Designed by American sculptor Arlene Shechet, Disrupt the View presents recent work by the artist alongside historical German, Japanese, and Chinese holdings from the Harvard Art Museums. Decorative arts are often displayed in museum galleries dedicated to the same culture and period, often in isolation from other media. Understood as symbolic of an aristocratic age, early European porcelain in particular is thought to hold little resonance for contemporary audiences. Shechet’s installation encourages us to see these objects with fresh eyes—as handmade and industrially manufactured and as painterly and sculptural. Porcelain production in Europe was driven by courtly ambition in competition with Asian markets, and its artisans, who created these objects for lavish celebrations, were largely unknown. The story of porcelain, then, is one of labor, class, and global trade.
Invented by Chinese potters in the Tang Dynasty (618–903 CE), porcelain later became one of the first global luxury products. It was prized for its refined white clay and translucence and was avidly collected in the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 14th century. At first, porcelain was available in Europe only to the wealthiest patrons, but by the late 17th century, millions of porcelain objects were being imported each year by the Dutch East India Company. Europeans soon sought to imitate Asian porcelain locally. In 1710, the German porcelain manufactory Meissen was founded, and significant examples of its 18th-century tableware and figurines are now in the Busch-Reisinger Museum collection. Many of these objects have rarely, if ever, been shown.
In 2012–13, Arlene Shechet held a residency at Meissen and became interested in porcelain as a medium and a historical practice. There, she collaborated directly with factory workers to transform manufacturing molds—utilitarian objects of industry—into works of art. In this gallery, Shechet combines her own sculpture with historical objects, including in two constellations of tableware that emphasize the unique material qualities of plates as sculptural design. Her creative take on hundreds of years of porcelain—from its initial Asian manu-facture to European imperialist imaginings of life in Asia—encourages us to see it anew and disrupt the view.
Organized by Lynette Roth, Daimler Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum; Jessica Ficken, Cunningham Curatorial Assistant for the Collection in the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art; and Gabriella Szalay, former Renke B. and Pamela M. Thye Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum (2018–20).
This installation is supported by the Charles Kuhn Endowment Fund in the Busch-Reisinger Museum. Modern and contemporary art programs at the Harvard Art Museums are made possible in part by generous support from the Emily Rauh Pulitzer and Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art.
One of the most pressing early questions for European porcelain manufacturers was how to decorate their wares with color. They applied colored enamels either before or after the application of a fine translucent glaze (hence the terms under- and overglaze enamels), often copying designs from Chinese and Japanese originals. Under the auspices of master painter Johann Gregorius Höroldt (1696–1775), painters at Meissen also began to experiment with their own scenes of daily life in China. As very few 18th-century Europeans could visit the country, such depictions depended largely on accounts from travelers, augmented by the artisan’s imagination. Commonly referred to as chinoiserie, this fanciful and sometimes stereotypical style of decoration can be seen here on tableware used in the consumption of fashionable beverages such as tea and coffee, which were also imported from distant lands.
Such imagery carries colonial overtones, signaled most clearly by the painters’ inclusion, as seen in this enameled and gilded beaker from the 1720s, of enslaved Africans. A nearby cup features a racialized depiction of an African figure with a fan on one side and an East Asian–inspired scene on the other. Shechet directs our attention to such scenes by setting certain works apart; others she literally upends and stacks in sculptural arrangements, as if balanced precariously on top of one another.
In its first two decades of operation, the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory focused on developing a color palette that enabled the kind of painted decoration found on the tableware displayed in this gallery. By the 1730s, however, increased attention was paid to sculptural decoration, thanks in part to sculptor Johann Joachim Kändler (1706–1775), who in 1733 assumed command of the manufactory’s new modeling department. Kändler sculpted more than 2,000 figurines from clay, wax, and wood, which were then used to create the molds that became the basis for figural groups like Venus and Cupid in a Chariot and individual figurines like Coppersmith seen here. The latter belongs to a series illustrating the labor of artisans: small-scale porcelain figurines that were part of elaborate ceramic table settings for an aristocratic audience.
In Disrupt the View, Shechet makes such class hierarchies explicit. Together with early examples from Meissen, her porcelain sculpture foregrounds the makers of these objects, many of whom come from families of multigenerational workers. The rectangular blocks with a perforated square grid, as in Shechet’s Gangsta Girl on the Block (2012), are based on the form of extruded clay left over from the casting process. With its reference to contemporary hip-hop culture, this headless, armless figure—made up of 20 different pieces and numerous historical painted patterns—points to the tradition’s inherent hybridity as well as its moments of cultural appropriation.
Mix and Match
When Europeans first began collecting Asian porcelain, functional objects such as plates were considered too precious even for occasional use. Instead, large numbers of objects were mounted high onto walls, often in specially built rooms called porcelain cabinets, where they were meant to be studied and admired. Shechet gestures to this tradition by creating equally vertiginous constellations of plates—from 17th-century blue-and-white ware produced in China, to 18th-century colored enamel plates adorned with scenes based on the European graphic arts, to Shechet’s own inventive plates.
Emphasizing the hybridity of the tradition, Shechet features plates made at Meissen in the 1730s based on those decorated in the Japanese Kakiemon style, which favored asymmetrical designs and bird-and-flower painting. Her own plates borrow historical patterns and shapes used at the manufactory and merge figures with functional forms. They incorporate dismembered molded parts originally used to form animal and human figurines.
Visible from the exterior of the museums, the sculptural plate arrangements, like the painted decorations on individual objects, invite the outside in and—literally and metaphorically—disrupt the view.