My first reaction to visiting the amazing “Majolica Mania” at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, was anxiety. I imagined taking my four-year-old nephew and two-year-old niece with me, and they wriggled out of my grip to run wildly through the rooms, squealing with joy over all the colorful ceramic objects with birds, mermaids, monkeys and even the man in the moon.
But provided those who make the effort to see this fascinating exhibit keep a close eye on small people they may bring, the effort will be well rewarded. Not only is there a kind of childlike wonder in the pieces, but children are very much a part of the story behind these incredible decorative artefacts.
The term “majolica” may be the subject of controversy among decorative art experts, but generally refers to a style of colorful, usually lead-glazed and artfully decorated ceramics. It became hugely popular in America and Europe from around the middle of the 19th century to the early part of the 20th century.
The Victorians loved Majolica
Stylistically, majolica had its origins in Renaissance pottery, but thanks to the Victorian love of eclecticism and whimsy, these forms were often fused with influences from other cultures, history and nature, to create something new. However, unlike the disposable originals of Renaissance potters such as Bernard Palissy (ca. 1510-1589), Victorian majolica was a product on an industrial scale. Clay molds for objects such as urns, bowls and so on could be recycled, and at the height of its popularity the production of these objects was enormous.
The finest producer of majolica was Minton and Co., based in the English pottery town of Stoke-on-Trent. Minton’s had many competitors and imitators throughout England, Europe and, thanks to immigration, eventually in America. Although some of the exhibits created by Minton and others were of a size and price that only the very affluent could handle, most catalog items came within the reach of an increasing number of middle-class consumers.
Due to high production costs, the more elaborate, flashy examples of majolica were never hugely profitable, despite the attention they received for decades at events such as world fairs. At the opposite end of the market, more common majolica items could eventually be found in almost every home, from cheap tableware to giveaway sugar and tobacco jars.
The Victorians’ gradually increasing concern for public hygiene led to a penchant for making innovations that would allow them to keep things clean more easily. This led not only to the development of indoor plumbing for bathrooms and kitchens, but also a preference for hygienic materials with practical applications.
In a time before air conditioning and cooling, a room – or in the case of Windsor Castle, an entire dairy – could be lined with majolica tiles to keep it cool and clean, yet attractive. It is no coincidence that here in Washington DC, majolica tiles and fittings of Minton’s and others can be found in public spaces throughout the city, from the Capitol building to the Smithsonian museums from Victorian times.
When Majolica came to America
America eventually became a significant innovator in majolica itself, as the show clarifies with premises with pottery produced in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. When immigrant potters arrived in America, many brought majolica molds so they could start their own pottery factories and adapt their designs to American tastes.
Thus, an English majolica milk jug in the show shows a scene with boys playing cricket, while an American version from a few years later shows pretty much the same scene next to it, except that the shape has been changed a bit to make it a play baseball. At the turn of the last century, the Baltimore-based Edwin Bennett Pottery Company, once the largest single American pottery manufacturer, was able to produce its giant “Fern Stand with Gryphon Support” (1898), well described by one of its curators as Possibly. the best single piece of majolica ever made in america.
One of the great pleasures of visiting this exhibition is that it takes place in the part of The Walters known as Hackerman House, a mansion built a few years before Minton debuted his majolica wares at the legendary Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Most exhibitions today, even in very old and established cultural institutions, they are mounted in empty spaces that lack any kind of architectural detail or interest. Here. But thanks to the way the exhibition is staged, you get a real feeling of moving inside a home where these works of art are not only the latest fashion, but also in regular use.
Thus, the home’s former dining room shows majolica frames and serving pieces on the table. A selection of whimsical cheese barrels on a nearby shelf are designed to keep hungry mice out. A giant punch bowl supported by Punch himself stands in one corner, while brightly decorated oyster plates hang in another.
Meanwhile, in the entrance hall, large vases and urns waiting for flower arrangements stand in niches, visually leading you up the spiral staircase. Hundreds of these objects are spread over two floors of the mansion, and although many are of a more manageable size, lots of colossal pieces are not only visually breathtaking but also technically impressive.
Yes, a giant majolica peacock
Take the giant majolica peacock, for example, affectionately known as “Percy,” who serves as the show’s unofficial mascot. He was made by Minton in 1876. From the top of his majolica tree trunk, Percy towers over you in his glittering, feathered ornament. He dominates a room in the mansion that is staged to look like a Victorian conservatory, complete with potted plants.
So much the more remarkable considering Percy’s gigantic size is that he was cast as a single piece, except for the small comb on top of his head. Imagine the skill and pure bravado of trying to make something so gigantic out of clay, not to mention burning it in an oven and enameling it with lead glazes, all the while hoping nothing breaks. cracks or runs throughout the complicated process.
Percy is also a great example of the somewhat strange dichotomy that works here. While the objects often represent or refer to things from the natural world, their method of manufacture was decidedly unnatural. It is within this idea of the unnatural that children return to history, albeit in a tragic way.
You can not get majolica without its shiny, reflective surface, which comes from its lead-based glaze. We all know that lead exposure can have devastating health consequences. Many majolica pieces were decorated by women, and to get a nice tip on, for example, a paintbrush, these decorators often moistened the end of the brush in the mouth. As a result, they often ingested lead, which continued to poison them or cause birth defects in their unborn children.
Prior to the enforcement of child labor laws, many children also worked at these pottery factories. Like the adult employees, they would inhale dust and toxic fumes, suffer from amputated digits, or possibly even die in a furnace explosion.
Facing the darkness inside this beauty
In his honor, this exhibition does not shy away from sharing these sober facts, instead giving them as part of the history of the majolica. It invites visitors to go a little deeper into understanding the implications of craze for these decorative objects, though without beating him over the head. That said, perhaps the most moving piece in the show is not a piece of majolica, but something that honors the men, women, and children who have worked to create it.
When you reach the top of the stairs in the mansion, a room to your left contains a towering installation of white glazed ceramics. I uttered a “Wow” when I saw it. The modern American ceramicist Walter McConnell (1956-) created a work specific to this show, composed of crowded floors of hundreds of white-glazed decorative ceramic pieces.
Most of these are taken from common kinds of things like angels, cartoon characters, vases and so on. Yet, beautifully executed pottery depicting five of the common people who worked in the majolica factories, based on contemporary photographs, blends. Entitled “A Requiem in White” (2020), McConnell’s work honors those who suffered and died as a result of the mania documented in this exhibition.
While the majolica pottery is undoubtedly what attracts our eye, this show is just as much about those who made these very decorative, sometimes strange and often practical decorative objects. They were the collective output of people who came together to do everything from digging out the clay to designing a piece, casting and burning it, decorating it, selling it at retail, and finally assembling it.
Where an exhibition of painting or sculpture tends to focus primarily on the vision of a particular artist or group of artists, the end product here is only one facet of what the visitor observes. To that end, it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen in recent years, covering the whole story of a particular moment in decorative art, not just its more attractive aspects.
“Majolica Mania” is at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore through August 7, 2022. Children are really welcome here, as evidenced by an activity room set aside for them to learn more about making and decorating majolica .
For those who can not come to the exhibition in person, two different catalogs are available via The Walter’s online shop. There is both a one-volume version of highlights from the show, as well as a suitably massive, three-volume version. “This is not a coffee table book,” one of the show’s curators rightly remarked about the latter option, “it’s a coffee table.”
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