When one considers a tureen and platter made out of porcelain, postmodernism rarely comes to mind. Yet, in the instance of Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter (1991) designed by Cindy Sherman, a postmodern mindset is a perfect method for examining this piece of porcelain. During the late twentieth century, conventions that ruled the art world were directly challenged such as the blurring of boundaries between the fine and decorative arts and the questioning of the fixedness of identity. Despite the playful tone of the Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter, this work provokes critical questions about our contemporary understanding of French porcelain production, the relationship between art and design, and the definition of identity.
Sherman’s reference to the royal era of French porcelain production in her own work can be found both in its form and decoration. In fact, from a distance the viewer is unsure as to what century the Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter belongs to, with its typical eighteenth-century rose pink color as well as the floral and silver gilt decoration. Only upon closer inspection does the viewer realize that there are unusual portraits of a woman found centrally located on the tureen and on both side of the platter. Accordingly, despite being created over two hundred years later, Sherman’s Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter deliberately appropriates the Rococo style. One of the reasons for this close resemblance to the Rococo in Sherman’s design can be explained by the fact that an original eighteenth century mold was used to create it, a mold from a time when Madame Pompadour had great influence in the French porcelain industry.[i] Without the portraits as part of the decoration, it would be easy for an untrained eye to mistake Sherman’s piece for an eighteenth-century original or lookalike. As the title of the tureen and platter indicates, the image of the woman is mostly likely that of Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV. By incorporating an image of the mistress into the decoration, Sherman highlights Madame Pompadour’s crucial role in the Sèvres porcelain factory since it is said that she convinced the king to turn it into a royal factory. Madame Pompadour also was influential in encouraging the development of a particularly French style of ornamentation such as the use of colored grounds.[ii] By incorporating a portrait of Madame Pompadour into the decoration, Sherman reminds the viewer to consider the importance of her patronage in the development of porcelain wares in France.
Issues of production can also be discussed in relation to the recent popularity of limited editions of artist-designed goods. Interestingly, Cindy Sherman’s porcelain series was not commissioned by Sèvres but by the New York firm, Artes Magnus and was made by Limoges.[iii] Although not unique pieces, neither were Sherman’s porcelain design mass-produced. As mentioned in the exhibit’s label production of Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter was limited to twenty-five of each color version of which there were four colors. To provide further individuality, each piece was signed and numbered thus adding further market value to each object. The overlap between designer goods and fine art caused the creation of objects which were difficult to categorize since items such as Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter were situated between fine art, designed goods, and decorative objects. In fact, the commissioning of these porcelain wares inspired Sherman to create a series of photographs called History Portraits (1989-1990) in which she parodies characters from art history.[iv] Sherman even enlarged the photo she used on the Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter for her exhibition at Metro Pictures. Sherman’s involvement in designing porcelain for Artes Magnus and consequent artistic inspiration of other mediums from the collaboration demonstrates the close interrelationship between the design market and the art world that was occurring in the late twentieth century.
Along with the postmodern trait of breaking down the divisions in the art world, Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter reveals another postmodern interest in the complexity of defining identity. Cindy Sherman was and continues to be a famous American artist who questions the portrayal of feminine stereotypes by acting out different female “types” in her photographs. Used to dressing up in costume and portraying characters, Sherman photographed herself to create the Madame Pompadour portrait found on Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter. Thus, Sherman is simultaneously artist and model[v] who is portraying a historical figure yet also a fictitious subject. However, many critics and historians argue that Sherman should not be viewed simply as the subject but rather something more complex; as art critic Arthur Danto once said, “Sherman has made herself into a representation.”[vi] In the instance of Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter, Sherman is representing a specific woman, Madame Pompadour, who can also be considered as a “type,” mistress. Intertwined with this play of identity is the issue of the objectification of women found throughout art history. After all, the image of a Madame Pompadour is literally apart of an object Elizabeth A.T. Smith described the protagonists found in Sherman’s History Pictures series as “artificial personae.”[vii] This description also works well for Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter since the portrait is a physically superficial transfer and the person represented is a somewhat stylized version of an eighteenth-century French woman within a Watteau like setting. Thus, the viewer is provoked to consider the historical tradition of representation of woman as well as the Sherman’s playful undermining of the relationship between creator and sitter. Rather than attempt to determine whether Sherman is a designer, artist, model, or actor, it is best to describe her role in the creative process simply as “author.”
Despite its initial Rococo look, Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter is an object that communicates the postmodern context it was created in. Appropriate to the culture of questioning that occurred in the late twentieth-century American art world, it is difficult to define this tureen and platter in terms of whether it is a piece of fine art or a decorative object and whether the portrait portrays a French patroness or a feminist artist. However, it is this instability of meaning, which makes Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter an intriguing piece of porcelain.
© Courtney Ahlstrom Christy 2014-2018
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[i] Amada Cruz and Elizabeth A. T. Smith. Cindy Sherman: Retrospective.
(Chicago/Los Angeles: Thames and Hudson, 1997), 11.
[ii] Paredes, Liana. Sèvres Then and Now: Tradtion and Innovation in Porcelain, 1750 - 2000. (London: D. Giles Limited, 2009), 19.
[iii] Yet since Cindy Sherman’s appropriated both a Sevres design and an image of its patroness, the inclusion of Madame Pompadour Tureen and Platter within an exhibition about Sevres porcelain is logical.
[iv] Cruz and Smith, 11.
[v] Diana Ebster. “Cindy Sherman,” in Just Love Me: Post\Feminist Positions of the 1990s from the Goetz Collection, 150-161. ed. (Koln: Verlag dee Buchhandlung Walther Konig, 2003), 151.
[vi] Arthur, C. Danto. Cindy Sherman: History Portraits. (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), 7.
[vii] Cruz and Smtih, 43.