Spotlight on Russian crafts
Chalk it up to my Russian heritage, but I’ve long been fascinated by Russian crafts, and by Fabergé eggs, in particular. So the current exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, “Fabergé and the Russian Crafts Tradition: An Empire’s Legacy,” was right up my alley. But you don’t have to have a Russian grandmother to appreciate this exquisite display.
Fabergé eggs are renowned for their beauty and complexity. They were designed by Peter Carl Fabergé, jeweler and goldsmith to the Russian Imperial Court, and were fabricated by his team of craftsmen. (Fabergé was founded in St. Petersburg in 1842, and didn’t open a Paris location until 1924.)
The Walters exhibition includes two of these eggs, as well as more than 70 objects that are representative of the technical sophistication and artistry of Russian crafts — including gold and silver drinking vessels, intricate enamels, carved stones, breathtaking jewelry and 14th century icons.
The exhibition places the objects in both an historical and artistic context. During the three centuries of Russia’s Romanov dynasty, the arts flourished, thanks in large part to the patronage of the royal family.
Exquisite miniature worlds
In 1885, the House of Fabergé created the first of 50 increasingly intricate jeweled and enameled Imperial Easter eggs for the Russian Imperial Family. Forty-three of the eggs survive.
Ten eggs were produced from 1885 to 1893, during the reign of Emperor Alexander III; 40 more were created during the rule of his son, Nicholas II, two each year, one for his mother, the second for his wife.
The series began when Emperor Alexander III commissioned an Easter egg from Fabergé as an Easter present for his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna. Initially planned by Fabergé to contain a diamond ring, the actual finished version, following specific instructions of the Emperor, included a ruby pendant of great value.
The Walters exhibition features the Gatchina Palace Egg and the Rose Trellis Egg. Tsar Nicholas II presented the Gatchina Palace Egg to his mother, the dowager empress Marie Fedorovna, on Easter 1901. When the egg is opened, it reveals a miniature gold replica of the palace at Gatchina, which served as the winter residence for Tsar Nicholas’s parents.
The egg is made of gold, opalescent white enamel, opaque red, yellow and green enamel, diamonds and pearls.
Following the Russian Revolution, the egg was bought in 1920 by art dealer Alexander Polovtsov in Paris, and in 1930 was purchased by Henry Walters, and first exhibited at the Walters Museum in 1936. That was not Walters’ first experience with Fabergé however; he had been one of the first Americans to shop at the newly opened Fabergé store in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1900.
The Rose Trellis Egg was presented to Tsar Nicholas’s wife in 1907 to commemorate the birth of their son three years earlier. The egg is enameled in a transparent pale green, with a lattice of diamonds decorated with opaque enameled light and dark pink roses and emerald green leaves.
The egg originally contained a diamond necklace and an ivory miniature portrait of the young boy framed in diamonds (the necklace and portrait are now lost). The Rose Trellis Egg was also purchased by Alexander Polovtsov and subsequently sold to Henry Walters. In total, Walters acquired at least 80 Russian objets d’art from Polovtsov.
The Walters exhibition is drawn from the Museum’s collection of Russian decorative arts and historical documents, and includes a letter from Catherine the Great to the King of Prussia, Frederick William III, in 1786; a haunting portrait and diamond necklace of the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II, all of whom were killed during the Revolution; and carved stone animals, inspired by miniature Japanese netsuke, that are representative of Russia’s long craft tradition of working with hardstones sourced in the Ural Mountains.
Running concurrently with “Fabergé and the Russian Crafts Tradition,” is “After Fabergé,” an exhibition of five digital prints by artist Jonathan Monaghan.
His large-scale digital prints of the eggs combine the fine detail of the original masterworks with elements of contemporary culture. The gold, enamel and diamonds, for example, are replaced with the furnishings and technological gadgets familiar to visitors today.
“I place every detail, and determine the surface texture and the lighting, only instead of using gold and inlay, I am using pixels,” said Monaghan. A graduate of the University of Maryland, Monaghan was a semifinalist for the 2016 Sondheim Prize, has had work screened at the Sundance Film Festival, and has been featured in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Village Voice.
Monaghan recalled his first visit to the Walters Art Museum. “After I arrived at the University of Maryland for graduate school, the first place I went to was the Walters. I saw the Fabergé eggs and I was blown away by the level of craft and detail; they take on an almost otherworldly presence,” Monaghan said.
Both exhibitions run through June 24. Admission to the museum is free. The Walters Art Museum is located at 600 N. Charles St., north of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. For general museum information, call (410) 547-9000 or visit www.thewalters.org.