Editor: Faberge eggs were on display at the San Diego Museum of Art in October, 1989. Mayor O'Connor, who worked to bring the eggs to town, called the event "a major artistic coup."
From a 2015 story by Matt Potter: In May 1989, Joan Kroc helped out her close friend, then-mayor Maureen O’Connor, by buying the bejeweled Pine Cone Faberge egg made in 1900 for Russian industrialist Alexander Kelch, which Kroc loaned to O’Connor’s Russian Arts Festival. “$2.8 million you paid for that egg?” exclaimed Today show host Jane Pauley during a national TV session with Kroc, the mayor, and their mutual friend Helen Copley, then owner of the Union-Tribune. “You either love eggs or you love San Diego!”
I am developing a sick relationship with these eggs. It began back in 1973 in New York, when I declined an opportunity to write about them. The lady wanted a “serious” art critic to write about her eggs-hibition. I told her I could never respect an egg that went all the way on a first date. It was a good line, I thought, but a bad decision. Had I accepted, I would have been better prepared for my first assignment as art critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1983, which was, you guessed it, an exhibition of the Forbes Fabergé eggs at the Kimbell Museum.
Fortuitously, there was a companion exhibition of Greek and Roman coins on display, so I compared the coins and the eggs and discussed them as a “before and after” diptych on the decline of Western civilization — “before” being the civilization of classical antiquity whose money looked like art, “after” being the civilization of the European Hapsburgs whose art looked like money. The comparison branded me an elitist swine for the remainder of my tenure in Fort Worth.
Now, having escaped Texas for San Diego, I’m starting to feel hounded, dare I say, spied upon. Those damned Imperial Easter Eggs, like the (Plymouth?) Furies, have tracked me across the length and breadth of the North American continent. They are here, now, en masse. But this time I am ready. And even though these peculiar objects have nothing much to recommend them beyond the fact that people are interested in looking at them, I feel as if we are getting to be a team, like Tim Leary and Gordon Liddy, and I can appreciate the humorous irony of their kitsch gee-gawkery providing the centerpiece for a “Soviet” art festival largely devoted to non-Soviet art.
I can even see the logic of it. First, of course, there wouldn’t even be a Soviet state if it weren’t for the sort of self-indulgent silliness embodied by Fabergé’s eggs (and by the costume jewelry/religious icons also on display here). And secondly, more importantly, Carl Fabergé did have one crucial thing in common with the Soviet realists who followed him and with the people putting on this exhibition: he worked for the government, and the work he did was “government work."
Like half the entrepreneurs in Southern California, Fabergé bid, consulted, compromised, contracted, and subcontracted. And by this time-honored process of decanting mediocrity, he created the primary examples in our culture of art made for people who, like the Romanovs, hate art and profoundly distrust that aura of non-materialistic, moral authority that clings to even the most expensive examples. I mean, even after you’ve bought your goddamn masterpiece, and taken it home, and locked it up in your vault, it’s still in there being more than just a “thing,” you know, and that “more” is ultimately unpossessable. An egg, on the other hand, you can pretty much have your way with. Once you got it, you got it. Capisce?
The creator of the Imperial Easter Eggs was born Peter Carl Fabergé on May 30, 1846, the son of Charlotte Jungstadt and Gustave Fabergé, a St. Petersburg goldsmith and jeweler. He was descended on his mother’s side from a family of Danish artists and on his father’s side from a French Huguenot family that emigrated to Germany in 1685, fleeing the repressions of Louis XIV, and then in 1800 emigrated to Russia, where the reforms of Peter the Great and Catherine II offered both religious freedom and employment for artists and artisans of all sorts.
The intellectual and artistic quality of the Imperial Russian patronage, however, had declined considerably by the time Carl Fabergé took over management of the family firm in St. Petersburg in 1870, but young Peter Carl had been well trained as a goldsmith, a businessman, and a survivor, and after taking the helm, he was able to maintain and even improve the standing of the family business by specializing in small objets d’ art and decoratively enhanced functional objects like cigarette cases, picture frames, clocks, and those nifty new electric table bells that had replaced the old hand-held variety traditionally used for summoning the servants, toot sweet.
Then Carl Fabergé made one of those “design breakthroughs” that will certainly consign him to that circle of hell reserved for the instigators of major trends in cultural devolution — where, along with the inventors of the sit-com, the game show, the jet ski, and MTV, he will doubtless be tortured for all eternity by instruments of his own devise. It happened in 1884, when Fabergé fell upon the idea of combining functional aspects of his useful products with the display qualities of his objets d’ art, thus creating the objets de fantasie — a small decorative item that sort of does something, you know, sort of secret and surprising — a new genre of art as high-concept toy.
Fabergé crafted the first example of this new genre for Tsar Alexander III as a traditional Easter gift for his wife Marie Feodorovna. It was a small gold egg that opened up to reveal an even smaller gold hen inside, sitting on its nest, and (oh boy!) it could be opened and closed as often as its owner wished in a perfect mindless parody of artistic “meaning" — its disguise and revelation. This primary egg proved to be the first in a series of 57 Imperial Easter Eggs commissioned between 1884 and 1917 by Alexander III and after him by Nicholas II, under whose unsteady patronage the project devolved into the manufacture of such items as the mauve-enameled, diamond-scalloped gold egg enclosing the wind-up clockwork swan in multicolored gold, accurate in every detail — a far cry from the original folk symbol for the resurrection of Christ and the coming of spring.
It is this amoral distance from any approximation of what an Easter egg might mean, I believe, even to an absolute sovereign, that generates the air of vague embarrassment that creeps into nearly every serious discussion of the Imperial Easter Eggs. Even Fabergé’s most ardent and conservative supporter, A. Kenneth Snowman, the world authority and a descendent of Fabergé’s business partner in London, is hard pressed to say anything that might justify the public’s enthusiasm for staring at them. In his book Carl Fabergé: Goldsmith to the Imperial Court of Russia, Snowman notes, “Many ... are very beautiful, indeed, while others, to put it charitably, are quite strange.” Even Snowman (who takes time out to praise the rococo creations of King Stanislas’s legendary pastry cook!) has some difficulty with the labor-to-function ratio of these objects “designed with the specific intention of providing the Tsarina, when she opened her Egg on Easter morning, with a frisson of pleasure, the memory of which would persist for the rest of the day.” So, ultimately, Snowman rather kindly discounts the Imperial Easter Eggs in the context of Fabergé’s other work as an “eccentric group of goldsmith's follies dedicated ... to a bored Imperial couple remote from their people, the Tsarina, for her part, under the thrall of a corrupt and mangy divine.”
It should go without saying, then, that these objets de fantasie proved to be the making of Fabergé’s fortune and reputation. And, to be fair to Fabergé, these objects do reflect an exceptionally shrewd resolution of economic and design factors with market sensitivity — a restructuring, in short, of traditional labor and material costs in such a way as to appeal economically to his consumer within the context of contemporary fashion — the same sort of resolution that undoubtedly created the sitcom and the jet ski.
To grasp the beauty of Fabergé’s solution, however, it helps to remember that in the late 19th Century, the traditional icon of pure consumption was a more outrageous product than even Fabergé’s. Usually it was a straightforward, clumsy mock-up of classical statuary designed to deploy extravagantly as many precious stones as possible — diamonds, rubies, emeralds, et cetera. Fabergé’s objets de fantasie, by comparison, aspired to “good taste” by eschewing such “vulgar” display and depending for their cachet on the appearance of opulence, the demonstrable ingenuity of their mechanics, and the exquisite tedium of their craft.
Thus, Fabergé was able to substitute extremely cheap labor and parts for extremely expensive materials and at the same time create an ultra-fashionable, high-concept product. By combining semiprecious stones with Swiss mechanics and painstakingly evident craftsmanship, these objects managed to dazzle and to exploit simultaneously the current “high industrial” fashion for anything mechanical and the new “labor-sensitive” chic that measured one’s potency as a tyrant less by the rarity of the “things” one possessed than by the sheer volume of grinding, mute human endeavor that one could command to create a perfectly useless, absolutely meaningless object to be “played with” once and then, perhaps, placed on a low table in a gray, drafty hall to be glanced at from time to time.
Every Desi, however, requires his Lucy, and the fact remains that the Imperial Easter Eggs were no more Fabergé creations than the Firebird Suite was the creation of his friend, Serge Diaghilev. They were both, in fact, impresarios, and Fabergé found his Stravinsky and Nijinsky in two enormously talented men, deeply schooled in Russian folk traditions, who were able to adapt and pervert those indigenous traditions to the retardataire taste of its ga-ga aristocracy.
Micheal Perchin was the Russian goldsmith who ran Fabergé’s shop during its hey-day in the 1890s and the man responsible for so beautifully adapting the flamboyant intensity of traditional Russian metal work to the intricate and more politically sympathetic devices of the 18th-Century French rococo favored by the Romanovs. His colleague Alexander Petrov was the all-time anonymous master of guilloche enamel. It was his process of applying transparent layers of colored liquid glass to an engraved metal surface that produced the glamorous, dazzling surfaces and made the precious stones redundant on Fabergé’s objects. So, if there is any real artistic merit that accrues to any aspect of these eggs, it has to derive from the talent and labors of Perchin and Petrov, even though it was, in the end, nothing more than good work done on a bad job. (Imagine Malcolm Forbes hiring the master craftsmen of L.A. lowrider design and enamel to customize his favorite Rolls Royce, and you will have a contemporary example of the corruption of folk craft involved in the creation of Fabergé’s eggs.)
Finally, then, regardless of what you might think of the quality of Carl Fabergé’s “work,” it is important to remember that his “job,” at bottom, was plain old government work — the administration of an ultra-chic sweatshop designed to crank out tarted up knick-knacks for the amusement of a petulant brood of genetic casualties and moral idiots who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. It helps to remember as well that Fabergé’s job required that he not only please but delight this clientele, which even on its good days was as whimsical and unstable as a balloon full of actors. And not to please was not to survive in the byzantine corridors of St. Petersburg, at that time a semiliterate sprawl of palaces and shanties on a subarctic marsh at the edge of an unfriendly sea, populated by autocrats, aristocrats, bureaucrats, diplomats, courtiers, priests, soldiers, pastry cooks, tailors, servants, and whores.
Working in this context, Fabergé, Perchin, and Petrov could not have dared limit the appeal of their work to purely artistic devices. They were bound to employ any device that might be immediately and obviously appealing. And so, insofar as they made works of art, even decorative art, they did so secretly — disguising them as toys designed to be misinterpreted and admired for their glamour and intricate mechanics by an audience insensitive even to the meaning of Easter in their own religion. The kindest interpretation, then, that one can place on these objects is that they have been perfectly tailored to whims of authority by artists and craftsmen who invested them with a quality of work that stands as a seething repudiation of the stupidity of the job.
They are monuments, then, of waste and oppression, and as such, they pose a problem for people accustomed to looking at actual works of art. The very act of looking on a regular basis, it would seem, teaches you the extent to which an artist, in the process of creating a work of art, defines and characterizes the beholder standing before it. Each work of art you stand before forces you into a “role” — imposes upon you certain values and attitudes. And the Imperial Easter Eggs, unfortunately, force you into the role of an indolent Romanov, gawking at the dazzle of the pretty rocks and the silly little machines. In short, they treat you like an idiot and come on to you like a whore. A lot of people must like that.