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June 1997

Dinner for DM 40,000: Nymphenburg Porcelain, from Rococo to Art Nouveau

THe history of Porcelin and an exhibit at Schloss Nyphenburg

"Berlin apothecary escapes persecution by Frederick the Great" could well have been a headline in 1700when Johann Friedrich Böttger, after several attempts to flee Frederick's near-ruthless designs on the recipe for gold, succeeded in leaving that city for Dresden. This was the unlikely start of the success story of Munich's Nymphenburg Porcelain Manufactory, which is celebrating its 250th jubilee with an exhibition at the Nymphenburger Schloß until September 28. But the history of porcelain is filled with unlikely twists and turns: not only tales of virtual imprisonment and escape, but secrets kept under pain of arrest and the threat of dismissal, enticements to alchemists, and jealousies among 18th-century German royals. In the end, the failed production of gold led Böttger to discover the formula for "white gold" (porcelain). The formula for true, or hard-paste, porcelain, which originated in China in the 13th century, had always been a closely guarded secret. And porcelain itself became a source of wonder and speculation for Western travellers and merchants who came into contact with it through trips to the East; interest rose as the sea routes to China became more established in the 16th century. As early as 1518, the Portuguese were trading directly with China and shipping large quantities of porcelain to Europe. Other seagoing nations, particularly the Dutch and the British, soon competed to establish direct trading for porcelain, as well as for silks, spices and tea. At this stage, porcelain was rare and costly, and owned only by the nobility, who valued it as they did precious stones and metals. The imported pieces were exchanged as diplomatic gifts and rooms were set aside in palaces to display them. But the burgeoning habit of drinking tea, coffee and hot chocolate imported from the East led to a porcelain boom in 18th-century Europe. Stoneware, silver and pewter drinking vessels were good enough for beer and wine; but with the arrival of more exotic beverages, the nobility wanted something finer, keen to imitate the translucent and delicate-looking porcelain cups the Chinese produced. With Italianate crimson-and-gold decorative features and an antique look, this coffee service (1830) is a good example of Friedrich Gärtner's high style. PALACE INTRIGUES Unfortunately, Böttger fared little better in Dresden than he had in Berlin. He was promptly arrested and brought before Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony. Like Frederick before him, Augustus believed Böttger was a skilled alchemist who knew how to turn base metals into gold. He was virtually imprisoned again, though this time in reasonable comfort, and put to work. He was to disappoint Augustus, however, who became tired of the expensive and unsuccessful gold-making experiments and transferred Böttger to the chemical laboratory of von Tschirnhaus who was seeking the formula for true porcelain. This proved to be a wise move, as in 1709 Böttger succeeded, and subsequently placed a sign over his door that read, "Es macht der Gott der grosse Schöpfer aus einem Goldmacher einen Töpfer" ("It pleased the Lord to change a gold-maker into a potter"). It was pure luck that a widely used white hair powder, the day's fashion, turned out to be the precious ingredient they needed: kaolin. In combination with firing temperatures of 2,650° F and higher, kaolin is what makes "hard-paste" porcelain hard. Luckily, it was available locally and soon became the basis for half a century of porcelain manufacturing at Meissen. To keep the recipe secret, kaolin continued to be called Schnorrische weiße Erde (Schnorr's white earth), after the chemist who had marketed it as a hair powder; its export was forbidden, it was transported in sealed barrels and workers were sworn to secrecy. The motto "Geheim bis ins Grab" ("Secret unto death") was posted all over the Meissen factory. In fact, workers led prison-like existences and had no personal lives. Böttger was granted his freedom in 1715, but years of captivity had turned him into a hardened drinker; he died in 1719 at the age of 37. ENTER, NYMPHENBURG During the 18th century, a host of German princes came to envy Meissen's success and resent the high prices they paid for its products. Many tried (and failed) to start their own factories by enticing Meissen workers to default on their oaths to Augustus - which is where the story of Nymphenburg porcelain continues. In 1717 Christoph Hunger, a gilder and enameler at Meissen, escaped to Vienna, taking with him the secret formula of kaolin and feldspar. No one knows how he and a handful of alchemists managed to get away, but the decline of Meissen's fortunes followed on their heels, as did the rise of porcelain manufacturing in the rest of Europe. Hunger had convinced a kiln master from Meissen to accompany him and together they established the Vienna Porcelain Manufactory. In 1744, painter Joseph Jakob Ringler joined the factory there and, later, through his friendship with the owner's daughter, he was admitted into the porcelain arcanum; he became one of history's most influential porcelain-makers. In 1753 Ringler, in his turn, left, taking his knowlege to Munich, where he worked for a new porcelain factory run by Graf Sigismund von Haimhausen, a nobleman and mineralogist who poured money into the venture. Using kaolin from Passau, Ringler produced a beautiful hard-paste for Munich's Kurfürstliche Porzellanfabrik. The next year, sculptor Franz Anton Bustelli was hired, and his Rococo period work firmly established Nymphenburg's name among the royal houses of Europe and internationally. But it took another 150 years before Bustelli's name - until then variously spelled Pustelli, Buteli, etc. - was finally deciphered following the chance discovery of his Nymphenburg contract in a Munich archive. During his eight-and-a-half years with the porcelain factory, Bustelli produced more than 150 models. The delicate colors of the pigments used during this period are also generally attributed to him. In 1761, with the support of Elector Max III Joseph, the factory removed to one of the grace and favor houses adjoining the Nymphenburg summer palace, where it remains to this day. Bustelli's commedia dell'arte figurines, Ignatz Gunther crucifix, and his bust of von Haimhausen are all on display at the current Schloß Nymphenburg exhibition. HISTORY NOTES The story of Nymphenburg porcelain reflects the social and economic history of Europe, as well as changes in artistic styles and fashions over the last 250 years. Bustelli's Rococo figurines were succeeded by the Neoclassical masterpieces of Dominikus Auliczek, who was perhaps best-known for his Perl, a dinner service produced exclusively for Bavaria's royal family, the Wittelsbacher. The service is unique for being the first in a dodecagon (twelve-sided) form, rather than the usual round or oval shape. Taking their name from their beaded borders (Perlen), the pieces are embellished with pastoral scenes showing Wittelsbacher palaces, engraved gold borders, and a painted blue ribbon that ends in a graceful bow. After the death of Elector Max III Joseph, royal patronage continued under Karl Theodor beginning in 1777. He joined his Frankenthal Porcelin Factory with Nymphenburg's, relocating his models and artists to Munich. During the next 20 years, Peter Melchior (formerly of Frankenthal) produced tableware and decorative pieces in neoclassical and neo-Greek styles for Nympenburg. His works are heavily gilded in a quality of gold used neither before nor since, and many incorporate copies of Greek and Roman artefacts housed in Munich's Glyptothek; King Ludwig I commissioned these pieces, as well as copies of masterpieces to be painted on porcelain panels at Nymphenburg, more than 200 of which survive. The industrialization of Europe in the 19th century brought about many changes, the mass production of inexpensive china among them. Nymphenburg resisted this development, and when royal patronage lapsed in the late 1850s, the factory busied itself producing decoration for the Maximilianeum (an educational foundation and now the seat of the Bavarian Government), especially for the building's imposing west facade. Thanks to the ingenuity of Albert Bäuml, who leased the factory in 1888, Nymphenburg regained much of its prominence by reproducing earlier models and introducing modern ones. Old techniques were relearned (many of which are still employed). Bäuml scoured Europe for these original models, which now form a large part of the jubilee Nymphenburg exhibition. He and his heirs also acquired significant new artists, including Hermann Gradl, whose Art Nouveau dinner service depicted swirling water, plants and fish. Josef Wackerle, who modelled lively figurines reminiscent of Bustelli's (with a humorous touch), was Nymphenburg's most prominent turn-of-the-century artist; he is known best for his large majolika (fired-clay with a pewter glaze) works. The factory and city salesrooms were almost completely destroyed during World War II; they were rebuilt by the Bäuml brothers after the war and returned to the Wittelsbacher in 1975. The Wittelsbach family's foundation now manages the factory and leases it from the State of Bavaria. NYMPHENBURG TODAY Though exclusive Nymphenburg shops in Schloß Rondell and at Odeonsplatz stock a range of giftwares, today, as always, what sets Nymphenburg apart from other porcelain manufacturers is that articles are generally made-to-order, and always molded and decorated by hand. Since the original molds are still in use, Bustelli's Harlequin and Columbine, and most of his figurines, can still be purchased - for approximately DM 12,500 each. Should you prefer the Perl dinner service, only available to the public since the turn of the century, a complete setting for six goes for just under DM 40,000. A regal price, perhaps, but you'd be dining on the plates of kings and queens. The Exhibition is shown from May through October '97 at Schloss Nymphenburg, 179 08 - 0 (Tram 12; Bus 41). Tu-Su 9-12:30, 13:30-17

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