seven ways of looking at a Fabergé exhibition

Reposted for Easter 2013 before returning to original spot in the timeline.

faberge enh

The Era of Fabergé, Vapriikki, Tampere, Finland, 17 June – 1 October 2006

1. As a celebration of an exploitative imperial autocracy, rationalized through the familiar rhetoric of drawing attention to the ways the Romanovs were a family just like ours – only prettier, more popular, and, crucially, at some point in the past stronger and more violent. And able to give really cool Easter presents.

2. As a tribute to a visionary designer and craftsman. Aesthetic elitism is integrated with power worship through the establishment of hierarchies of taste, with unique and labor-intensive products at the top: by admiring the costly treasures we have the illusion of raising ourselves to a position of distinction, and of virtually taking possession of our favorites.

3. As a subtle exercise of Finnish nationalism. The exhibition stresses that many of the Fabergé workmasters and workers were Finns, and also shows that Finns made significant contributions to the industrial rise of the Russian empire; their work is nevertheless described as the contribution of mobile elites and largely separatist guest workers, not as the work of enthusiastic members of the empire or a colonized people. Great play is given to an official of the Finnish Diet of Estates who took some unexplained but no doubt very risky stance about something, and was later given an exquisite Fabergé cigarette case by a boxmaker’s widow in thanks for his service to the Finns. I am sure there was more to be told there.

4. As a rewriting of art history into labor history, foregrounding the role of middle managers and hands-on workers over that of Peter Carl Fabergé who is reduced to a company founder and figurehead. The Fabergé workmasters, particularly Holmström and Wäkewä, have been credited in past books and exhibitions about the firm, but here it is made insistently clear that they (Finns! don’t be misled by the Swedish names!) actually designed the objects and commissioned lower-level craftsmen, and some women, to execute them.

5. As a showcase of ordinary Fabergé production. The Fabergé firm did not just make the exquisite picture frames, cigarette paraphernalia and egg fantasies collected by Malcolm Forbes and the Queen of England. It also made quite a bit of kitsch, notably some animal sculptures that are only slightly more attractive than the frightful china miniatures given away in boxes of Red Rose Tea at home. (Hint: when an animal image gets that neotenic, top-heavy look, it’s always kitsch.)

6. As a marketing opportunity for a firm apparently owned by Fabergé descendants that makes ornaments bearing no relation to the best of the real thing. For example: a set of crown-shaped card holders in different colors that look like props from a children’s play. I’ve seen things more in the spirit of Fabergé at H&M.

7. As an imperfectly executed translation project. Perhaps I should be grateful that, like the toiling gemsmiths at Fabergé, my contribution was uncredited, since errors like “chrystal” and “jetton” were added after my part was finished.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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