A rare glimpse inside the HQ of porcelain masters Nymphenburg
Long Reads 10.11.2017
Words Kevin Braddock
Photographs Jake Curtis
At Nymphenburg’s Munich headquarters, the fine line between art and craft is blended in a way that only the stillest of hands can achieve, armed with 300 years of acquired skill in porcelain manufacture – but always with the attitude of an open and enquiring mind. ‘You always have to learn,’ says master craftsman Anton Hörl…
Automotive design has often presented the car as a work of art, something that transcends the mere functionalism of technology, but seldom have car designers sought to embed nature into their visions. In one version of their new ‘Gallery’ innovation – effectively an art installation on the dashboard of the famed Phantom model – Rolls-Royce has brought the eternal beauty of the English rose to the car. A fresco of petals, leaves and stems in black and white porcelain are frozen behind glass for the delight of the passenger, which may be odd given that the ephemerality of flowers is in part the source of their beauty – they wilt and turn to dust, as all living things must surely do. Yet with this piece, onlookers can at least maintain contact with nature in the form of this immortalised rose while being transported (in all senses of the word) in this highest of high-tech automobiles.
The porcelain roses in question are all the more fascinating since they are astonishing technical achievements in themselves – of a slenderness, lightness and finesse that is genuinely wondrous to behold. And behold them we did on a recent visit to the workshop of Anton Hörl, one of the master craftsmen at Munich’s venerable Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg. This extraordinarily gentle German gestures towards a box showcasing the various leaves, petals and stems in their enigmatic, monochrome materiality, and begins to explain the process of their fabrication – a remaking and re-presentation of nature in the man-made material of porcelain.
He picks up a leaf and caresses it with his fingertips, then enlarges on the work. ‘First,’ he says, ‘I have to understand a rose. I watch the flowers from rosebud to full rose; I watch as the petals open, and I tried to copy this by looking at the leaves and their character. It’s nearly impossible to imitate nature, but I hope I come a little closer to nature. I have to pour in life, a character – this is unconscious.’
This isn’t to say that the ceramicist considers himself a godlike figure, only that the fundamental challenge of this process is in applying ‘techne’ – as the ancient Greeks understood what we today call craft – to something that predates technology. The work also concerns art, and the merging between art and craft. ‘There’s a streaming between them,’ Hörl goes on. ‘An architect who once built a cathedral would be an artist in our eyes, but would have been seen as builder or mason in his own time. Think of Michelangelo – in historical terms he was a craftsman, in our eyes his is an artist. It’s a cultural thing. The difference is in the eye of the beholder. But here the art comes from the skill I have… as a beginner I learnt the basics of creating figures from moulds, and later I became a master of this skill, and a master is on the edge of being an artist. They create impossible things, new figures, styles creations, music, buildings.
Rolls-Royce’s Gallery is one such new thing, something that is pure decoration and delight, ideas that are often anomalous in car design. The model for the rose was bred by Philip Harkness of Harkness Roses of Hertfordshire, who has waxed lyrical on this creation: ‘A rose… is a thing of beauty. It touches our emotions, signifies love and appears in some of our finest poetry. How can a simple flower live up to this expectation? The new rose that Rolls-Royce has commissioned makes easy work of the task. Observe the glory of the bloom. There can be few more enjoyable experiences, thanks to the unending generosity and diversity of nature captured in one single rose.’
‘Naturally, none of this happens quickly. Deposits of porcelain paste must sit for up to three years’
What goes into making the porcelain version of this beatified object is rather more prosaic, instrumental, and perhaps even a bit messy – though all the more fascinating for it. Before being welcomed into Herr Hörl’s studio, we had the chance to see some of the Nymphenburg factory’s other workshops. We looked into the Masseschlagemüllerie (mixing room) where three enormous tanks, named Clara, Bertha and Bianca, blend kaolin, feldspar and quartz powder to make the porcelain paste. The mixing room is still water powered, and it sits atop a stream of running water. In the kiln rooms, porcelain is fired to 1,400ºC
to achieve the setting that gives porcelain its hardness – the vitrification that dries out the mix and in essence turns it into glass.
Naturally, none of this happens quickly. We peered into the cellars where deposits of porcelain paste must sit for up to three years to attain a consistency of moisture throughout. A little later, on the upper floors of the buildings adjacent to the Schloß Nymphenburg, we visited the Formerei (moulding room), the Dreherei (throwing room) and the Malerei (painting room), and looked at benches neatly arrayed with artist’s materials including brushes made from Argentinian squirrel hair and utensils tipped with agate and bloodstone for perfecting the illustrations and gold decorations on crockery. One of the painters who works in these airy, amply-lit rooms recently won the cup at her local shooting club; she possesses the stillest of hands.
Throughout these rooms one is struck by the breathtaking precision, skill and care involved in making porcelain objects – from plates to chandeliers, objets d’art to pepper pots – along with a notion of timelessness: Nymphenburg has been in this business for almost 300 years, and while the designs may have changed, the actual working of porcelain has not altered fundamentally.
We looked at the life-sized porcelain memento mori skulls that have been in the marque’s range since the late 19th century and which, for this season’s release, are being emblazoned with turtle insignia. And we examined a range of cups, plates and pots by the artist Ruth Gurvich in which porcelain masquerades as paper. In these origami-like objects, the exterior has a rough texture, like cartridge paper, while the interior surfaces are silken, the way fingers commonly know porcelain.
Back in Herr Hörl’s studio, we learned of another innovation involved in the Rolls-Royce project: some of the leaves and stems of the work are formed from black porcelain – a deep, sombre, black ‘like a black hole,’ as Hörl says. This posed particular problems, with the risk of specks of black contaminating the ivory white of the rose petals. It was a technical and aesthetic challenge.
‘Each artist has a different signature, and my specialism is to think into the mind of the artist’
‘This is a very special black that absorbs light,’ Hörl explains. ‘If we make one spot, it’s a total disaster. It was very tricky, and this is the first time that we’ve done it at Nymphenburg. The difficulty is first to make the rose, clearly – but after, it’s very dangerous when you have black fingers. If I get the colour from the black porcelain onto the white, it will leave a mark. I have to separate the leaves and the petals. Also the firing was difficult – there are different mixtures in porcelain and normally these need different temperatures and atmospheres.
‘I made a lot of attempts…’ he says, drawing attention to a tray of diminutive white teaspoons of various shades of white, ranging from orthodontic brilliance to pearly to ivory to creamy to almost greyish shades. Indeed, as with any medium of craft or art, porcelain contains secrets that only reveal themselves through constant attention and work: the endless relating between the material and the master’s hands.
Such is the code one learns by continuously working the material – 40 years in the case of Hörl, who studied at Nymphenburg for 16 years and has worked here ever since. ‘You always have to learn,’ he says. The day we visited, the evidence of this latest learning was on display – casts for an object for the German artist Andy Hope on one workbench and figurines of the unicorn and Pegasus in Damien Hirst’s Myth And Legend piece, which Nymphenburg fabricates in limited editions. ‘It was a big challenge for me to understand that each artist has a different signature and skill, and my specialism is to think into the mind of the artist, to his thinking and his style,’ says Hörl.
Reproducing not only the forms of nature but also the inner visions of the artists who work with Nymphenburg – which include Nick Knight, with his rendering of Kate Moss as an angel, and Carsten Höller’s Flying City tableware – represent a double challenge for Hörl and his colleagues. There may be plenty of vernacular pieces in Nymphenburg’s extensive archives, but collaborations such as these keep the company surfing near to the avant-garde and the conceptual.
Hörl shows us the figurines he made for a range by the French conceptual artists Saâdan Afif, for which the ceramist had to interpret their poses and stances (such as the pose of a pop star, wrestling the microphone stand with a fist held high in the air) with his own body. Next he shows us some work for the artist Don Brown’s Yoko XXXVI – a figurine of Brown’s wife – and delivers an anecdote on the complexities of getting the nose of the figurine right, something that, one guesses, would be a challenge for Brown himself, never mind the ceramicist.
Yet the work is always worth it. ‘For me it’s totally satisfying,’ Hörl says. ‘I learned that I am an artist and I’m very lucky to be in a company with a big history, and with contact to modern artists. I’m proud about what I have learned.’ However, it’s with natural forms that he finds the greatest affinity – and indeed, art and technology are often at their strongest when of unconscious resonance with the patterns, rhythms and forms of nature – which predate both art and technology and will outlive them.
‘I like natural figures, but with a little abstraction; with a symbolic expression,’ says Hörl, as we make to leave the workshop. ‘In my private studio work I made a porcelain figure of the idea of mother love – a figure, with a baby, whose face is covered by material… so, a mother who is seeing not with the eyes but with the heart. It has a symbolic meaning – it’s not only a woman, but a story.’
What story will this monochrome, immortal rose tell over the years to come? One might also ask – what stories will it witness? They will all be telling, that’s for certain.