Faberge Revealed, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

August 19, 2011 at 7:25 pm (Art, Music, Russophilia)

Surely this photograph, taken in 1913, of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children is one of history’s most haunting images:

The name of Faberge, master jeweler, is indelibly linked with those of  Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children, whose fate it was to be the last of the Romanoffs.  Currently on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is Faberge Revealed, an exhibit featuring more than five hundred objects designed and created by  Peter Karl Faberge and the superb craftsmen who worked under him. Thanks to the generosity of various donors, the VMFA has one of the finest collections of Faberge objets d’art to be found anywhere in the world. On the occasion of this special exhibition, additional works have been loaned to the museum.

Should you go there, here are some of the things you will see:

Imperial Tsarevich Egg

Napoleonic Egg

Diamond tiara, one of the few made by Faberge

Imperial Lilies of the Valley Basket

The Coronation Egg

The Hen Egg, Tsar Alexander III's Easter gift to his wife in 1885

Imperial snuff box

The eggs, with their tiny miniatures inside, are the most famous products of the House of Faberge. But as this exhibit demonstrates, these master jewelers crafted many other equally beautiful objects. There were brooches and pendants, animals carved from hard stone, snuff boxes – and picture frames. And from these frames, picture after picture of members of the royal household, unsmiling and imperious, gaze out at the world they unthinkingly dominated. 

I could not resist buying the exhibition catalog, a weighty tome with lavish illustrations:  It wasn’t until I took a good look at this book that I fully took in the name of the guest curator: Geza Von Habsburg. Von Habsburg…? A rather storied name in European history, n’est-ce pas? Indeed so. Born in Bupapest in 1940, Geza Von Habsburg is a direct descendant of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Empress Elizabeth. In a bygone era, he would’ve been entitled to style himself an archduke. In the current era he may be called Dr. Von Habsburg: he is the holder of a Ph.D. degree from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and an acknowledged expert on the history and works of the House of Faberge.

Geza Von Habsburg

When this exhibition opened in early July, Philip Kennicott wrote about it in the Washington Post. The article is illuminating, not least because in the middle of it, Kennicott erupts into a diatribe against the Romanoffs and their privileged ilk. He begins with a fairly innocuous observation regarding the eggs, to wit: “In an age of digital illusionism, these little mechanical marvels give an almost reflexive pleasure, no matter how hard one tries to resist.”  But then comes this paragraph:

And there are good reasons to resist everything in this exhibition of more than 500 objects. Faberge’s work is mesmerizing and horrifying at the same time. Although Faberge strove to distinguish his product from the purely ostentatious display of gold and jewels made by other purveyors of useless baubles, his artistry had absolutely no socially redeeming merit. In an age when other artists served broadly humanist causes, when much-needed revolution was in the air, Faberge comforted the comfortable. He may have thought of himself as an artist, but his business lived and died by the whims of a parasitical class of people who either inherited their obscene wealth, built it through raw exploitation, or both.

Still in full bore fulminating mode, Kennicott adds that “It’s enough to send one back to the wisdom of Karl Marx….” Resentment and indignation eventually give way to grudging admiration. Kennicott may hate this aspect of history – the intertwining of beauty with arrogance and wealth – but he cannot deny that this symbiosis  has given the world much of its greatest art.

Click here to read the article in full. And be sure to watch the slide show at the top. You’ll have to endure a short commercial first. Just grit your teeth; it’s worth the wait.

The House of Faberge has recently been reborn as an online retail establishment. Here’s the story of how that happened. One of their premier offerings is the Sadko Sea Horse brooch.  Sadko is the name of a Russian folk legend. It has been made into an opera by Nickolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Here is “The Song of India, from that work:

Here is  “Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom” by Ilya Repin, an artist whose gifts were apparently limitless:

The History International Channel’s program on Faberge Eggs is available on YouTube. Start here:

With its appalling history and magnificent achievements in music, dance, and literature, Russia fascinates. (This may be especially true for those of us who trace our ancestry to that troubled region.) I’d like to conclude with music that seems to me quintessentially Russian. It is a selection from Lieutenant Kije by Sergei Prokofiev. (The art work, by Ilya Repin, is entitled “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.)

1 Comment

  1. Barbara said,

    You’re in my fair city of Richmond? I hope you have the opportunity to see much more of the city which is a treasure trove of interesting places and historical sites. Hollywood Cemetary, the Fan, Monument Avenue, Museum of the Confederacy, etc. etc. I’m glad it is not too beastly hot at the moment for your visit.

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