Fantoni’s Cubist Sculptures in Lamp Form

Sculpture 17.25" tall with 2" wood base.
Sculpture 17.25″ tall with 2″ wood base.

Having written about Fantoni’s production for Raymor I was delighted to have a guest writer take a look and dissect what went into creating a lamp featuring one of Fantoni’s best and rarest lines – his cubist figure sculptures of the mid-1950’s.  

Recently we found a pair of cubist figures created by Fantoni as a lamp – something we had never seen before.  Usually these cubist figures are individual figures, a satyr, warrior or a maiden with long hair, and though we have viewed photos of a double sculpture like this, not one created to be displayed as a lamp.  Reading the article below it will become clear why there probably are very, very few cubist figure lamps.  The cubist figures are among some of Fantoni’s best work and most sought after – they fetch anywhere from $1,500 to $12,000 at auction. 

An evaluation interview on Antiques Roadshow from 2007 featured Fantoni’s satyr cubist figure and was brought in by the original owner who purchased it.  She stated she bought the piece at Macy’s in New York City in the early 1950’s.  Keep in mind that Macy’s in the 1950’s was solely a NYC Department store, it would be many years before it became the nationwide chain famous today.  Thanks to Raymor, some of Fantoni’s most daring work was imported and sold at Macys to the NYC shoppers who tended to be big fans of modern design. 

Now, on to my guest writer who specializes in mid-century lighting….

FANTONI’S CUBIST LAMP PRODUCTION – IN DETAIL
By A.S.

Collectors of ceramics from the Mid Century Modern era undoubtedly know the work of Marcello Fantoni who on recently died in 2011 at the age of 94 and left behind a legacy that spans more than half a century of work.

Examples of two Marcello Fantoni Sculptures.
Examples of two Marcello Fantoni Sculptures.

While much could be written on the man and his work the purpose of this article is to put into perspective just one piece of his work from a particular time period to give the reader a greater understanding of how a particular design was created and produced. 

To understand the factors of 1956, consider that Italy post-war was a difficult place and time; a period with Europe in tatters after World War II, rebuilding and with commerce vital to the countries exploiting opportunities to furnish wares abroad was of the uttermost importance.

Companies like Rosenthal-Netter & Raymor exported from Europe vast quantities of goods, and it is fair to say that without the booming post-war American demands for products from designers in their early years that perhaps they may not been able to economically survive as artist. Today artists can showcase examples of their work to the other side of the world  (and converse about it) within seconds. But things weren’t so easy 60 years ago.  Artists needed a patron or company to export or promote their work to sell or be recognized outside of their cities – and competition was ferocious. Without a demand and absolute need to push boundaries, some of the great designers of Europe may never have been as daring. Forgotten in the annals of history are hundreds who did try and either through lack of talent, or just as often through bad luck or circumstances, were unable to establish the needed communication to market their talents or wares.

Success was not a foregone conclusion and the need for an artist to push boundaries was critical if they were to be recognized and more importantly sell and with this the ability to have steady production lines that worked smoothly.  Simply put in Europe at that time period, If you did not sell you did not eat. We can be whimsical and consider these great designers producing at their leisure but this is fanciful and not the case, they were driven for the need to sell and we can thank commercial demand and the modern tastes of importers trying to mold public tastes, for what later comes.

Raymor actually encouraged bold design and it can be argued that without their patronage to certain designers, they may have gone by the way side or may not have ever lived to their full potential or been able to employ a studio full of craftsman to bring their designs to life.

More examples of this work, notice the variance in glazes and texture.
More examples of this work, notice the variance in glazes and texture.

Marcello Fantoni was a gifted ceramist, and like Gambone & Sottsass, their generation was able to experiment and expand boundaries thanks to the money and demand from markets abroad, especially in the United States, for modernism. In turn these artists would come to define what was grand and brilliant about mid-century ceramics. 

It was in the early 50’s that Marcello Fantoni created his stylized sculptures referred to as ‘Satiro Innamorato’ or in English ‘Satyrs in Love’. They are bold and cubist in design, making use of new glaze techniques and textures and heavily influenced by Picasso, Braque and a host of other abstract artists. But ultimately the work was uniquely Fantoni’s as his imagination put into a 3 dimension a cubist figure that had only been attempted on a 2-D canvas until that point.

Fantoni musical pair.
Fantoni musical pair.

Raymor imported these sculptures, but one has to remember new products were always a gamble, and these sculptures took a lot of time to create. Not only did Raymor gamble, but so did Fantoni when he created sculptures and work that ventured into unknown territory. While Fantoni might have had the appreciation of art critics, this was no guarantee that a customer walking into a store in New York would buy his work.

The cubist piece featured in this article is a very unique and unusual piece. My fascination with this piece arose from a confluence of factors that when combined, expressed a truly unique undertaking by Fantoni. In the absence of a log of May 1956 nothing tells me more about Fantoni’s workshop, himself or his staff more than this piece, and I can thank my obsession with lamps and their restoration that gives me the tools to glimpse into Marcello’s workshop to see what was happening in 1956 thanks to this piece and the clues it provides.

All my research into these sculptures turned up only solo figures in any detail, and I uncovered a glimpse of a double-statue (“Gossiping Ladies”). Given the lovely nature of the piece I was curious to understand why it was – relative to the other cubist sculptures from Fantoni, seemingly rarer.

This sculpture also has more elements to it than the typical, singular cubist sculptures.  This sculpture, unlike all the others, had a wood carved base – more bizarre was that it doubled as a lamp but not necessarily exclusively as one or the other. I have some experience with carving and know what looks simple is often not, and carving a curvaceous object takes a inordinate amount of time.

When I first saw the lamp, its base was ill-fitted and looked very much out-of-sync with the sculpture. The sculpture and wood base, was unverified as Fantoni’s work.  Though the style and craftsmanship was undoubtedly Fantoin’s work, no signature had yet been found and the addition of the lamp components clouded the positive aspects of the piece. (Previous owners were afraid of taking the base off of the sculpture to check for a signature for fear of damaging the sculpture, which was jammed into the base courtesy of a toggle bolt.)

After receiving the piece I soon came to realize that the base was affixed in error due to a flaw in the construction that could wreck havoc after it left the workshop.  There was a genuine problem arising from the assembly process causing the wood carved base to become dislodged/lodged incorrectly and possibly causing it to destroy the sculpture atop – and in the case of this piece it had forced the base into a irregular position.

"Gossiping Ladies" by Marcello Fantoni in lamp form - May 1956.
“Gossiping Ladies” by Marcello Fantoni in lamp form – May 1956.

 

Sculpture 17.25" tall with 2" wood base.
Sculpture 17.25″ tall with 2″ wood base.

When I first inspected the sculpture I considered the base was incorrect for the piece, perhaps created later and admit I too (as with the seller) could not see how this base fitted with the sculpture appropriately, but once removed and correctly aligned, it seems obvious.

Sculpture without base.
Sculpture without base.

After a time consuming dismantling, the sculpture revealed it’s signature beneath the larger standing figure, and also revealed Fantoni’s hand written words upon the top of the wood base – hidden from view until the sculpture was successfully removed. Thanks to the inscription we now know the month and year of production to be May 1956. Other writing not in Fantoni’s hand on the bottom of the base added a new aspect to the piece that gave some insight.

How a piece is produced always tells you something of the artist and what was happening at the time, and interpreting the signs is important if appreciation is to be given as to how a piece was designed and produced.   As surely as events influence the subject mater of an ceramist, so do the production issues in his studio.  In brief, it gives context.

Standing at  a height of some 40”, with the statue itself being 17 ¼” and a base of 2” we have a unique combination of factors that set this sculpture apart.

It is highly unlikely there were a significant number of these lamps produced. I base this statement on the known complications of lamp production; from my personal experience and via research.  Some experts have noted quality pieces of Fantoni were produced in lamp form to broaden the market, but they had not up to that point seen a cubist sculpture turned into a lamp, though they did not doubt it must have been done at some point as with most of Fantoni’s pieces suitable for lamp conversion. If it were an attempt to produce a new line that if had worked well, we would surely have to hand more known examples other than this singular piece.

Other Fantoni Lamps following standard production principles.
Other Fantoni Lamps following standard production principles.

Typical lamps are conical in nature, a form of low complexity, lending to easily produced bases, and moreover, the conical shape allows support at the top of the lamp where the sockets are attached and through the bottom – a straight forward proposition no matter how infinitely complex the glaze or texture. These factors made the production of lamps quick and rapid requiring little or no intervention. Even grander cigar shaped lamps, while perhaps unique in glaze or texture, still followed a logical construction process common to any conical lamp utilizing common components and a production line. Lamp bases are typically given one color, or simply stained, and can be produced on a lathe in a moment – again this is part of the process that no matter how grand the conical lamp is, it is virtually identical to all production. Even a ceramic lamp without a base relies on the forces to be disbursed at the top and bottom of the vessel.

In this example, not only do we see a statue that is comprised of two figures combined before kiln firing, we see that it has a unique base as well as lamp components. This makes the task of the lamp construction a much more involved process and highly labor intensive. It creates problems for a designer and his workshop. I will list these processes so that it becomes apparent why we do not see this lamp documented or widely seen (this is the only example I am currently aware of):

First, consider the form of the lamp base & sculpture; it provides no option for a hole to be created at the top allowing for a simple insertion of a rod running through the vessel. This immediately rules out the standard use of rods, caps and standard components.

Second, a base has been produced which is unique to that sculpture and no others, thus it must be custom formed and is impossible to produce on a lathe.

Third, we see that the lamp components are metal with hand-painted, baked on enamel. The glazes used on the ceramic medium cannot be used on metal or wood, therefore three different types of paints are required one for the sculpture, one for the base and for the metal lamp parts.

The reason I consider this piece to be a very limited production is because it does not lend itself to being produced on any reasonable production line. To understand this consider for the piece that the process of creation was as follows:

Clearly visible is where the two sculptures have been combined prior to firing.
Clearly visible is where the two sculptures have been combined prior to firing.

Two sculptures are created and then (as seen in the images) grooved to fit into one another. At the firing, the chances of air pockets being present between the two are greatly increased (possibly why we see fewer of the “Gossiping Ladies” or perhaps collectors are not releasing them in the market for sale, or they were more complicated and simply fewer were produced).  At this point an outline was taken of the footing and from a block of wood the base was carved. On regular production lines, regardless of the grandness of the lamps, bases of different sizes easily produced on a lathe are at hand for quick selection. The wood carving was a time consuming process and represented a creation into itself. Note the lip beneath the base that adds when illuminated a color glow around the base, but not easily visible.

Note the often unseen touches such as the carved raised bottom lip.
Note the often unseen touches such as the carved raised bottom lip.

 

The Sculpture had to be present during the carving in order to have the fall-away lines match the sculpture. After it was carved, sanded down and primed, paints had to be mixed that would match the color of the glaze. Of note, the painting included faux crackling to match the sculpture.  Next the workshop took the lamp and sculpture to drill holes into the wood base in order to insert cavities for wiring, the switch and the power cord, and of course a central hole to attach the  sculpture this time employing a toggle bolt to wedge together. At this stage the metal lamp stem was cut to size and the finial and stem hand painted in enamel and baked on, then attached to the lamp.  In the entire process there are no components or common bases, blocks etc. that are stock standard or identical; and so breaks down the production line to a crawl.

Of interest is the use of a toggle bolt to hold the sculpture to the wood base which creates a great deal of force on one small area posing  problems for the entire piece during and post production. First the base and sculpture are not conical, so any movement of the two results in the immediate need to tighten the bolt which has been covered by the finishing fabric beneath.  Second, such pressure against porcelain in a small area easily results in breakage if the object is jolted during transit or use . Third, even the slightest over-tighten of the bolt would crack the porcelain. It is interesting to note that this piece when inspected had its base on wrong in a fixed position (which was thought not able to be corrected at the time) because the toggle bolt rod when loose had gone on an angle and was lodged in some of the internal porcelain, rendering the  ability to re-align the base not possible (later to be proven correctable).


Beautiful from every angle, perhaps none as dramatic as the back side.
Beautiful from every angle, perhaps none as dramatic as the back side.
The wood base carefully carved to compliment and extend the female lines.
The wood base carefully carved to compliment and extend the female lines.

In summary this lamp represents several unique aspects to Fantoni’s work:

i)  The double figure, thus giving this title of “Gossiping Women” a true-to-form name for this piece, and is probably representative of a mother and daughter, though it could also as easily express the family unit.

ii) The custom wood base carved & painted by Marcello Fantoni in itself rare but more importantly, the finishing touch this wood sculpture adds to the statue is undeniable.  The labor intensive nature of this one piece can easily be dismissed by all those except wood craftsmen.

iii) This is a lamp, and yet can have the stem removed to leave the sculpture as a stand alone piece of to be displayed with it’s plinth base is unique.

From the finial, the stem, base and the unique double figured sculpture this example represents in May 1956 Fantoni exploring what could be accomplished with his staff and creating something special. Some of the small-print details of this piece as as follows:

Incidentals:
– Signed “Fantoni Italy for Raymor” with Studio hallmark to underside of sculpture on larger figure.

– In Fantoni’s handwriting “May 1956” to the top of the wood base but beneath the sculpture.

– Written “May 56” in the drill holes beneath the wood base in work shop assistants hand.

Separate components:
– Double Figure Sculpture (gossiping ladies or family representation.)

– Carved and painted wood base.

– Switch glued into base on the inside

– Lamp stem with upper portion of twisted metal – all solid, not able to be bent, in enamel.

– Metal finial also enamel finished.

– Harp and sockets are standard.

– Lamp shade added as decor requires.

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Fantoni Metal Finial, also enameled.
Fantoni Metal Finial, also enameled.
Metal Stem inserted to back of wood base and 35" to the finial.
Metal Stem inserted to back of wood base and 35″ to the finial.
Note the often unseen touches such as the carved raised bottom lip.
Note the often unseen touches such as the carved raised bottom lip.
Every angle is considered so the plinth base becomes one with the main body.
Every angle is considered so the plinth base becomes one with the main body.

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One Comment

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  1. I was interested to read about the complex crafting of a sculptural piece by Fantoni into a lamp.
    Recently, whilst cleaning the most outlandish piece by Fantoni (signed Fantoni and dated 1956) that I have ever seen (and the only one I own) I was surprised to see the bottom layer of unfired clay-like substance [onto which the date and signature were written] dissolve into the sin k into which I was cleaning the piece.
    Do you have any knowledge about a practice of smoothing the bottom of rough Fantoni pieces with a perishable substance; or should I conclude to a forgery? The piece is extraordinary and more experimental than any Fantoni pieces I hace ever come across. I can email you pictures of the vase and of the base: before and after cleaning.
    Thanks
    Gérard
    http://keramicconversations.blogspot.co.uk/

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