Claire Voon: "A colony of bats, a troop of mushrooms, and a cluster of angular grasshopper legs — these are among the charming carvings of flora and fauna that typically adorn ceramics produced by Amphora, an Austrian pottery workshop founded in 1892. Located in the Turn-Teplitz region in what’s now the Czech Republic, Amphora was renowned for its exquisite, richly decorated vessels. Many of its artists created designs that echoed the highly ornamental paintings of their contemporaries, including Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha; they often featured portraits of young women with flowing hair and flower crowns, similar to those that the Art Nouveau painters loved to depict.
Das Werk, a small but imaginative exhibition at Jason Jacques Gallery, places Austrian pottery from the turn of the 20th century in conversation with work produced by Klimt around the same time. Most of the two dozen ceramic pieces on view, which date to between 1894 and 1904, were produced by Amphora artists; along a wall hangs rare collotypes by Klimt from a series for which the exhibition is named. Comprising 50 prints that reproduced the artist’s most significant paintings from 1898 to 1913, Das Werk was published by Viennese art gallery Galerie Miethke in an edition of 300. Each was stamped at the bottom with a gold signet that Klimt specially designed.
Jason Jacques is showing 15 examples, including big hits such as “The Kiss” and “Judith and The Head of Holofernes.” Not to be missed, however, are three collotypes of destroyed paintings that sparked the largest controversy of Klimt’s career: “Philosophy,” “Medicine,” and “Jurisprudence” were smaller prototypes of a massive work the artist designed for his commission to decorate the ceiling of the University of Vienna’s Great Hall with allegories of those faculties. But his ruminative visions of nude women were deemed pornographic and too fanciful for such a public, erudite setting. The paintings ended up at Immendorf Castle, where they were destroyed in a fire set by German SS forces during World War II. Along with Klimt’s preparatory drawings and photographs, the small, shadowy collotypes of drifting, languid bodies are all that remain of the never-realized mural. They’re records not only of what could have been but also of the criticism Klimt faced during his lifetime from a more conservative society.
It’s the pottery in Das Werk that is most alluring. The pieces could easily have formed a standalone show, particularly in this black-walled gallery, where they glisten like fairy-tale objects in a dark woodland, yet still feel cool and contemporary. Their pairing with Klimt’s works, though, does make for a compelling lens through which to read them, and vice versa. Many of the craft artists were likely informed by the painter’s style, although they were of course creating with their own visions; how the two mediums play with and incorporate similar motifs is interesting to consider.
The ceramics on view effectively foreground the patterned forms that surround Klimt’s primary, human subjects. And like Klimt’s works, every inch of these sculptures has been considered, from handles to rims, with all the elements seamlessly connected. An Amphora vase topped with sculpted berry bats, for instance, features vines trailing down its neck to culminate in round lily pads; it echoes the tendril-like strands of hair on Klimt’s women, always woven with concentric circles. Meanwhile, the painter’s jewel-like patchworks of shapes is realized in 3D through a gilded chalice that features subtly gleaming, encrusted cabochons along its rim and collar. The vessels’ round shapes and sinewy handles, too, emphasize the painter’s curving lines and fluid treatment of the body. This is particularly evident in a vase by Fachschule Teplitz, “Swirling Algae,” which features a quartet of handles whirling below a crest of blue algae stoneware, and in a pastel-toned candlestick by Amphora, with a handle curling like a frozen cascade of molten wax.
These works come from a particularly exalted period of Amphora’s half a century of production. The company was nationalized by the Czech government in 1945, and over time witnessed the changing of partners and shifting of styles. In the decade on which Das Werk focuses, Amphora had the talents of such artists as Paul Dachsel and Eduard Stellmacher, who produced extraordinarily complex and innovative pieces that helped define the company’s style. The exhibition presents a rare opportunity to observe examples from this golden age of avant-garde Austrian pottery and appreciate how they translate the same motifs found in prints and paintings we more readily recognize."