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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Porcelain Sculpture

Liadro Porcelain, Chinese Great Dragon (Red), 2008, Francisco Polope
(he's Spanish, not Chinese)
Probably the most frequently seen form of sculpture in homes today is that of porcelain. Whether it's a cute little bunny serving as a toothpick holder or a delicate, handmade flower (my wife has two of them) this heavily reproduced art form could well be termed "ubiquitous." Porcelain is very much a "look, but don't touch" form of sculpture in which the one word you never want to utter is, "oops." We tend to think of porcelain as being fragile, and in its sculptural manifestations, it very often is. However, porcelain, as ceramics go, is really a pretty tough "cookie." Otherwise, we wouldn't see it used for such utilitarian purposes as toilet bowls and serving bowls. It's not stoneware, but it often serves the same purpose and is a whole lot prettier.

What better use of porcelain china than a thirty-foot-tall Rabbit.

10th century Chinese pitcher.
Though serving utilitarian
purposes, porcelain's natural
plasticity lends itself easily
to sculptural decoration.
As with many other forms of ceramic art, porcelain had it's origin in China (they don't call it "china" for nothing). Experts disagree as to just how far porcelain goes back into the ancient history of that region, but surviving pieces have been accurately dated back at least to the 10th century (left). More modern Chinese porcelain sculpture is, perhaps, less refined, but no less eye-catching as seen in their thirty-foot-tall rabbit (above, don't call it a "bunny") in commemoration of 2011, the year of the rabbit. It's made of 30,000 porcelain dinner plates. Jeff Koons, eat your heart out.

Johann Kirchner's 1732 rhino was inspired by a 1583 engraving by Abraham de Bryn.
A traditional Rococo piece, dating
from 1750-60, either French or German
In western art, when we think of porcelain, we tend to harken back to the highly refined, "fine china" of 18th century France, England, and Germany. The Rococo style lent itself quite naturally to such delicate delights. And, inasmuch as porcelain copies could easily be made in great number from original works, the economics were right for this "household sculpture" to thrive. Check out eBay sometime, you wouldn't believe the prices these little antique masterpieces are bringing. But lest you get the idea that all such pieces from this era were delicate "touch-me-nots," the Meissen (a German company) rhinoceros by J.G. Kirchner (above) dating from 1732 is not exactly what you'd call Rococo. About this time the French discovered that sculpted flowers lent themselves quite nicely to porcelain, though they were usually so complex with any number of delicate "undercuts" they were virtually impossible to cast in making reproductions.
An 18th century floral centerpiece
In porcelain sculpture today you'll find few delicate ladies seated in the woods counting petals on roses. You will find, however, lots of lady sculptors working in this medium. I suppose men may lack the refined manual dexterity or the patience (or both) to enjoy such work. And, believe me, it is work, perhaps one of the most technically challenging art forms we know today (certainly insofar as sculpture is concerned). The moistness of the kaolin clay is critical. Drying causes the clay body to become brittle, but excess moisture can easily turn the work to mush. Porcelain is very sensitive in that regard. Firing temperatures are just as critical. Too low, and the porcelain fails to vitrify (become translucent or glassy), too high and the figure will simply melt. (The acceptable range is less than 200 degrees.) Yet, even with these demands and limitations the porcelain works being turned out by artist today are little short of astounding (below).

Inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphosis
--Rachel Kneebone
Handmade on a wheel,
then sculpted--Jennifer McCurdy


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