They say every picture tells a story, but for some works of art, one barely scratches the surface. “Porcelain, No Simple Matter: Arlene Shechet and the Arnhold Collection” running through next April, joins about 100 superb pieces of 18th century Meissen porcelain with 16 works by contemporary artist, Arlene Shechet. It's a revelatory show that surprises and delights the eye and offers a whole trove of fascinating stories.
Porcelain is as close to many of us as our own teeth and as ubiquitous as the kitchen sink. But it wasn't always so. Soon after Marco Polo traveled east in around 1300, Chinese porcelain was first seen in Europe. Compared to the rough, earthenware pottery glazed with muddy tones of the day, it was dazzling. As seen in the exhibition, it still is.
Called “white gold” when it first became known, porcelain, which was developed in China in the 3rd century, shone like glass, was durable and impermeable and was decorated in crisp jewel tones. Everyone wanted it, though only a few could afford it. By the 1500s, Silk Road merchants regularly imported opulent wares that became so famous that only one name was needed. The choice went to the country of origin – China. The cost of filling so many China cabinets was prohibitive, and craftsmen quickly took up the challenge of finding the recipe. It took Korean and Japanese artisans hundreds of years, and Europeans centuries more than that. The Medici family commissioned a workshop in Italy in the 1500s, but it failed.
Then, in around 1700, Augustus the Strong of Saxony was approached by an over-confident alchemist named Böttger, who swore he could turn base metals to gold. He was “invited” to live (under lock and key) at the palace at Meissen to produce the goods. Eventually, he was reassigned to assist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, a scientist who studied actual science, and in 1708, von Tschirnhaus discovered that kaolin and super-high temperatures were the secret. Von Tschirnhaus died before he could announce his discovery, so Böttger got the credit when the first porcelain factory was built at Meissen in 1710.
The Arnhold collection, one of the best in private hands, has a storied past as well, having been spirited out of Dresden, just before the city was destroyed during World War II. Henry Arnhold and his mother fled to New York, bringing some of their collection with them, and Henry continued to augment it with significant pieces. “The Arnhold Collection is one of the finest private collections of Meissen in the world,” said the Frick's director, Ian Wardropper. For this exhibition, he added, “Henry Arnhold generously permitted the Frick to choose the works we wanted.”
For the Frick, the exhibition opens a new chapter. It's the first major show they've given to a living artist. “From time to time, if there is an interesting dialogue to be made between contemporary and old master art, we will look to explore this,” Wardropper added. Charlotte Vignon, curator of decorative arts, found just such a conversation. Vignon invited Shechet, who'd recently done an artist's residency at the factory in Meissen, to consider the traditional pieces with “a fresh eye and artistic vision.” Vignon soon realized that the ways old and new interact “would be better made with Shechet's work in direct dialogue.” Shechet selected and installed groupings of her works and the Arnhold collection in the sun-dappled Portico Gallery. “The entire installation is, in one way, a work of art,” Vignon said.
For Shechet, the show is nothing short of a major plot twist. A widely respected sculptor, she's better known for witty, lighthearted forms, bright colors, substantial, biomorphic shapes - hardly the highly refined tea sets and figurines associated with Meissen. In her works done in the Meissen factory, Shechet's sense of play together with the tradition of the form resulted in new visions that respect the past but are surprisingly fresh. By mixing them with 18th century works, she created a new reason for and a new way of looking at Meissen porcelain.
In the installation, delicate cups are turned over, gorgeous but mismatched plates overlap, becoming a dazzling wall relief, figures are turned backwards, or in Shechet's “Dancing Girl with Two Right Feet” they slip into an Alice in Wonderland looking portal that resembles a wall sconce.
Whether traditional or modern, delicately sincere or wryly tongue-in-cheek, as different as the works are, they all come from one thing - porcelain. And that's where the title “No Simple Matter” comes from, Vignon said. “Arlene and I both believe that porcelain is a very exciting material…You can go back to an old medium and make it interesting…if you twist it a little bit. So this is about bringing a little bit of delight, a little bit of fun. Surprises.”