Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
“Gold, Jasper, and Carnelian: Johann Christian Neuber at the Saxon Court”
 Johann Christian Neuber. Golden box with cut stones. Courtesy of the Frick Collection.

Johann Christian Neuber. Golden box with cut stones. Courtesy of the Frick Collection.

Think of an artist who spends considerable time writing, cataloguing, and organizing thus producing works in series while remaining primarily preoccupied with translating one form of art into another. Hanne Darboven? Think again.

The artist is organizing his works in groups of monochromes that consist exclusively of textures and creates color charts that fascinate with the limitless variety of each hue. Gerhard Richter? Think again—our era does not warrant credit for processes that became part of artists’ conceptual repertoire as early as the eighteenth century.

Johann Christian Neuber (1736-1808), one of Dresden’s most admired goldsmiths, was named court jeweler to Friedrich Augustus III, elector of Saxony. He was soon appointed curator of the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) (1785), the royal collection of Augusts the Strong who was also the founder of the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory.

During a long and prominent career, Neuber created small gold boxes, chatelaines, watchcases, and small cases with a variety of functions decorated with local (German) semiprecious and precious stones such as agate, jasper, carnelian, opal, and topaz among others. He worked with his materials in figurative styles at first, transitioned through elaborate floral designs, and arrived at his peak period with his tour de force of complex geometric patterns made of cut stones. He also incorporated Meissen porcelain plaques, cameos, and a variety of miniatures into his pieces. He took care and time to number each one of the stones he used and created a miniature booklet in manuscript form to accompany his work. In the booklet a thorough cataloging of his work allowed the recipient to appreciate both the time and effort required to create such a delicate marvel as well as the knowledge about nature enclosed within. After all, each one of Neuber’s creations was a key to solving the puzzle called “nature.”

Admiration of natural resources and meticulous cataloging and organization of all the various types of organic and inorganic material one could get his hands on began in the Renaissance. In that sense, Neuber appears to have continued a tradition that had existed in large scale and to have managed to reduce the wonders of nature to a series of innovative, imaginative, and painstakingly crafted jewels. You can see a remarkable sampling of Neuber’s works assembled from museum and private collections at The Frick Collection in New York City. The exhibit “Gold, Jasper, and Carnelian: Johann Christian Neuber at the Saxon Court,” just opened on May 30 and will remain on view through August 19, 2012.

Neuber’s masterpiece, the Breteuil table that survived the French Revolution and all consecutive wars, has remained in the possession of the Breteuil family in France. The Baron of Breteuil received the table as a diplomatic gift from Friedrich Augustus III of Saxony on the occasion of the baron’s role in the successful negotiations that ended the War of the Bavarian Succession. Well aware of the French people’s sensitivity to luxurious materials and innovative design, Neuber outdid himself with the design of the Breteuil table that features prominently today as the centerpiece of this small exhibit at The Frick.

While I spent about an hour looking at the details of each one of these stunning pieces I noticed other Frick visitors giving quick glances at them and moving on. If possible, try to resist that sort of impulse. The exhibit presents a great opportunity for us to admire natural beauty in the infinite variety of semiprecious stones and superb craftsmanship and artistic invention.  Neuber was an ingenious artist fully cognizant of the workings of the marketplace and the power of luxurious gifts as tokens of friendship and peace.

© Thomaï Serdari