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Striving for excellence

08 march 2021

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tatyana_muntyan_xx.pngDespite the pandemic, the exhibition "Carl Fabergé & Feodor Rückert. Masterpieces of Russian Enamel” was successfully held at the Moscow Kremlin Museums where about 400 pieces of precious metal with enamel were displayed made by the Russian jewelry firms at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries as well as the works by the Russian painters and the masterpieces of the Russian national treasury (Usolye enamels, Chinese porcelain, gold utensils of the 17th century).

Art expert Tatiana Muntian, the curator of this exhibition, told Rough&Polished about the efflorescence in the Russian jewelry art and about its representatives as well as about the current state of the jewelry industry.

Everything associated with the name of Fabergé is of great and well-deserved interest since it is a never-fading brand and still unparalleled. Therefore, at the same time, the Fabergé pieces of art are exhibited at the Historical Museum, and there are many people queuing up for visiting its museum in St. Petersburg. What makes the exhibition held in the halls of the Kremlin Museums different from the other ones? Except that the attention was paid to one more outstanding person - the enamel painter Feodor Rückert.

Our exhibition "Carl Fabergé & Feodor Rückert. Masterpieces of Russian Enamel" was timed to coincide with the centenary of the death of Carl Gustavovich Fabergé, but its aim is to show such an aspect in his art as the creation of enamel art pieces in the original Russian style, previously also called the "Moscow style". This important part in his production and creative work that did not attract much attention earlier is the manufacture of art pieces in the style of national antiquity using various types of enamel techniques, such as filigree enamel, champlevé enamel, enamel painting and stained-glass enamel, one of the most complex and labourious enamels. It is impossible to talk about this direction in the Fabergé's art without talking about his long-term partner and friend - Feodor Ivanovich Rückert, one of the most prominent and talented Moscow enamel painters. He worked with the Carl Fabergé firm supplying his excellent art works to the Fabergé's stores. Much information is available about the Fabergé firm, however, until recently, only a select circle like experts, collectors, antique dealers knew about Feodor Rückert. And we wanted to redress the injustice and render Feodor Rückert the attention he deserved. Therefore, our main task was to search for his legacy in the public and private collections. In the public collections, the Rückert's art works are few, but private collectors have made very significant collections of his art works in recent years. Speaking of the Russian enamel art of the era of Historicism and Art Nouveau of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it would be right to mention the names of other outstanding Russian enamellers who worked at the Moscow firms of the P. Ovchinnikov, I. Khlebnikov and I. Sazikov, the purveyors to the Imperial Court. The remarkable Moscow firm of Orest Kurlyukov, the firm of Nemirov-Kolodkin - the purveyor to the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna - as well as the Moscow co-operative craft societies and other enterprises are also worth mentioning. We created a diverse, comprehensive picture of the Russian enamel art during its flowering at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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We knew that the Rückert's art pieces are at the Historical Museum and our colleagues kindly provided them and we appreciate this. We saw the Rückert's ladle in the Murom Art Museum's album and asked the colleagues to provide it for our exhibition. Feodor Rückert used to place the miniature copies of the paintings by Ivan Kulikov, a native of Murom, whose legacy is in Murom, on his pieces of art. We also asked for pictures to display them at the exhibition. One early Rückert's art work was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Museum - despite the pandemic and contact restrictions - sent us a wonderful goblet decorated with a two-headed eagle. A significant collection of Rückert and Fabergé enamels in the Russian style was collected by Maxim Revyakin, an enthusiast collector who published a book about his remarkable collection that became the core of our exhibition. We compiled literally bit by bit - from private collectors, some museums ... Unfortunately, not everything could be brought to the exhibition due to well-known circumstances but, despite this, the catalogue included the art pieces from the USA (the Beilin-Makogon collection) and Great Britain (the collection belonging to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II).

Going back to Fabergé, there is an opinion that he was rather a genius administrator and manager than an artist. What is your opinion?

Undoubtedly, Carl Fabergé was a brilliant manager and a brilliant entrepreneur. But to be able to run a jewelry business (in which over 500 people worked for him in some years), such a huge and complex business as a jewelry one, he must be a jeweler and, of course, an artist. He had to understand the entire creative and production process. Therefore, Fabergé mastered the basics of jewelry craftsmanship to perfection, of course. His teacher was Hiskias Pendin, a St. Petersburg jeweler and his father's friend. Carl Fabergé was also a painter, he drew sketches. Although he had a large group of designers (even the academicians of painting, eminent painters and sculptors worked with his firm), nevertheless, Fabergé personally viewed and endorsed all the drawings - even at the Moscow factory where the art pieces were mass-produced. There's no doubt that the core of Fabergé's personality was his taste and it was the education he received from his childhood that refined his taste; so, full credit must go to his father who was also a jeweler and understood the importance of the education for his son as he was supposed to run the family business in future. Therefore, in his youth, Fabergé traveled a lot around Europe - he studied the collections of Dresden, Florence, he went to Paris twice a year to see new art pieces and visit the museums. Besides, Fabergé was also a talented art restorer and it took him several years to restore the antique gold pieces from the collection of the Imperial Hermitage. He made up the only true whole art piece from many broken pieces and even contributed to the rational cataloguing of the famous museum's collection. Therefore, the Hermitage staff considered Fabergé a scientist and educated jeweler. So, he was a man of many talents - there are such geniuses who are talented in many areas. That is why we cannot say that he was only a manager as he became a talented entrepreneur because he mastered all areas of the jewelry art and the restoration.

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Apart from the Fabergé's personality, what else contributed to the great flourishing of the jewelry art at that time? Were these the orders from the Imperial family and some rich people who wanted to see beautiful and luxury goods around them?

Of course, in this case, the role of personality in history was of importance, but there were also absolutely objective reasons for the growth of the jewelry business in Russia. It should be said that the education level and living standards of the people in the Russian Empire became higher in the 19th century that was the century of the industrial capitalism development, and not only the august personages were the customers but a new class emerged. The merchants were no longer those untidy shopkeepers who wore tall boots. The merchants were educated, they concerned themselves with philosophy, their wives travelled to the Riviera, and their children studied at the Sorbonne and other universities - they were a new type of customers. Besides the august personages who always supported the firm with their orders, the emerging financial and industrial elite was, of course, the most grateful and affluent customers. In those years, the Russian government took a number of measures to protect the national economy, including the jewelry industry. “We have been maturing not within centuries, but within decades,” Karamzin said, and therefore, the Russian jewelry industry became modern and advanced in the shortest possible time from its medieval state. There are many factors such as emerging social classes, new customers, new money as well as the Fabergé's wise policy. Fabergé sold the goods in his store in Moscow at the cost of 3.5 roubles and everyone could buy such a gold brooch. That ensured the coverage of the widest audience, it was a new policy - if you made one jewelry piece for 50 thousand roubles (old tsar's time money) you would wait for a buyer for a long time, but the company had to sell and have a constant turnover. Fabergé always said that they supplied not only goods for the most exquisite taste, but also a lot of goods for the people of modest means. And these not very rich people bought a lot, the firms grew, got richer, because they offered completely different goods. However, a 3.5-rouble brooch was made as carefully and properly as a high-end piece. And once again, I would like to emphasize the support of the Russian government against the background of the country's growing industrial life.

Isn't it surprising that people of non-Russian roots made the glory of the Russian art?

The Fabergé's ancestors were the Huguenots from France who left their country long ago, even during the abolition of the Edict of Nantes. His father Gustav, the founder of the firm, was born in the Russian Empire, in the town of Pernov in Livonia. Carl Fabergé was born in St. Petersburg and was brought up in the Russian culture. However, it didn't matter that his father had the French roots and his mother had the Swedish roots - it was not a matter of his nationality, but a matter of the Russian spirit. It was not clear where Feodor Rückert was born and, as they wrote, he was a "Prussian". But he managed to feel the Moscow spirit, the spirit of the Assumption Cathedral, Moscow, Taganka where he lived in the specific environment described by play-writer Ostrovsky. And all his workers were the Russians as the craftsmen for jewelry making in Moscow were recruited from the Russians and practically all the villagers living around Moscow had long been engaged in this craft.

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To what extent did precious metals and stones contribute to the artistic value of these art pieces and increase their aesthetic value? What did they bring?

In our country, while creating things in the Russian style such as ladles, grace cup and bowls in the style of national antiquity, the craftsmen additionally decorated them with coloured stones and cabochons. But in these jewelry pieces, they are really just a luxurious additional decoration. If an enamel piece is made, the focus is on enamel, of course. As for the imperial Easter eggs, they were made from precious metals only - in times of peace. Even when Fabergé created an egg with a surprise in the form of a swan for Empress Maria Feodorovna, he made it from gold and not from silver; but he had the swan silver-plated to make it snow white. As it was a royal order, which was important, it was the swan made of gold but silver-plated.

As for utensils in the style of the national antiquity, they used mainly silver, a precious metal, too. And in this case, the stones were an additional decoration. But it was a Russian tradition, of course, to make a ladle, decorate it with enamel and add some precious stones. The art pieces displayed at this exhibition were mainly made of silver with enamel, with the exception of two imperial Easter eggs made of gold and platinum, and several gems were added. The settings and frameworks were traditionally beautifully jeweled with luxury pearls, gems and precious stones like diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies. By the way, Fabergé said very important words on this occasion, "I am not interested in a piece if its value lies only in the number of diamonds and pearls inserted." These words reveal that he was an artist and not a merchant, the main thing for him was the design and excellent craftsmanship. If an art piece has a plain design, no diamonds can save it. And the Fabergé art pieces featured, first of all, an amazing and original idea and a perfect design as well as the great skill of his jewelry craftsmen and enamellers, of course. He selected the best of them for his firm. So did Feodor Rückert for his small workshop.

How does the work of the great jewelers inspire the contemporary jewelers? Do such exhibitions contribute to the higher artistic level of the current jewelry so that our modern craftsmen could strive for reaching the heights and ideal beau?

I hope that the exhibitions do contribute to this. I hope that jewelry artists of our companies - at least, from Moscow and the nearby regions - could come to the exhibition. And the management of such companies, probably, should arrange their jewelry designers’ visits to the exhibition, because they must have a unique opportunity to see these art pieces.

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Are the Fabergé traditions alive? Is it possible to say that the current jewelry art has greatly advanced, despite the current extraordinary technologies, it is possible to make everything out of everything now - just try and make.

The Fabergé tradition is, of course, alive and many firms declare that they do things in Fabergé style. I have seen very many modern interpretations of the theme of the Easter egg with a surprise - this theme is eternal, and not only Fabergé, but also Cartier made Easter eggs for the Russian emperor, each in his own style. Of course, we must look for our own direction relying on the richest traditions. What are the strengths of our firms? It seems to me, that after all, many people have still preserved the traditions of hand-made craftsmanship. Amazing filigree enamel pieces are made in Russia - this is our traditional technique. Russia still has the art of enamel-painting - both in Rostov-the-Great and in Yaroslavl they know how to make filigree enamel art pieces. Beautiful niello art works are created in Veliky Ustyug, and I don't know where else in Europe such fine and exquisite niello pieces are made.

We are delighted that people, in spite of everything, work and preserve some Russian traditions - I will emphasize again, the art works are hand-made. This does not mean that mass-produced goods should not be well-designed and high-quality. The mass production goods should have good designs. This requires good designers, and there are educational institutions in our country now where jewelry designers can be trained. However, it's hard to say what a step forward it is compared to the brilliant Fabergé era. But I think we should strive for excellence, for good designs and the proper level of craftsmanship.

It is a contentious question. Each time has its own art pieces, its own works of art. Maybe, someone can create the art pieces similar to those by Feodor Rückert.

Of course, the support is great, however, as you know, an artist often works in spite of, not thanks to anything. Perhaps, masterpieces are very often created in spite of something. The jewelers Ilgiz Fazulzyanov, Mark Baldin, Sergei Chiriev and other jewelers are the examples as they work under the same conditions as the other jewelers, but this does not hinder them from creating excellent art works. For an artist, where there is a creative will, there is a way.

Galina Semyonova for Rough&Polished

The source of the above images is the  Moscow Kremlin Museums