Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Kestner


"The Kestner" 16x20, Oil on Canvas

This is a painting of an antique German porcelain doll, created in the late 19th century.  The manufacturer of the doll and many others like it was named Johannes Daniel Kestner, and he was dubbed "Kester, King of the Doll Makers".  He earned this reputation several ways;  First of all his was the only Victorian doll company to have the ability to produce both the body and the head. 

 Traditionally doll companies with names like Steiner, Armand Marseille or Jumeau would hire artists to sculpt and create beautiful and unique heads, which were then cast as a mold which could in turn produce hundreds or thousands of bisque doll heads which then had to be hand painted by more artists. This process alone took a lot of specialization and labor, and so most companies could only afford to focus and become famous for their heads which were after all the most desirable and valuable part of the doll.  Kestner also had a castle in a small mountain town in Thuringia (a major doll producing region) in which 3/4 of the towns actively worked in producing his dolls in a sort of joint assembly system, down to the peasants who had only subsistence agriculture to sustain them.  The castle's coat of arms had a doll on it, but this is another story...  It sounds like the legend of Santa Claus and his elves but like so many things in the the 19th century and in mass manufacture doll making had its dark side.  

Doll heads were painted delicately in several layers with firing in between.  The eyebrows took skilled precision with a fine 00 liner brush, the cheeks blushed subtly, and the lips and corners of the eyes given color.  Most dolls had beautiful paperweight eyes that opened and closed, and their wigs were often made of human hair.  What fascinates me is that out of the dozens of wonderful doll manufacturers ( I myself own a dozen different kinds) there is a cohesive and identifiable look that brings all of the different models into harmony.  The ideal was no doubt influenced by an idea of 19th century feminine beauty that somehow merged the child and woman into one.  One has only to look at classical academic inspired sculpture and painting to see a resemblance.  

The doll bodies in contrast were made of a composition of cellulite and plaster, or sometimes heavier wood.   Not meant to be seen (the dolls sported the high fashion of their time) with the exception of the hands, these bodies nevertheless were incredibly proportioned and well made.  The ball jointed bodies resemble their larger counterparts; the artists mannequin.  Since this century I believe no doll or mannequin has rivaled both the quality or essential usefulness of these predecessors.  I can't tell you how much painters like myself long for a useful and beautiful artists mannequin (see those of Pietro Annigoni).  I actually got into doll collecting while researching ways to build a posable and aesthetic mannequin.  

Returning back to our subject of the Kestner doll holding a human skull. Walter the skull belonged to a 19th century man, a contemporary of JD Kestner and of the 19th century art movements.  I am moved and fascinated by the way in which the things we create from our own life experiences have the potential to survive our own demise, and stand as a reminder and lesson to the future.