The Art of Porcelain

One of the oldest names in Europe, Augarten represents the finest in art and design.

On The Town | Johanna Neyt | July / August 2011

It was a bright, sunny morning, the first official day of summer, and Vienna was doing its best to deliver as ordered. I was on my way to the Augarten to learn about porcelain; passing the Canal, I turned up into the 2nd District toward the park and arrived outside the gates, to a soft breeze pungent with the scent of fresh cut grass. I parked and walked in, past the topiary and the turned up flower beds waiting to be planted.

Down the gravel path, the understated grandeur of the jewel-like Palais has a special charm – manageable proportions that allow a sense of luxury on a personal scale. In spite of its Baroque formality, the Augarten is an intimate park, with gracious gravel walks under the shade of leafy chestnuts, little cafés hidden behind wooden doorways in the thick wall.

Long off the beaten track because of poor transit connections, access to the Augarten suddenly became easy with the opening of the Taborstrasse exit on the expanded U2 Subway line in 2008. Construction also began in 2010 for a new concert hall for The Vienna Boys Choir (Wiener Sängerknaben) adjoining the main Augarten Palais where the boys live and study. To be shared with the Wiener Kindertheater, it is also expected to bring many more people to the park neighborhood.

Around seven million Euros were spent to renovate the Schloss on what were once Imperial hunting grounds and that now includes the porcelain factory and its ajoining Kindergarten, a new restaurant ("Décor"), and the museum whose opening had occasioned my visit. The renovations were the work of Prof. Boris Potrecca, who also designed the porcelain museum in Limoges, France, the biggest porcelain manufactory in the world.

The Porcelain Museum has been designed around the 18th century bottle kiln that reaches to the roof top of the first level. Strolling around in the museum, the sense of an artisan’s workshop had been preserved as a setting for delicate, graceful pieces on display. Among the many shapes of cups, dishes, vases and serving dishes, the clean lines and the exquisite detail achieve a sense of timeless beauty for which the Augarten porcelain is world-famous. Combining sophisticated craftsmanship, artistic design and the latest technical equipment, Augarten uniquely blends time-honored tradition with a contemporary approach to art. The display case with the "Vexations" vases by Gregor Schmol teased my eye immediately, as I joined the assembled visitors for a guided tour.

"The Augarten porcelain is still produced and painted by the hands of 70 employees in the manufactory at they Augarten Palais," Magister Claudia Uth told us, "just as it has been for almost 300 years."

One of the oldest European names in porcelain, Augarten Wien has symbolized the continuity of timeless Viennese tradition of art and design.

As we wandered through the exhibits, the history of porcelain unfolded in the course of the tour, supported by detailed wall panels:

Although first made in China in the Sui dynasty (581-681 CA), it wasn’t until the 13th century that the first example reached Europe’s shores, most probably brought by the Polo brothers in about 1260. Reports from merchants and missionaries recounting the wondrous manufacturing skills of the Chinese, and Chinese porcelain thus soon gained a place in the Wunderkammer of European royals, who urged their alchemists to unearth the secrets of its manufacture.

Europe’s first soft paste porcelain was developed for the Medici, in 16th-century Florence.

The first hard paste porcelain, displaying qualities similar to those of Chinese, was invented in December 1707 by Johann Friedrich Boettger in Dresden. Having initially be ing engaged by Augustus the Strong to make gold, Boettger was put to work alongside the renowned scientist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, who had conducted experiments with recipes for porcelain. Finally, the Saxon Gottfried Pabst von Ohain discovered the critical properties of the white clay known as kaolin and the Meissen porcelain manufactory was founded in 1710.

It surprised me that although its arcanum, the great secret of nature that the alchemists sought to discover, was declared a crime subject to the severest punishments, the spirit of adventure triumphed and the secrets of the production of true porcelain inevitably spread.

It was in 1718, that Europe’s second factory was founded in Vienna, our guide told us, when the Imperial capital was alive with art and ideas destined to epitomize the eighteenth century imagination at its most fertile, on the street known today as "Porzellangasse," in what is now the 9th District. In 1744, the factory was taken under the Imperial wing of Empress Maria Theresia, and since that time, every piece produced by Augarten has borne the blue-striped shield from the coat of arms of the Austrian Dukes of Babenberg underneath the glaze, confirming its authenticity.

Augarten Porcelain enjoyed a golden age in the second half of the 18th century when under the management of Conrad Sörgel von Sorgenthal, it entered a period of classic artistry celebrating the return to straight lines and designs from the Antiquity. Porcelain produced during that time features gold relief, palmettos, and cornucopiae, which were wonderfully displayed as ‘Prachtware,’ as luxuries.

The diplomats and royalty who gathered from across Europe for the Congress of Vienna in 1814 helped the Vienna Porcelain Manufactory establish its reputation at home and abroad, as politics and culture joined once again and its products became highly-prized in many of the Continent’s royal households. During the Biedermeier era that followed, Viennese porcelain became a status symbol for the aspiring middle classes.

The hand-made pieces that graced the tables of wealthy citizens of that time featured designs like the "Viennese Rose" and other floral styles that remain popular today. Increased competition at home and abroad finally forced the renowned factory to close down in 1864, when its extensive collection of designs was donated to the Museum of Applied Arts. An important chapter in Austrian history had come to an end – or so it seemed.

It was not until 60 years later, on May 2, 1924, the porcelain manufactory was reopened in Augarten Palais during the heyday of the craft revival in Socialist "Red Vienna" under the First Republic, where it remains today. Established as the "Vienna Porcelain Manufactory Augarten," its ethos was to continue the tradition of the former Imperial manufactory while also making room for fresh ideas. Receptive to modern trends, they produced designs by contemporary artists including Josef Hoffmann, Michael Powolny, Franz von Zülow, and others of the Wiener Werkstätte. These are my favorites, particularly the serving platter, painted by Wolfgang Hutter in 1954. The bright and vivid colors of the flowers and fruits and the hyper realistic warm design makes it as remarkable today as it must have been when it was made. Today, cooperation with well-known artists continues to shape the company’s style.

On this tour, visitors were clearly moved. "I didn’t expect this!" one man whispered, leaning down to his companion, as he scribbled into a notebook. I was dazzled by vividness, and love of detail that goes into making each individual piece,  carried out by hand.

So delicate and yet so robust – the secret of how to make porcelain eluded the western world for a long time. Discovering the formula certainly required some intuition from the alchemists. Yet making the finest porcelain requires just three "ingredients" – feldspar, quartz, and kaolin; the secret lies in getting the proportions right, our guide said.

At the Augarten Factory, the white kaolin comes from Czech Republic, the feldspar from Scandinavia and the quartz from Germany. Depending on the way it is to be applied, the paste is processed to achieve different properties. It requires a great deal of experience and special touch to determine the exact point when it is ready to use.

Dr Erhard F. Grossing, the director of the museum, explained the different phases of the process, going over molding, luting, ‘biscuit firing’, glazing, identifying with the striped shield, ‘glosting’ and finally painting.

When the tour was over, we stood staring at the final displays with a renewed sense of wonder at this seemingly simple procedure. It was hard to pull away.

As we slowly emerged into the bright sun, and found tables under the broad awnings on the terrace overlooking the Baroque garden, we sensed that something quite special from an unlikely place had suddenly just come out of hiding.

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    the vienna review July / August 2011