of atmospheric sins.

Yet as I approach my second year of living in Seattle, I too, have become consumed by thoughts of the dreary weather – so consumed by these thoughts that I seem to have neglected my blog – and the ever-present hope that sun is just around the corner. However, it was the weather that inadvertently led me to the exhibition Camera Work: Process & Image held at SAM from November 26, 1985 to February 2, 1986and focused on the early pioneers of photography including Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White, Paul Strand, Alfred Langdon Coburn, and Alfred Stieglitz.

Cover of Camera Work, Issue No 2, April 190, published by Alfred Stieglitz and designed by Edward Steichen.

Cover of Camera Work, Issue No 2, April 190, published by Alfred Stieglitz and designed by Edward Steichen.

Determined to elevate both photography and the photogravure to the status of fine art, Stieglitz produced a magazine whose primary focus was photography. As a member of the New York Camera Club, Stieglitz spearheaded the production of a quarterly journal – called Camera Notes – dedicated to both high quality photography and articles surrounding the art form. Yet Camera Notes was merely the beginning, for in 1902 – a mere five years later – Stieglitz left the Camera Club and started his own quarterly, Camera Work, in which he strove to establish a journal that was in and of itself a work of art. From 1903 to 1917, Stieglitz edited and published a total of fifty editions of Camera Work, through which he championed photography as a form of art instead of a mechanical process that simply documented reality. He pushed photographers to take an active role in the editing process of photogravure production – a print of the photographic image that emphasized deep shadows and a rich textural quality – in which the photo negatives are transformed into photo positives and transferred onto a printing plate that is then etched and printed. Stieglitz strove to maintain high quality photogravures that he felt could be viewed as original prints that had their own artistic value. Through this process, photographers in Stieglitz’s circle were able to participate in the production of the photogravures, which instigated a collaboration between the artist’s intent and the hand that created the final product.

Exhibition media file - including exhibition installation views and transparencies and prints of checklist images - from Camera Work: Process & Image and the exhibition catalogue. Photo: Kaley Ellis.

Exhibition media file – including exhibition installation views and transparencies and prints of checklist images – from Camera Work: Process & Image and the exhibition catalogue. Photo: Kaley Ellis.

This examination of Stieglitz’s Camera Work and the photographers involved in that publication act as the focal points of the 1985 exhibition at SAM. Of the works displayed, Clarence H. White’s Drops of Rain, Adolf de Meyer’s Still Life, Hugo Henneberg’s Villa Falconieri, and Alfred Stieglitz’s Spring Showers, New York are the works I find the most compelling. Water is prominently featured in all these works, whether it takes the form of rain, a glass of water, or a shimmering river. The water either distorts and obscures aspects of the work or is itself distorted. Far from being a direct representation of fact, the water provides a medium through which the artistic intent becomes clear. The fact that it is raining outside is not the point of the image in White’s Rain Drops; instead, the simplicity, the lighting, and contrast between the smoothness of the glass ball compared to the pattern of rain drops on the window pane combine to make this work beautifully compelling. The emotional response that these images evoke transcends time and, like other forms of art, is subjective.

Today – despite rapid advances in technology and the advent of the digital camera – artists such as Stieglitz, White, and Cameron remain relevant. New lens are engineered, such as the lensbaby, to create a blurring effect or to obscure the background, while plastic cameras allow photographers to further experiment with light and shadows and finally Photoshop and the Instagram app offer the opportunity to enhance or manipulate an image with the click of a button. Despite these developments, photographers are still creating images that favor the deep shadows, blurred lines, and sometimes dreamlike quality that continues to reference the past and the art of Stieglitz’s circle that he tirelessly perfected for publication in Camera Work.

By Kaley Ellis, Exhibitions and Archives Intern

 

What every holiday season needs… The Nutcracker

By Kaley Ellis, archives and exhibitions intern

As I was considering what to write in my next blog post, I stumbled upon an exhibition from 1984 featuring the works of Maurice Sendak, famous for the book he both wrote and illustrated, Where the Wild Things Are. Young and old alike seem drawn to his tale of Max, the mischievous boy who cavorts about in a monster costume (which I sometimes wish came in my size). Upon being sent to his room as punishment for his behavior, Max escapes to a fantasy isle where he soon discovers real monsters. Much like the stories of Peter Pan, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Alice in Wonderland, Sendak creates an alternate realm where the main character – a child – can escape. Fashioning a magical place where children can explore and monsters can be friend or enemy, Sendak offers something that most children – and if I’m being honest, myself included – would be intrigued by.

Intern Kaley Ellis, with the Maurice Sendak-illustrated Nutcracker book

Intern Kaley Ellis, with the Maurice Sendak-illustrated Nutcracker book

As I look through the folder of prints, negatives, and slides, I can see the exhibition where Sendak’s fantasies were brought to life. The 1984 exhibition titled Sendak Onstage displayed sketches, intricate theatrical sets and even costumes. Prominently featured in this exhibition are the tales Love of Three Oranges and Higgelty-Piggelty Pop with smaller selections from Where the Wild Things Are and The Nutcracker. I am immediately drawn to images of The Nutcracker because as a child I used to perform in the ballet every year. While I always dreamed of being one of the party girls (who got to wear pointe shoes and carry dolls), I was inevitably something less glamorous – like a gum drop or a rat soldier. Nonetheless, attending The Nutcracker (to my brother’s dismay) has always been a holiday favorite. However the Seattle version – with theatrical sets and costume designs by Sendak – is the most spectacular rendition I’ve yet to witness.

Installation shot from Sendak Onstage, Seattle Art Museum (Volunteer Park), 11/15/84 – 1/27/85

Installation shot from Sendak Onstage, Seattle Art Museum (Volunteer Park), 11/15/84 – 1/27/85

Asked in 1981 – by Kent Stowell with the Pacific Northwest Ballet – to design theatrical sets for the Nutcracker, Sendak created another fantasy realm for children to explore. Here, members of the European aristocracy gather for a holiday party in which the daughter of the host is given a magical nutcracker that comes alive at the stroke of midnight. But in this version, the mice appear to have a more exotic (possibly Colonial) appearance and carry curved sabers instead of swords and battle Imperial foot soldiers and cavalry with variations in costuming that seem to link them to French, British and German armies (distinctions in rank not typical in other ballets). Following the battle’s conclusion, Clara and her nutcracker prince travel to another realm, akin to a sultan’s palace that might have been found in the Middle East or South Asia. The ruler of the palace regales the couple with exotic performances (including one featuring a ballerina in a peacock body suit and elaborate feathered tail) after which they are inevitably sent home to their realm. Sendak’s costumes are vibrantly colored and have a magical quality to them much like Max’s monster suit, for they allow the viewer a glimpse into the evening’s fairy tale resplendent with life-size dolls, an epic battle (at one point there is an enormous rat tail that extends from the wing of stage merely hinting at the size of its owner), a sea voyage across turbulent waters, a sultan’s palace and last but not least, the sugar plum fairy and her court. However, my favorite part of the performance is the end in which Sendak has created a nutcracker head that becomes visible on the curtains when they close – from the top and bottom of the stage – with teeth chomping shut to hide the performers from view.  If you haven’t already, everyone should take a trip to the The Nutcracker in Seattle, for it allows the viewer to interact on a grand scale with Sendak’s art, much like the 1984 exhibit at SAM did for its audiences.

Top image: Installation shot from Sendak Onstage, Seattle Art Museum (Volunteer Park), 11/15/84 – 1/27/85

Interning with the buried treasure

By Kaley Ellis, archive and exhibitions intern

What is an archive? And why would I work in one?

When I first spoke with Sarah Berman, Collections Coordinator and Research Associate at the Seattle Art Museum, she mentioned the possibility of interning in SAM’s archives and my mind immediately conjured images of buried treasure languishing in the basement of the museum awaiting a moment (or in this case a person) to tell its story. Although admittedly somewhat implausible, the thought of digging through the museum’s archive – tucked out of sight and thus inherently mysterious – was intriguing.

I could easily imagine Indiana Jones (relocating to the Pacific Northwest for example) uncovering a treasure map that led to an underground chamber in SAM, overflowing with riches, long lost paintings by Titian, Vermeer, or Degas, ancient Egyptian coffins, or Roman marble sculptures for example. Now, seeing as my mind had already made this leap from archives to Indiana Jones to priceless art work, the next obvious step was to accept Sarah’s proposed internship working with the archives.

During my first few weeks interning, Sarah asked if I’d like to see where the archives were kept – which I clearly needed to see if I was going to discover the previously mentioned hidden treasure. However, I was instead led to a small, rather dreary room, decorated with a table, chair, and numerous filling cabinets. While this was a bit depressing, I was promised I would not be left alone to work in this windowless room that had a door that occasionally locked you inside, so I suppose there was a silver lining. However, this process of imagining an archive filled with treasure – whether those are jewels and piles of gold or artwork – and then coming to terms with the reality of a room bursting with metal cabinets of old documents made me think about what it means to be an archive.

The SAM archives (part of them, at least). Photo: Kaley Ellis.

The SAM archives (part of them, at least). Photo: Kaley Ellis

Archives preserve documentation of the past, in this case a visual reminder of the art and exhibitions held at the SAM since the 1930s. While these files do not contain actual treasure, they do offer valuable insight into the museum’s history and collection. They offer the chance to analyze and reflect upon the past while simultaneously acting as a reservoir of memories. (And, thankfully they have been moved from that cell-like room to the much sunnier library!) During the upcoming months, I plan to delve into and share some of the secrets found within these file folders. I hope you’ll join me.Recognize the fedora and whip? Photo: Gary Stewart

 

Top photo: Recognize the fedora and whip? Photo: Gary Stewart