Miracles of sculpture
The ivory microcarvings that make up this exhibition are over 200 years old, and are among the most sensational objects ever created by man. These reliefs reflect a degree of craftsmanship that is beyond all comprehension. We know of no other works of sculpture which reveal such a wealth of detail on a comparably tiny scale. It is hard to imagine how the imperial court artists managed to portray such detail in their landscapes, for instance, despite the fact that they were working with a material as hard as ivory. Branches of trees and bushes are no more than a few hundredths of a millimetre wide, separated by spaces no greater than 0.01 millimetres. These fine ivory reliefs are invariably protected by glass or crystal covers. Microcarvings of this kind were referred to as "mirabilia" - in other words, miracles. And miracles they have remained to this day.
Even today, sculptors and art restorers who specialise in fine miniature carvings are unable to reproduce even one tiny branch of a tree using traditional techniques. An experiment to this effect was carried out during an exhibition in Japan in 1998 about the lives of the Habsburg empresses. One of the main attractions at this exhibition - which was held in the fine art museums of Tokyo, Okayama and Miyazaki and was the subject of a broadcast on Japanese television - was the gem known as the "Maria Theresa brooch", a piece which originally had its place in Maria Theresa´s own art cabinet. The brooch is a setting of three tiny ivory reliefs by the court sculptor, Sebastian Hess (born in 1743 or 1744 in Bamberg). Even at the time, more than 200 years ago, they were considered to be "the finest sculptures in the world". In 1781 Jan Ingenhousz, Gerard van Swieten´s successor as Maria Theresa´s personal physician, sold the "Maria Theresa brooch" to a noble family in England for the price of a small palace. It has remained in that family´s possession to this day.
The few artists who specialised in microcarvings were proud that their works were immune to forgery and that they enjoyed widespread popularity in art cabinets and treasure chambers. We know for a fact that, apart from Maria Theresa, the Russian empress Catherine the Great, King George III of England and several other monarchs owned similar pieces. Because they are so rare, these microscopically small works of sculpture are frequently unknown even to art experts, who tend to confuse them with ordinary miniature carvings or associate them with Asia. In fact, there are no comparable works of art from the Far East with individual details measuring just a few hundredths of a millimetre. Indeed, these microcarvings hold an unrivalled place in the grand tradition of European sculpture.
The book "Microcarvings" contains photographs showing the objects in their original size as well as in large-scale enlargements. These pictures, accompanied by historical accounts of certain pieces, bring to life the magical spectrum of this branch of sculpture.It is not the size of an exhibition, or the number of pieces on display, that make it a memorable experience for the visitor. Rather, it is the singularity of the objects themselves. One sometimes has the feeling that one has seen almost every artistic genre in some form or other, somewhere, before. Not so with these microcarvings: by virtue of their very delicacy they are incomparably fascinating, inimitable and unique.
28 February 2000
to 3 September 2000