The “Splendid White” exhibition at the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt, Germany
In 1962, successful German building contractor Reiner Winkler purchased his first ivory work of art, a small 15th-century Gothic panel of the Nativity that once formed part of a diptych. And he fell in love with the medium. From this small French piece, only a few centimeters high, Winkler began what was to become the largest private collection of ivory carvings in the world.
It focuses on collecting works from the golden age of ivory carving: the 17th and 18th centuries. Winkler kept his collection close to him, first displaying the works in a cabinet in his living room along with porcelain and wood figures. As his ivory collection grew, he spread the works throughout his home, eventually moving the majority of them to a purpose-built room he called “My Art Cabinet and curiosities”.
But Winkler never intended to keep the ivory works for himself; he frequently invited art experts to view and study the pieces. At the end of his life he donated much of his collection to the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt, Germany, which has now acquired most of his collection.
More than 200 Baroque and Rococo ivory carvings by Winkler are now on display in the recently opened “Splendid White” exhibition at the Liebieghaus. Winkler had kept 21 of the works from his private collection until his death in 2020. These are on public display for the first time in the exhibition, curated by Maraike Bückling, head of the Liebieghaus Renaissance to Neoclassicism collection. .
English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Austrian, Dutch and Flemish works, as well as two ivory pieces from India and China, are included in the exhibition. The works range from sculptural reliefs, statuettes, figure groups and portrait medallions to tankards and ceremonial vessels.
Incredible ivory carving
A highlight of the Winkler collection is “Fury on a Charging Horse” sculpted by an unknown artist known as the Master of the Furies. Winkler nearly missed out on a rival collector when he bought the coin depicting a mythological fury on horseback. In his memoirs, he writes: “Fortunately, the sculpture in a primitive wooden crate was very dirty and covered with a lot of glue residue. Lord Thomson’s representative… was not sensitive to it. …Suddenly I realized with shock that the coin was about to be knocked down – the hammer had already been lifted. I drew attention to myself and got the sculpture.
There is a vibrancy and emotional tension throughout the piece that makes it both an uncomfortable and beautiful experience. The Master of Furies skillfully conveyed the limitless anger of the Howling Fury, through his tense muscles and twisted facial features. The Fury’s anger almost knocks her off the horse, which leaps so furiously over blades of grass or perhaps flames.
Throughout this carving we can see why art collectors treasured ivory artwork as they would any rare and valuable gem. The smooth and silky surface of ivory, its warm and luminous hue, its fine veins and its perfection must have captured their hearts.
Art collectors often kept ivory carvings in cabinets of curiosities, a tradition that developed in the 15th and 16th centuries, where scholars kept treasures that sparked conversation among their peers. They kept exotic, intriguing, and sometimes obscure items with an emphasis on the natural world, such as seashells, coconuts, scientific instruments, and beautiful snuffboxes decorated with semi-precious stones, to name a few. -ones. Some pieces were souvenirs they brought back with them from their European Grand Tour. At court, the most senior artists made pieces for these cabinets and were called “cabinet artists”.
The art of ivory carving
Since the Stone Age, artists have used ivory for art. Works from the Reiner Winkler ivory collection, made between the 16th and 18th centuries, did not contribute to endangering elephant populations.
An adult elephant’s tusk can measure up to 9 feet 10 inches and weigh up to 154 pounds. The structure of the tusk, with its hollow root and hard point, dictated what work could be done. Sculptors created their designs to fit the size and shape of a tusk, which took a lot of skill, or if their design didn’t match the size and shape of the tusk, the carvers could add other pieces of ivory to the work to complete their carving.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, ivory carvers used the tip of the tusk to create carvings in the round, and they sliced the hollow end portion to create sculptural reliefs. Carvers also took advantage of the hollow root to make vessels, and they even used a lathe to create ivory objects much like woodturning.
Carvers valued the hard but elastic qualities of African ivory (due to fine hatching at the molecular level), which meant they could chisel fine detail without weakening or breaking their work. For example, they might sculpt fine facial features such as wrinkles to make idealized portraits more believable.
Some types of ivory art
Ivory carvers created designs inspired by other works of art, especially paintings and small bronzes.
Baroque artists created idealized portraits depicting the character and social status of their subjects. Writers and philosophers such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau wore unusual costumes in their portraits. Notable figures were shown in profile according to the ancient tradition of displaying portraits on coins and medals.
The Vatican often offered portraits of the pope to princes when they became Catholics. An ivory portrait of Pope Clement XI may be an example of such a gift, although this has not been confirmed. Around 1710, an unknown artist in Rome carved the piece with great skill, filling almost the entire space, right to the edge.
David Le Marchand’s early 18th century portrait of Charles Marbury, a man we know little about, shows the same level of skill. It depicts Marbury as a gentleman wearing a neat cape and wig with every curl tamed to perfection.
Biblical subjects designed to bring the viewer closer to God dominate Winkler’s collection. Some of these works show scenes from the Old Testament; others show the life of Christ, the saints and their martyrdom, or allegorical works showing the transience of life on earth.
Baroque artists often depicted “Maria Immaculata” (Mary of the Immaculate Conception) atop a globe while crushing a serpent which represents evil and original sin.
According to the exhibition catalog, the 17th-century sculptural ivory relief “St. Mary Magdalene, Penitent” echoes the composition of small private devotional works often carved from boxwood or pear. However, the ivory piece is unusual due to the unknown artist’s use of jewels and colored paint, gold leaf and metal powder to adorn and honor the divine work.
In the celestial sculptural relief entitled “The Annunciation of Mary”, by the 18th century French sculptor Jean-Antoine Belleteste, the ivory appears solid but as delicate as chalk. Belleteste had to caress the surface of the ivory with his chisel to make such a fine and transcendent work.
The “Splendid White” exhibition offers an exceptional insight into the beauty, virtuosity and wide variety of Baroque and Rococo ivory art while showcasing superb small carvings in general.
Winkler continued the Renaissance tradition of cabinets of curiosities by collecting his own “cabinet of art and curiosities”. Now visitors to the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection who see his collection can also enjoy this tradition.
The “Splendid White” exhibition at the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt, Germany runs until January 8, 2023. To learn more, visit Liebieghaus.de