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.
Even the eggs, created as the ultimate Easter gifts for people who had everything, seem like a dark joke on religion and nature. The Russian tradition of giving an elaborately decorated egg at Easter had pre-Christian roots, as a symbol of rebirth or regeneration at the spring equinox. The exhibition is filled with more modest examples of Easter eggs, and egg-shaped pendants, exchanged by people of lesser substance than the tsar and his family. By contrast, the tsar’s eggs, which occupied a team of craftsmen essentially year round, co-opt a simple and charming symbol into a perfect but lifeless simulacrum of the real world, fashioned at a cost that dwarfed what a workman could earn in a year. Is there, perhaps, something about the essence of Christianity that is missing here? WWJD?
But resistance is futile. And perhaps not entirely warranted. Art and ostentation have been mostly inseparable since at least the Renaissance, when patrons would dictate exactly how much of the most valuable pigments (gold, ultramarine) the painter should use in his depiction of humble shepherds and homeless virgins. And while Faberge could lay on the diamonds and gold when he wanted, and often imitated the style of Louis XVI, his work’s appeal is often independent of the value of its materials.
His craftsmen were masters of enameling, especially enamel applied over metal, a process called guilloche, which produced a delicate filigree of geometric patterns. The result, a shimmering, iridescent surface, is a matter of artistry, not jewels, gold or platinum.
Faberge’s use of rock crystal, a transparent form of quartz, is as exciting as any of the rubies or diamonds that decorate his most luxurious items. The best of his work has, in fact, a striking reserve in its use of materials. A cigarette case, from the workshop of Mikhail Perkhin, one of the greatest of the Faberge artists, is made of white enamel guilloche, with a single, small ruby at its clasp. Its minimalist poetry speaks more clearly than most of the gaudier pieces in the exhibition.
While Faberge’s work has become synonymous with the tsarist over class — Faberge fled the country during the Russian Revolution— the master jeweler was in many ways more progressive than the society he served. His shop in St. Petersburg was, according to the curators of this exhibition, the first “multifunctional business complex” in Russia. It housed workshops, a showroom, offices, a library, and a residence for Faberge and his family. His top craftsmen were independent businessmen in a system that was remarkably horizontal for its day.
Faberge’s business model also prefigured successful luxury goods companies today: He insisted on perfect workmanship, created a steady steam of new designs and destroyed or removed old stock before it became old hat. He was helping to pioneer a very peculiar idea that we now take for granted: That we will pay purely for the status of a brand name, rather than the use value or inherent worth of an object.
Within the small and competitive world of master jewelers, Faberge was a bit of a mandarin. He never failed to serve the tsar and his family, but he didn’t respect their taste very much. He was also dismissive of other jewelers, including Cartier, who made inroads on his Russian market in the years before World War I. His French competitors, he said, were “merchants, not artist jewelers.”
Was it presumptuous to assume the title “artist jeweler”? The craftsmanship on display in the Virginia exhibition is exquisite but doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of art. There is something inexhaustible about the imagination that animates the Faberge brand, the small games and little touches of humor that distinguish the company’s oeuvre. But it’s a rather limited arena for the exercise of creativity. Each piece is different from the next and lives in its own world. But there’s no real progress of ideas or spirit in the work. It gives a one-dimensional pleasure.
But there are certain pieces, including an elaborate silver drinking vessel known as a kovsh, that are breathtaking. The cup comes alive on the table, with a vivid depiction of horsemen surging from its boat-shaped prow. It’s as vivid and lifelike as anything by a master sculptor.
And then there are the eggs. Try to hate them, but their whimsy charms in the end. They were perfect gifts, perfect toys, smallish things that could be held in the hand and endlessly admired. The miniature reproduction of a statue of Peter Great inside the great 1903 egg doesn’t just include a man on a horse; it also includes two concentric circular fences around the statue, one rendered in the finest chain link. This is pure, ridiculous virtuosity, like a Paganini caprice, absurd yet satisfying in its delicate play with reality.
In the end, even as you know it’s impossible and perhaps a bit obscene, you think: I’d like one of those. Great revolutions have foundered on these primitive shoals of the spirit.
is on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond through October 2. Admission is $15 for adults and requires a timed-entry ticket. For more information visit www.vmfa.museum.