Saturday, 26 July 2014

Marquetry decoration on August I's wiredrawing bench

Wood; the material out of which which the bulk of the bench is made and decorated. It is essential to look more closely at it, especially with my focus on the landscape and the environment. 

Marquetry as a way of adorning objects has a long history. Evidence of its practice has been traced back to the ancient Egyptians, with the Greeks and Romans carrying on the tradition of beautifying their furniture with rare wood inlays. In fifteenth-century Italy, a method of decoration called intarsia became very popular amongst the elite. Solid timber was hollowed out then filled in with valuable metals, precious stones, ivory and rare woods. Marquetry differs from intarsia; thin layers of wood veneer are cut, collected in a design, and laid out over the surface which is to be decorated’ rather than inserted into a hollowed out base.[1] This jigsaw of different wood veneers is precisely how the bench decoration was made.

The marquetry on the bench was not a unique phenomenon, rather the decoration marks it as a product of a highly localised area of Germany. Fine examples of highly decorated marquetry writing cabinets (schreibtische or scheibschranken) or art cabinets (kunstschrank) survive in museum and private collections, and parallels with the bench can be drawn from them. The earliest of these elaborate yet practical objects originate in Augsburg in the 1560s and make full use of the indigenous wood available. The Germans, more specifically in and around Augsburg, were famous for their skill with woodwork and as Reinier Baarsen says, ‘the strength of German craftsmen lay primarily in their technical skill. They were masters of marquetry and wizards of construction’.[2] For instance, German workers became renowned for working with ebony, which is one of the more exotic woods on the bench. Baarsen does not venture on an explanation for this phenomenon, only that the vast forests of Germany would have fostered a special intimacy with wood, and the knowledge required to work with ‘once living tissue’.[3] 

However another reason for this mastery was the associated metal craft, as ‘many of the tools used to cut precise metal parts, especially for blades to cut clock gears, could also be used to cut inlay…the tools were refined’.[4] As I have mentioned, the notion of ‘the forest’ was central to the growing awareness of a separate identity, so wood was a perfect medium in which to create something inherently and obviously Saxon.

Even though the palette of colours available to the marquetry artist was, and still is, restricted, it is extraordinary that such active, violent and dramatic pictures can be achieved. Part of the virtuoso craftsman's delight was in transcending the narrow limitations of a flat medium, and this narrow natural colour palette. Amael Gohier, who has studied the wood which was used to decorate the bench, elaborates, ‘it is interesting to study the wood used by the marquetry maker, because they were mainly locals and indigenous species. Juxtaposed for their ornamental qualities and their great diversity, they create a wealth of decoration'.[5] Examples include woodland trees such as holly, barberry, hornbeam, as well as larger specimens like elm, alder, larch, oak and birch, some burred for different textures. Fruit and nut trees, plum, pear, walnut, and olive were also used, and a small amount of rarer ebony and padauk can be found in parts. Unfortunately, with time, it is difficult to identify them all precisely, but the only stained wood that was employed was that contaminated by a fungus, chlorosphenium, which achieved a greenish finish to great effect.

When the bench is compared with better preserved examples, or indeed, pictures of modern wood samples, it is clear that it has faded, but it still has a rich patina and strong contrasting grains and textures which allows the modern viewer to appreciate the skill and imagination of the designer and marqueteur. When August made use of the wire drawing tool, the marquetry under his hands was produced by the same trees that grew in his forests, greenery which concealed the game animals being chased by the hunters depicted on the bench. This reflection of the outside world taken inside, or macrocosm-microcosm, would have appealed to August. Indeed the philosophy of the kunstkammer was not so much to take the owner out of this world, as to situate him in it.[6] And this is precisely what the bench did for August.

If the materials and skill required to create marquetry works of art are similar, then the images on these cabinets and writing tables could not be more different from August's bench. Numerous art and furniture historians have pointed out that ‘most Augsburg marquetry furniture is decorated with landscapes containing ruins’, which was directly influenced by northern and central Italian intarsiatori.[7] They had achieved magnificent architectural effects in wood, including an entire studiolo decorated wood trompe l’oeil and the Germans must have recognised that there was a market for this amongst the wealthy and influential.[8] In 1567 Lorenz Stöer published an illustrated book entitled Geometria et Perspectiva, that depicted classical ruins for the specific use of cabinet makers, a reflection of how fashionable and wide spread the demand for marquetry- decorated woodwork and furniture had become.[9] For example one of the most famous German made cabinets is the kabinettschrankWrangle-schrank’ (Augsburg 1566). Its complicated iconographical programme includes representations of the arts, sciences and the art of warfare, where ‘geometric forms lie about in tortured landscapes’.[10] 

As I have described, the bench certainly includes landscapes and buildings but they are not ruins. Indeed it could be said that in comparison to the astonishing geometric shapes, illusionistic perspective and witty iconography, that the bench is relatively crudely designed. Even comparing it to the ‘Wrangle-schrank’ the messages conveyed by the bench, and described above, seem unsubtle and almost old fashioned. I would suggest that the programme of images on the bench was created with August’s direct input simply because it was different from anything else, as far as I am aware, that was being created at the time. By rejecting classical influences, once again August is asserting Saxon independence from anything Italian, just as he had set out to do with the rest of his kunstkammer collection, which was latter so derided by Italian experts.

[1] Clifford Penny, Fascination of Marquetry (London: English Universities Press), p. 10.
[2] Rijksmuseum (Netherlands), Duitse Meubelen : German Furniture, ed. by Reinier Baarsen, Deel 8 Uit Serie Aspecten van de Verzameling Beeldhouwkunst En Kunstnijverheid (Amsterdam : Zwolle: Rijksmuseum ; Waanders Uitgevers, 1998), p. 4.
[3] Silas Kopf, A Marquetry Odyssey: Historical Objects and Personal Work, Silas Kopf (Manchester, Vt: Hudson Hills Press Inc.,U.S., 2008), p. xii.
[4] Kopf, p. 49.
[5] Musée national de la Renaissance (France), p. 75.
[6] Joscelyn Godwin, The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002), p. 85.
[7] Rijksmuseum (Netherlands), p. 6.
[8] Luciano Cheles, The Studiolo of Urbino: An Iconografic Investigation (David Brown Book Company, 1986).
[9] Kopf, p. 50; Rijksmuseum (Netherlands), p. 6.
[10] James Elkins, The Poetics of Perspective (Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 160.

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