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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Ask Bobby #12
September 25, 2023

I don’t know Porcelain

Everyday I learn something new. My latest bit of useless knowledge is that Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum houses only German art. Previously I had just assumed that it was Harvard’s contemporary collection, until while walking through I noticed that all the artists were German. I feel kind of like a dummkopf now. Anyway, the Harvard Art Museum titillates and disappoints again.

The current special exhibit at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, “A Taste of Power, 18th Century German Porcelain for the Table,” is an interesting collection at the very least. The subject matter at hand is small porcelain sculptures for display on the dining table; some are functional and some are purely decorative, like Hummel salt shakers. Of the five pieces that make up the exhibit, four pieces are parts of centerpiece displays from dessert tables; the fifth piece is a saltcellar.

The method of creating true porcelain was discovered first in the west in Dresden in 1710 through a combination of scientific experimentation and alchemical tinkering. Dresden at the time was the Saxon capitol. Porcelain was first produced at the Meissen Factory. Two of the pieces on display come from that Meissen factory. The main purpose of porcelain sculptures in the eighteenth century was to act as a display of wealth and power. The pieces were used as lavish decorations for celebrations and festivals held by the nobles of Germany and nearby Germanic territories. Some porcelain table pieces were well over a meter tall.

The pieces on display at the Busch-Reisinger are good examples, drawn from the museum’s permanent collection. The colors tend to be light pastels, applied very thinly in a way such that the translucent white of the china shines through the glaze. The proportions of the figures are excellent and the details are exact, making them look lifelike, albeit Lilliputian. The fine details of the figures’ faces and clothing alone are worth paying to see, as the craftsmen who constructed them were definitely skilled at using porcelain.

Art students studying ceramics would benefit from a trip to the exhibit to take a look at this collection, if for nothing more than inspiration. What annoys me, though, is the size of the exhibition. Harvard has room for a much larger display, yet only showcased five pieces, and these being only fragments of full displays. I would have loved to see just one large table display to see the scale the craftsmen were working with. I guess I’ll have to settle for merely gazing at the images of the exhibit in its accompanying pamphlet.