Faberge as Artist and Craftsman

FABERGE: IMPERIAL JEWELER by Geza von Habsburg and Marina Lopato Abrams, 476 pp., $60

IN his memoirs, the Russian emigre writer Vladimir Nabokov ``accidentally mentions that his family despised Faberge objects `as emblems of grotesque garishness.' ''

This, at least, is how Alexander von Solodkoff (of the Ermitage Gallery in London) puts it in a fascinating essay, ``Tracing Faberge Treasures after 1918.'' This essay looks at what happened to the renowned Russian jeweler's works after the Revolution in 1917 (when his workshops were closed down, and he had to emigrate.)

Solodkoff's essay is in the impressive book-cum-catalog called ``Faberge: Imperial Jeweler,'' which was published coincidentally with a recent Faberge exhibition shown in London, Paris, and St. Petersburg. Both the book and the exhibition are the result of fresh information from archives recently opened up in the former Soviet Union for scrutiny by scholars and experts. Faberge scholarship has been considerably enhanced.

For Faberge lovers, anything that allows the indulgence of yet more appreciation of his work is obviously welcome. But Faberge is not to everyone's taste, however varied his styles may have been. One suspects that Nabokov's remark was hardly ``accidental.'' It may have been incidental - an aside - but he clearly wanted it to be known by his readers that not all Russians automatically admired their famous court jeweler.

YET it does seem there is something about Fabergs decoratively encrusted fantasies (and occasional forays into a more-controlled finesse) that remains an irresistible fascination beyond the period tastes of the aristocracy for whom most of his opulent trinkets were originally crafted. There is today a class of collectors, dealers, and even perhaps of latter-day royals, who have inherited the taste of their forebears. However, the master jeweler also appeals to hosts of ordinary people. They flock oohing and aahing to see exhibitions of his Easter eggs and cigarette cases, presentation brooches and commemorative beakers, paperweights, vases, and clocks.

But what is it that this elaborate old craftwork really gives them? It can't be simply the lure of gold and silver, diamonds, pearls, and sapphires (such precious substances certainly abound in Fabergs works, alongside less precious materials), can it? And it can't be just the reflected aura of the incredible royal wealth that first prompted the making of such extravagant toys, and which now seems part of a remote and irretrievable past. And it can't - surely? - be mere admiration for the Faberge skill, so endlessly described by superlatives such as ``exquisite and rare,'' and praised for being ``rendered with all imaginable charm'' or ``craftsmanship at the very limits of perfection.''

Well, yes, it can be any of these things that draw today's crowds, or a combination of all of them. What could be more compelling than an amalgam of valuable materials, royal expenditure, and a high standard of craftsmanship? To many people, such things define the meaning of ``art.'' And Faberge epitomizes such ``art.''

It might be disconcerting, then, that ``The Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts'' (published 1975, and continually re-issued since) gives only one short paragraph to ``the firm of Faberge, jewelers and goldsmiths of St. Petersburg'' that ``...became the most fashionable house for jewelery in Europe ... until the outbreak of the First World War.'' The entry ends: ``A very high level of craftsmanship was achieved; the most original productions were miniature figures of animals and peasant types carved in hardstone, but on the whole the Faberge creations were artistically sterile.'' Clearly the writer of this paragraph believes there is a difference between ``craftsmanship'' and ``art.''

In his day, however, Faberge was heralded as actually instilling into jewelry-making something original, or at least something that had been lost sight of. In 1882 a Russian magazine article talked about him as ``willing to elucidate the style of jewelery objets d'art, to impart them with artistry.'' It went on to describe him as opening ``a new era in the art of jewelery'' and defined this newness as the hope that ``from now on, thanks to our renowned jeweler, the value of the objects will be measured not only by the value of the precious stones, not by wealth alone, but by their artistic form as well.''

Even if this statement sounds suspiciously like advertising, it may well express Fabergs actual aims, and it was certainly a step in an artistic direction for his work to draw attention to the skill of its maker rather than the monetary value of its materials. To say that the value of materials determines artistic value is like saying that the paint Leonardo da Vinci used to paint the Mona Lisa is of more value than the strange mystique of the image.

Later events would seem to show that Faberge had been correct in believing that his craftsmanship was worth more than his precious materials: After the Revolution, when Russian emigres in different parts of the world needed to sell their valuables to survive, it turned out that most of their Faberge objets were far less saleable than other jewelry in which the materials were of more value than the craftsmanship. It was only later in the century that Faberge pieces in any numbers were worth selling at auction, and then because the uniqueness of their craftsmanship was being more fully recognized.

THE style Faberge espoused in the 1880s, at the time of the quoted magazine article, was a re-creation of ancient Greek jewelry. In line with the period in which he made his reputation - the second half of the 19th century - Fabergs sense of style seemed to be a multiple-choice dig into the past, an eclecticism in which anything might be copied, adapted, or reinvented. At different times his workshops might be producing ware that had Renaissance undertones, or hints of Russian folk art, or definite shades of the ``modernism'' of the time, art nouveau, or any combination of these.

To a degree, Faberge may have shifted the taste of his imperial and noble clientele toward craftsmanship and away from mere display, but at the same time he was an astute businessman, and knew first and foremost how to delight and amuse the whimsical minds of his patrons.

They in turn actually treated his works - some of the most fantastical of which might take him up to three years to produce - as amusing gifts. They delighted in them, and amassed them, but did not always respect or protect them as irreplaceable artifacts. To them, most of Fabergs productions did not seem particularly expensive. And although Faberge himself was not averse to recognition, he apparently did not seek honors, prizes, or accolades. He probably was aware that he was essentially in the business of making pleasurable playthings rather than ``art.''

The opening essay in this book about Faberge is by A. Kenneth Snowman, who is described as the doyen of Faberge experts. He has written several books on the craftsman. Snowman admits that Faberge sometimes went too far and produced kitsch. He also admits that Fabergs work does not always appeal to the tastes of our time. But then Snowman - presumably on the basis of Fabergs craftsmanship being an unassailable criterion of everything that art should aspire to, launches into a castigation of what he calls the ``disaster'' of today's ``permissive aesthetic.''

It's always entertaining when people publicly let their hobby-horses run free, so a flavor of Mr. Snowman's blast may amuse. He observes that: ``One of the ugliest stains discolouring the fabric of our end of the twentieth century has been contributed by an alarming number of stuntmen masquerading as painters and sculptors with the connivance of a further number of near-illiterate critics and gallery-directors, cynical dealers and ignorant patrons. The common factor which unites these pretentious individuals ... is a total lack of respect for, or knowledge of, their more cultivated forebears.''

Presumably he means forebears like Faberge. But where is his argument? Is he suggesting that exquisite craftsmanship is the only measure of art? Or that we can judge the art of the end of the 20th century by comparing it unfavorably with 19th-century Russian imperial Easter eggs containing ``surprises''? It is like trying to criticize atonal music by displaying a preference for Gilbert and Sullivan, or finding fault with the harsh poetry of Ted Hughes because what you really like is ``Mary had a little lamb.'' Even the light-hearted confections of Faberge deserve a less hidebound advocacy. Everything finds its own level eventually.

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