Between 1890 and 1930 Danish porcelain manufacturers Royal Copenhagen and Bing & Grøndahl produced beautiful ceramic objects that were admired for their underglazing technique. I have been looking forward to seeing the exhibition Great Danes not only because I love the Japanese influence, but also because I have missed going to exhibitions during the lock-downs. Let’s hope we can keep our favorite museums open this winter.
Two Copenhagen porcelain manufacturers caused quite a stir between 1890 and 1930 with their revolutionary underglaze painting technique: Royal Copenhagen and Bing & Grøndahl. In Great Danes, Kunstmuseum Den Haag presents some extraordinary unique items made by the two factories displaying unparalleled technical quality and a distinctive aesthetic. Although the objects were collected around the fin-de-siècle by European royal families and were admired internationally at the time, today they seem to be somewhat forgotten. Kunstmuseum Den Haag presents – for the first time in the Netherlands – about seventy of these unique Danish pieces.
Shortly after Arnold Krog (1856–1931) became director of Den Kongelige Porcelainsfabrik in 1885 – internationally renamed Royal Copenhagen – he decided to abandon the Rococo designs that the factory was making at the time. He believed that the beauty of porcelain lay in the smoothness and hardness of the material itself, and designs with lots of relief and bright colours actually obscured this beauty. The basic shapes of the objects were therefore simplified, and he took the radical decision to switch exclusively to underglaze painting..
Bing & Grøndahl
Royal Copenhagen’s competitor Bing & Grøndahl, also of Copenhagen, was a younger company. In 1885, its management became the responsibility of the equally ambitious Pietro Krohn (1840–1905). Aware of the experiments being conducted at Royal Copenhagen, Bing & Grøndahl also began to focus on underglaze painting, though the firm went its own way, with designs featuring aspects of earlier porcelain traditions, including classic shapes, elements in slip relief, ajour work and banded decoration.
The switch to full underglaze painting was a challenge, given the fact that this technique was not taught at any art academy. The transition must have been highly frustrating, both for the painters already employed by the factories and the ‘canvas painters’ who were employed to boost their ranks.
Since underglaze painting involves applying the colours on the pre-fired bisque, the pigment medium – the moisture – was immediately absorbed by the dry mass. The colours – a limited range because only a few pigments can withstand the high firing temperature of approximately 1435 C° – fade almost immediately. After the object is painted and glazed, the porcelain is fired again, and the painted images melt both ‘inwards’ into the porcelain, and ‘outwards’ into the glaze. It is only after firing – with all the attendant risks – that the colours in the painting become visible in the end result.
Both Krog and Krohn preferred organic designs, and they became fascinated by the aesthetic of imported Japanese art and its natural ornamentation. But it is not only the influence of japonism and the technical limitations of the colour range that give these Danish porcelain objects their specific aesthetic. The painting process also resulted in a cool Scandinavian idiom, a ‘Danification’ of the image. Classic naturalistic images, often including elements of Danish flora and fauna, were reduced to their serene essence, and depicted in tastefully muted colours.
Many of the artists who worked for the two manufacturers were women. Two of them, employed by Bing & Grøndahl, rank among the most admired porcelain artists of the period: Fanny Garde (1885-1928) and Effie Hegermann-Lindencrone (1869-1945). They took the entire process in hand, often spending more than a hundred hours on one piece. As a result, they were able to create astonishingly stylish design pieces and vases!
The World’s Fairs in Paris in 1889 and 1900 were a huge success for both Bing & Grøndahl and Royal Copenhagen. The pieces sold in those glorious years around the turn of the century soon became some of the most costly items of the time. The list of collectors is very impressive, and includes Tsar Alexander III of Russian, King Edward VII of Britain and Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, all of whose collections featured several of these highly sought-after pieces.
In this sense, it seems strange that they have fallen somewhat into obscurity these days. But while many of these pieces ended up in the hands of royalty, only a few of the most important pieces were included in publicly accessible collections, and not a single public collection in the Netherlands has any. As a result, museum presentations on the subject are rare. This exhibition hopes to be a first step in the re-evaluation of these fascinating pieces.
Porcelain Masterpieces, Copenhagen 1890-1930 is the first in-depth publication devoted exclusively to unique pieces made by artists working for the factories of Royal Copenhagen and Bing & Grondahl, from the beginning of Art Nouveau to the end of Art Deco period.
The catalogue has 193 pages and can be ordered directly from the Museum’s webshop for € 34,95. The catalogue can also be ordered directly from the publisher by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and through the publisher’s website www.gbooksinternational.nl
Personally, having lived in Japan during my student years, I have a thing for Japanese art. And I am particularly intrigued by its influence on Western art, which is called Japonism. So my heart skipped a beat (or two) when I saw these beautiful vases. The influence is crystal clear. However, as pointed out correctly in the catalogue by Van Otterloo “The production of this new Danish underglaze painting style was not merely the copying of Japanese art but led to a refining artistic expression in depicting the characteristics of the local Danish settings and their very own fauna and flora”.
Van Otterloo thoroughly investigated each and every piece in this marvellous (private) collection and managed to connect most pieces with Japanese objects that inspired the artists who made them. One of the influences that seems to have been of great importance to the Danish designers, is Siegfried Bing’s Le Japon Artistique. “…Schou and Krog set out on a trip to The Netherlands, Belgium, France and England where they visited many leading ceramic manufactories only to return without any inspiration for new original creations of their own. In Paris, Krog visited the collection of Siegfried Bing (1838-1905) who had just returned laden with treasures of oriental art collected in China and, in particular, in Japan. The pieces in Bing’s collection and the illustrations in his monthly magazine supplied ample inspiration for Krog and his circle of artists at Royal Copenhagen.”
I hope, together with Van Otterloo, that this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue may remind people of the spectacular porcelain that was produced in Copenhagen around the turn of the previous century. If you have the opportunity to visit the exhibition in The Hague, make sure you don’t miss it! And those who would love to learn more, please consider obtaining the catalogue. It is just excellent.
Great Danes | Porcelain Masterpieces, Copenhagen 1890 – 1930
6 November 2021 – 15 May 2022 | Kunstmuseum The Hague, The Netherlands
A Private Collection of Danish Porcelain
Art Nouveau Innovation: Danish Porcelain from an American Collector
Chats on Royal Copenhagen Porcelain By Arthur Hayden, 1918
Danish Royal Porcelain at the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest
Effie Hegermann-Lindencrone at eighteen years old (1879)
Kunstmuseum Den Haag: Great Danes
The Art Story: Japonism
Wikipedia on Japonisme