RICHMOND — The greater Washington area is well stocked with Faberge imperial Easter eggs, those ultimate symbols of tsarist infantilism. Only 50 of these perfectly wrought, often elaborately bejeweled, royal gifts were made, of which 42 survive. Five of those are in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, two are at the Hillwood Museum in Northwest Washington, and another two are at the Walters Museum in Baltimore. It’s coincidence, but a happy one, especially if you enjoy the fantastical excesses engendered by a close alliance between grotesque wealth and unbounded imagination.
Created between 1885 and 1916, the imperial eggs were the product of workshops controlled by master jeweler and entrepreneur Karl Faberge. Although they represented about one half of 1 percent of his work during the half-century that Faberge ran his luxury goods empire, the imperial eggs eclipse everything else in the common memory of the House of Faberge.
The VMFA has made them the centerpiece of its extensive and beguiling “Faberge Revealed” exhibition, billed as the largest trove of Faberge’s work currently on display in the United States. They are mounted in specially made vitrines, with little spotlights highlighting their exquisite finish. A short film shows their secret interior surprises — a miniature statue of Peter the Great; a turning spindle of tiny paintings showing the great royal palaces of Europe; a miniature, two-sided portrait of the hemophiliac tsarevitch, on a tiny, diamond-studded pedestal — and proves their undiminished power to captivate. In an age of digital illusionism, these little mechanical marvels give an almost reflexive pleasure, no matter how hard one tries to resist.
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.
It’s enough to send one back to the wisdom of Karl Marx, who among other things wrote sagely about how our needs grow greater even as our wealth grows greater, about how money alienates us from our true being and how our subservience to it leads to “inhuman, refined, unnatural and imaginary appetites.” That describes the work of Faberge, which often feels like a parody of the world, a little joke among the smart set who never tire of admiring the same strange fact: That money can do anything.
Among the most fascinating and bizarre, intriguing and unnerving objects in the Richmond exhibition is a little pin that looks exactly like a slightly rumpled green ribbon, some minor award or honor that lay forgotten in the drawer for too long and now won’t sit flat on the lapel of your jacket. But it’s made of solid agate, a masterful imitation in stone of something cheap and worn.