06 November 2021 till 03 April 2022

Great Danes

Porcelain masterpieces, Copenhagen 1890 - 1930

Carl Frederik Liisberg (1860 - 1909) for Royal Copenhagen, vase with depiction of flying swans above water, 1891, unique, cast porcelain with underglaze painting, height 35 cm. Photo: Alice de Groot.


Two Copenhagen porcelain manufacturers – Royal Copenhagen and Bing & Grøndahl – caused quite a stir between 1890 and 1930 with their revolutionary underglaze painting techniques. In Great Danes Kunstmuseum Den Haag will present some extraordinary unique items made by the two factories displaying unparalleled technical quality and a distinctive aesthetic. Although the objects were collected around the fin de siècle by European royal families and were admired internationally at the time, today they seem to be somewhat forgotten. Kunstmuseum Den Haag is to show around 70 of these unique items from Denmark in the first presentation of its kind in the Netherlands.

Royal Copenhagen
Shortly after Arnold Krog (1856 – 1931) became director of Den Kongelige Porcelainsfabrik – which soon became known internationally as Royal Copenhagen –  in 1885 he decided to abandon the rococo designs that the factory was making at the time. He believed that the beauty of porcelain lay in the smoothness and hardness of the material itself, and designs with lots of relief and bright colours actually obscured this beauty. The basic shapes of the objects were therefore simplified, and he took the radical decision to switch exclusively to underglaze painting.

Bing & Grøndahl
Royal Copenhagen’s competitor, Bing & Grøndahl, also of Copenhagen, was a younger company, but in 1885 its management became the responsibility of the equally ambitious Pietro Krohn (1840 – 1905). Aware of the experiments being conducted at Royal Copenhagen, Bing & Grøndahl also began to focus on underglaze painting, though the firm went its own way, with designs featuring aspects of earlier porcelain traditions, including classic shapes, elements in slip relief, ajour work and banded decoration.

Underglaze painting
The switch to full underglaze painting was a challenge, given the fact that this technique was not taught at any art academy. The transition must have been highly frustrating, both for the painters already employed by the factories and the ‘canvas painters’ who were employed to boost their ranks.

Since underglaze painting involves applying the colours on the pre-fired bisque, the pigment medium – the moisture – was immediately absorbed by the dry mass. The colours – a limited range because only a few pigments can withstand the high firing temperature of approximately 1435 C° – fade almost immediately. After the object is painted and glazed, the porcelain is fired again, and the painted images melt both ‘inwards’ into the porcelain, and ‘outwards’ into the glaze. It is only after firing – with all the attendant risks – that the colours in the painting become visible in the end result.

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Both Krog and Krohn preferred organic designs, and they became fascinated by the aesthetic of imported Japanese art and its natural ornamentation. But it is not only the influence of japonism and the technical limitations of the colour range that give these Danish porcelain objects their specific aesthetic. The painting process also resulted in a cool Scandinavian idiom, a ‘Danification’ of the image. Classic naturalistic images, often including elements of Danish flora and fauna, were reduced to their serene essence, and depicted in tastefully muted colours.

Skillful women
Many of the artists who worked for the two manufacturers were women. Two of them, employed by Bing & Grøndahl, rank among the most admired porcelain artists of the period: Fanny Garde (1885-1928) and Effie Hegermann-Lindencrone (1869-1945). They took the entire process in hand, often spending more than a hundred hours on one piece. As a result, they were able to create astonishingly stylish design pieces and vases.

Prestigious collectors
The World’s Fairs in Paris in 1889 and 1900 were a huge success for both Bing & Grøndahl and Royal Copenhagen. The pieces sold in those glorious years around the turn of the century soon became some of the most costly items of the time. The list of collectors is very impressive, and includes Tsar Alexander III of Russian, King Edward VII of Britain and Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, all of whose collections featured several of these highly sought-after pieces.

In this sense, therefore, it seems strange that they have fallen somewhat into obscurity these days. But while many of these pieces ended up in the hands of royalty, only a few of the most important pieces were included in publicly accessible collections, and not a single public collection in the Netherlands has any. As a result, museum presentations on the subject are rare. We therefore hope this exhibition will prompt a re-evaluation of these fascinating items.

A lavishly illustrated catalogue will be published to accompany the exhibition. Written by Chris van Otterloo, it is published by G Books International. Price € 34.95.