The exhibition “Splendid White” in the Sculpture Collection Liebieghaus in Frankfurt, Germany
In 1962, the successful German builder Reiner Winkler bought his first ivory work of art, a small 15th-century Gothic nativity panel that was once part of a diptych. And he fell in love with the medium. From this small French piece, measuring just a few inches in size, Winkler began establishing the world’s largest private collection of ivory sculpture.
He focused on collecting works from the golden age of ivory carving: the 17th and 18th centuries. Winkler kept his collection close to him and initially displayed the works in a display case in his living room along with porcelain and wooden figurines. As his ivory collection grew, he distributed the works throughout his home, eventually placing most of them in a specially designed room he called “My Cabinet of Art and Curiosities.”
But Winkler never intended to keep the ivory work to himself; He frequently invited art experts to view and study the pieces. At the end of his life he donated a large part of his collection to the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt, Germany, which has now acquired most of his collection.
More than 200 of Winkler’s Baroque and Rococo ivory sculptures are now on display in the recently opened Splendid White exhibition at the Liebieghaus. Winkler kept 21 of the works in his private collection until his death in 2020. These will be shown to the public for the first time in the exhibition, which is curated by Maraike Bückling, head of the Liebieghaus Collection from Renaissance to Classicism.
The exhibition includes English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Austrian, Dutch and Flemish works, as well as two pieces of ivory from India and China. The works range from sculptural reliefs, statuettes, groups of figures and portrait medallions to jugs and ceremonial vessels.
Incredible ivory carving
A highlight of the Winkler collection is “Fury on a Charging Horse”, carved by an unknown artist known as the Master of the Furies. Winkler nearly missed out on a competing collector when he bought the piece, which depicts a mythological fury on horseback. In his memoirs he wrote: “Fortunately the sculpture in a primitive wooden box was very dirty and covered with numerous residues of glue. Lord Thomson’s representative… didn’t warm to it. … Suddenly I realized with a start that the piece was about to be knocked down – the hammer was already raised. I drew attention to myself and got the sculpture.”
There is a dynamism and emotional tension running through the piece that makes it both an uncomfortable and a beautiful experience to watch. The Master of the Furies skillfully conveyed the boundless fury of the screaming Fury through her tensed muscles and distorted facial features. The Fury’s anger almost throws her off the horse, which is jumping so furiously over blades of grass or maybe flames.
Throughout this sculpture we can see why art collectors valued ivory artworks as they would rare, precious gemstones. The silky smooth surface, warm light hue, fine veining and flawlessness of ivory must have won your heart.
Art collectors often kept ivory sculptures in cabinets of curiosities, a tradition that developed in the 15th and 16th centuries, where learned men kept treasures that stimulated conversation among their peers. They preserved exotic, fascinating, and sometimes obscure objects with an emphasis on the natural world, such as seashells, coconuts, scientific instruments, and fine snuffboxes decorated with semi-precious stones, to name a few. Some pieces were souvenirs brought back from their European Grand Tour. At court, the highest-ranking artists created pieces for these cabinets and were called “cabinet artists”.
The art of ivory carving
Artists have used ivory in their art since the Stone Age. Works from the Reiner Winkler ivory collection, which were created between the 16th and 18th centuries, did not contribute to the endangerment of the elephant populations.
An adult elephant’s tusk can be up to 9 feet, 10 inches long and weigh up to 154 pounds. The structure of the tusk, with its hollow root and hard tip, dictated the work possible. Carvers created their designs to match the size and shape of a tusk, which required great skill, or if their design did not fit the tusk’s size and shape, carvers could add other pieces of ivory to the work to complete the sculpture.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, ivory carvers used the tip of the tusk to create sculpture in the round, and they sliced the hollow end portion to create sculptural reliefs. Carvers also used the hollow root to make vessels and they even used a lathe to make ivory items, similar to turning.
Carvers valued the tough yet resilient properties of African ivory (due to the fine crosshatching at the molecular level), which meant they could carve out fine detail without weakening or chipping their work. For example, they might carve fine facial features like wrinkles to make idealized portraits more believable.
Some types of ivory art
Ivory carvers created designs inspired by other works of art, particularly paintings and small bronzes.
Baroque artists created idealized portraits depicting the character and social standing 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, following the ancient tradition of showing portraits on coins and medals.
The Vatican often gave portraits of the Pope to princes when they became Catholic. An ivory portrait of Pope Clement XI. could 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, almost filling the room to the brim.
The early 18th-century portrait of David Le Marchand by Charles Marbury, a man about whom we know little, shows the same skill. He portrayed Marbury as a fine gentleman, wearing a cloak and a neat wig, with every curl tamed to perfection.
Biblical subjects intended to bring the viewer closer to God dominate Winkler’s collection. Some of these works depict scenes from the Old Testament; others depict 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) on a globe while crushing a serpent representing evil and original sin.
According to the exhibition catalogue, the sculptural ivory relief “St. Mary Magdelene, Penitent” recalls the composition of small private devotional works, often carved in boxwood or pearwood. The ivory piece is unusual, however, as the unknown artist used jewelry and colored paint, gold leaf, and metal powder to decorate and honor the divine work.
In the celestial sculptural relief entitled “The Annunciation” by 18th-century French carver Jean-Antoine Belleteste, the ivory appears solid but as delicate as chalk. Belleteste must have stroked the surface of the ivory with his chisel to create such a delicate, transcendent work.
The exhibition “Splendid White” offers an outstanding overview of the beauty, virtuosity and diversity of ivory art of the Baroque and Rococo periods and also focuses on excellent small sculptures in general.
Winkler continued the Renaissance tradition of cabinets of curiosities by assembling his own “Cabinet of Art and Curiosities”. Visitors to the Liebieghaus sculpture collection who see his collection can now also take part in this tradition.
The “Splendid White” exhibition at the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt runs until January 8, 2023. You can find more information at Liebieghaus.de