Inventory Number: DAP075
Size: 22.50h x 10w x 12d in
Material: Glazed porcelain
Year Made: c.1897-1900
Like virtually all European art pottery of the period, Amphora’s wares reflected a synthesis of Occidental and Oriental artistic ideals that permeated the firm’s productions. In Dragon Vase in particular, the structure of the vase with the applied dragon motif was a nod to Chinese and Japanese productions, many of which were published regularly. This was not a new development by Amphora, as this motif appears in the work of Edmond Lachenal as early as 1894, and it soon became a ubiquitous presence in the fictile arts with examples by numerous companies such as Doulton, Rookwood, and even Frederick Hurton Rhead.
After achieving the Gold Medal at the Paris Exposition of 1889, Alfred Stellmacher had reached the zenith of his career and began making plans to secure his legacy. Just three years later, in 1892, that vision was secured with the formation of Riessner, Stellmacher & Kessel, a porcelain factory in Turn that reflected the importance he placed on his family. Consisting of sons-in-law Karl Riessner, Hans Riessner, Rudolf Kessel, and son Eduard Stellmacher the firm also employed Eduard’s brother-in-law Paul Dachsel, a talented designer who served as Creative Director and was largely responsible for the vision that propelled the firm to international acclaim. Within a few years, the firm’s wares were impressed with “Amphora” on their bases and the factory was subsequently known by that name.
Success came quickly to the firm and in 1893 it won the highest honors at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, as well as a gold medal in San Francisco the following year. As awards came, demand grew, and the firm expanded into terra cotta production (1894) and faience (1895). The strength of Stellmacher’s and Daschel’s designs transformed the firm into a leading producer of art pottery and by the turn of the century they were well-established in markets throughout continental Europe, England, and the United States. Medals at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 only further increased their reputation. In spite of the accolades they received from these juries, press coverage of the firm in the United States was sparse, but generally favorable. Brush and Pencil, an art magazine in Chicago, published illustrations of their wares only twice, including a plate in 1904 that included the Bat and Berry Vase.[i]
Like virtually all European art pottery of the period, Amphora’s wares reflected a synthesis of Occidental and Oriental artistic ideals that permeated the firm’s productions. On the most basic level, porcelain itself was a material inextricably linked to the East and despite the widespread production of it in Europe following Johann Bottger’s discovery of the formula at Meissen in 1708, it was commonly referred to as “china.” In Dragon Vase in particular, the structure of the vase with the applied dragon motif was a nod to Chinese and Japanese productions, many of which were published regularly.[ii] This was not a new development by Amphora, as this motif appears in the work of Edmond Lachenal as early as 1894, and it soon became a ubiquitous presence in the fictile arts with examples by numerous companies such as Doulton, Rookwood, and even Frederick Hurton Rhead.
If the structure of the vase is indebted to Asian precedents, the iconography—the winged serpent—has its roots in medieval European myth, as well as post-Renaissance scientific writing.[iii] Unlike the Asian Dragon, which is generally associated with auspicious powers and even benevolence, the European winged serpents and dragons tended to have darker, more sinister implications. For ethnic Germans (and certainly the names Riessner, Stellmacher, Kessler and Dachsel indicate Germanic Bohemians) the dragon myth was embodied in the story of Siegfried and recorded in their literary canon in Nibelungenlied, The Volsunga Saga, and Poetic Edda. The dragon Siegfried must slay is the personification of greed, hoarding a treasure of gold that is alluded to in the Dragon Vase by the circular gold decoration around which the dragon wraps itself. Once Siegfried has conquered greed bathes in its blood and is granted strength and protection. Audiences may also have associated the dragon with the legend of St. George and the Dragon, or even with the “Thou Shalt” dragon from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, because the history of the symbol in the late nineteenth century was complex and multivalent. In all of these legends the lesson is essentially the same: man must conquer an element of his ego (whether his attachment to greed, to convention, or to his own life) in order to fulfill the potential of his true self. In doing so, he is transformed; he is able to liberate himself and others.
The iconography of the vase—the dragon, the trees, the golden orbs—suggests that the designer of the vase had a much more specific source in mind: Heracles in the Garden of the Hesperides. Although the legend originally described as Ladon with 100 heads, many artists—including Rubens, Giambologna, and even the ancient Greeks and Romans—depicted a single headed serpent, often with wings. That the conventionalized trees bear fruit of the same shape as those expelled from (or consumed by) the dragon’s mouth makes the interpretation of these as coins less likely, and suggests they represent the golden apples in the garden instead. Regardless of which story the audience read into the vase, the meaning did not vary much: man is ennobled through his deeds, not his birth. One must conquer what seems impossible to realize the full potential of self.
The blend of mythology and exoticism that Riessner, Stellmacher & Kessler captured in the Dragon Vase, the nightmarish quality of danger, and the swirling formal lines of the winged serpent succinctly demonstrates the Symbolist influence in European Art Nouveau. From a formal and philosophical perspective, both were united by a belief in the power of nature and an understanding that human potential was something hampered by civilization and best cultivated in a more primitive state. Myth, mystery, dreams—anything but scientific rationalization—became a means to find a truer self, a purer and more primitive version of humanity than the modern world allowed. As poet and art critic Émile Verhaeren presciently observed about the goals of the aims of the movement in L’Art Moderne:
…it will be the sphinxes, the ancient kings and the fabulous queens, and the legends and the epics that will serve us will make us understand; it will be them because they impose themselves with the despotism of memory, with the secular growth and that we see ourselves better through the transparency of their myth.[iv]
Although Amphora continued to produce ceramics until it was nationalized by the Czechoslovakian government in 1945, it is difficult to imagine that much was produced during the Nazi occupation of the country from March 1939 until 1945. While Stellmacher’s heirs still ran the company, it never again achieved the artistic success and international acclaim that it enjoyed from its inception through 1905. The departures of Dachsel in 1903 and Eduard Stellmacher in 1904 certainly left a pronounced void in the company. Both men started their own factories in the region, not only depriving the company of its most talented designers, but creating direct competition, too. By the time of Alfred Stellmacher’s death in 1906, the firm was but a pale shadow of its formerly glorious self.
[i] See “Arts and Crafts—Plate no. 2,” Brush and Pencil 14 (June 1904), 221. This is a reprint of a page that appeared in Der Modern Stil 4 (1902), 29. See also “Examples of Decoration and Design,” Brush and Pencil 10 (June 1, 1902), plate 22. This is a partial reprint of a page that appeared in Der Modern Stil 4 (1902), 4.
[ii] See, for example, Charles Wyllys Elliot, Pottery and Porcelain: From Early Times Down to the Philadelphia Exhibition (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1878), 193, fig. 110.
[iii] Used interchangeable, the winged serpent / dragon of the type shown on this vase is illustrated in Ulyssis Aldrovani, Historiae Serpentum et Draconum (1640), 419.
[iv] Émile Verhaeren, “Silhouettes D’Artistes: Fernand Khnopef,” L’Art Moderne (September 12, 1886): 290.
Private collection, Israel.