Prurient Porcelain: Nudes and Ribaldry


Every visual art medium from wood carving to painting, from textiles to mosaics, will sooner or later be used to glorify the human, usually female, form. Ceramics and porcelain are certainly no exception. Despite an inaccurate modern association of china with grandmotherly tea rooms and the height of propriety there have always been porcelain statuettes of nudes and suggestive scenes.

In fact, the nude form was portrayed in ceramic long before nearly anything else. Everyone has heard of the stone-age Venus figurines that are among the earliest ceramics ever made. The most widely known of the many stone-age figures of women with rotund figures and multiple breasts is the Venus of Willendorf discovered by archaeologist Josef Szombathy in 1908.

The figure is about four and a half inches tall and depicts a formidable looking nude female with immense breasts, generous hips, and tiny, tiny feet. Willendorf is in Austria but over the years similar figurines have been found all over the world. There is much speculation as to the significance of the statuettes that range from fertility symbols to religious symbols to pornography. It is impossible to know for sure.

To prove that we haven’t wandered too far from the cave consider the German porcelains of the factories of Wallendorf and the surprisingly aptly named Nymphenburg. In the 18th century these factories began turning out countless lines of porcelain statuettes that at first glance seem innocuously at home of the minister’s mantelpiece but on closer inspection depict scenes rife with sexual innuendo.

Maids with literally porcelain bosoms swoon in the presence of leering rakes. Couples whirl about a dance floor with such energy that the young lady is in serious of showing more than decolletage. Shepardesses innocently wash their exposed calves while young men contort themselves dangerously to sneak a peak. Generally the female of these duos is blissfully unaware of the attention she is receiving because she has inopportunely fallen asleep or believes herself alone, but not always. Often times, judging by the expression on her face or a flush that isn’t quite maidenly, she is flirting or gleefully participating.

Anyone who has seen Jean-Honore Fragonard’s painting “The Swing” has a clear idea what I’m talking about. I have, in fact, seen porcelain recreations of that very painting. They are certainly very tame by modern standards but what of those of the 18th century? Of course most of the porcelain produced by the Wallendorf factories are as innocent as they can be but there is no denying that many are consciously sexual in nature.

By the way, it is merely a coincidence that the Wallendorf porcelain factory and the Willendorf Venus statuette are so similarly name, a rather curious one, but a coincidence nonetheless.

The habit continued for some time but Victorianism put an end to ribaldry in mainstream china making. I say mainstream, because underground porcelain makers produced, as they always had, some shocking things in porcelain. By the end of the 19th century naughty china was making a come back and the development of the art deco movement brought the nude into porcelain with a vengeance.

Art Deco provides thousands of examples of figures nude or nearly so. Lithe forms in diaphanous gowns, harem girls and their sheiks, and dancing girls of every description are depicted in porcelain with life-like skin tones and plenty of it showing. One famous line of 1920s era statuettes called “My Fair Ladies” depicted unbelievably skinny flappers before their dressing mirrors, getting ready for bed, or simply posed for admiration.

All humor aside it is easy to see why porcelain would be such a choice material for the portrayal of nudes. The white surface makes an appealing color for flesh and makes the painted lips and blushes stand out to the eye. They may look silly and doll-like to modern eyes but consider that before the age of color photography, after painting, porcelain would produce the most realistic looking human figures and porcelain would be a far less expensive means to indulge a taste for titillation.

Although you may not read about them in Antique Monthly there are many collectors who find an undeniable charm in these ribald porcelains. I’ve seen otherwise perfectly sensible people with the guilty secret of an amazing collection of blushing maids and mechanizing bachelors.
br/>—-Loretta Crawford is a free-lance writer on a variety of topics including: food, wine and antiques. She can be reached at Content and Solutions.com.

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