Illusion and Reality

Art Nouveau Zsolnay Ceramics

Vase with trompe l'oeil mountMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Vase with trompe l'oeil mount

Tradition has it that the still life of a bunch of grapes that the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis painted was so realistic that birds would perch on the work and peck at it. In turn, the curtain that his rival, Parrhasius painted fooled even Zeuxis, who attempted to draw it apart.

In works of art, lifelikeness that tricks the viewer is called trompe-l’œil, which is French for ‘deceive the eye.’ Such illusion-making is not uncommon in ceramics either.

Vase with bird skullsMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

The following selection gives a taste of the types of materials that are evoked by the Art Nouveau ceramics that were produced at the Zsolnay factory and are now held at the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest.

Bust of Vilmos Zsolnay (circa 1890) by Alajos StróblMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Bust of Vilmos Zsolnay

In preparation for the 1900 Paris Exposition, Vilmos Zsolnay, the owner of the Zsolnay ceramics factory in Pécs, employed young designers who created works in a new style that was more in keeping with the tastes and demands of the time: Art Nouveau. 

Sadly, Vilmos Zsolnay himself could not see the success of these works at the Paris Exposition: working hard towards the display at this international competition, he contracted pneumonia and died on 23 March 1900. 

Bust of Miklós Zsolnay (1908) by Miklós LigetiMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Bust of Miklós Zsolnay

His son Miklós Zsolnay took over the management of the factory, and the Art Nouveau period of the factory was to unfold under his directorship.

Ceramic that looks like a metal object with a hammered surface

In 1891, Vilmos Zsolnay began to collaborate with two leading experts of the time, chemists Vince Wartha and Lajos Petrik.

Vase with the so-called chased pattern, unknown, circa 1900, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Wall tile (circa 1900) by unknownMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Wall tile

Years of research and experiments led to the development of Zsolnay’s proprietary eosin lustre glaze that, when fired reductively, produces a coating with a metallic sheen. An imitation hammered surface was also meant to enhance the metallic look of the items.

Ceramic that looks like a metalwork setting

'Eosin' was named after Eos, the Greek goddess of dawn. Vilmos Zsolnay and Vince Wartha first developed the technique of producing a red metallic lustre glaze, unlocking the secret of the red lustre coating on the objects of the Italian Renaissance master, Giorgio Andreoli. 

Vase with trompe l'oeil mountMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Vase with trompe l'oeil mount

For the 1900 Paris Exposition, Vilmos Zsolnay created a wide palette of eosin glazes. The handles of these Art Nouveau masterpieces enclose the bodies of the vessels like Cloisonné enamelled metalwork settings.

Vase with a bird frieze resembling a metal fitting (1906) by Sándor Apáti AbtMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Vase with a bird frieze resembling a metal fitting

Ceramic that looks like glass mosaic

The roots of mosaic art go back to antiquity: it was a popular decorative technique in Hellenistic, Roman, early Christian and Byzantine art. The well-to-do liked to decorate the floors of their villas with still lifes or scenes made of small marble cubes (tesserae). Over time, religious imagery gained preponderance over secular representations. The late 19th century saw a revival of mosaic art in Hungary. Mosaic was well suited for the decoration of curved surfaces inside and outside buildings, small or large sections of façades.

Wall tile (circa 1900) by unknownMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Wall tile

Featuring a white lily, the design of this wall tile from the Zsolnay factory was evidently influenced by mosaic art. The golden background is broken up into small irregular fields by white lines, giving the impression of mosaic pieces around the floral motif.

Wall tile (circa 1900) by unknownMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

The Zsolnay tile represented a low-cost and efficient, yet decorative, solution for interior decoration, a viable alternative to the labour- and time-intensive mosaic.

Ceramic that looks like jade

Jade stones have been carved in China for millennia. Usually pale green in colour, this semi-precious stone was highly prized for its assumed potential to bring good luck, fertility and healing. Liturgical, utilitarian and decorative objects were made of it: ceremonial vessels, seals, rings, jewellery.

NecklaceMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Necklace

These golden-plated medallions and beads from the Zsolnay factory, which feature a female figure and floral ornaments, were probably parts of a multi-tiered necklace. 

NecklaceMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Their surface is partly covered in a translucent green celadon glaze. Owing to its similarity to the colour of the valuable jade, celadon glaze was very popular in Asia, China included.

Ceramic that looks like a mineral with a crystalline surface

The porcelain manufactory of Sèvres, France, and the royal porcelain factory of Copenhagen, Denmark, were among the first to offer products with crystalline glazes in the second half of the 19th century. The glaze, which has a high zinc oxide content, becomes saturated as it cools, causing the zinc silicate to crystallize. Crystallization is an unpredictable, spontaneous process that cannot be controlled while it takes place.

Vase with crystal glaze (1902) by unknownMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Vase with crystal glaze

These crystalline-glazed decorative vessels from the Zsolnay factory were made around 1902–1903. The blue versions feature hues of agate.

Ornamental vessel with crystalline glaze, Sándor Apáti Abt, 1903, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Ornamental pot with crystal glaze, unknown, 1903, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Small vase, unknown, circa 1914, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Ornamental vessel, Sándor Apáti Abt, 1903, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Ceramic that looks like alabaster

White crystalline glaze gives ceramics the character of alabaster, which is a fine-grained, translucent type of gypsum. 
The perfume pots and small ornaments made from it were in-demand luxury items in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Middle East. 

Vase with crystalline glaze, unknown, 1903, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Ornamental vessel, unknown, 1910, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Vase, unknown, 1899-1909, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Marked by simple lines and a lack of ornamentation, this Zsolnay vase gives prominence to the elegance and beauty of the crystalline glaze.

Ceramic that looks like red marble

Marbling is a process that gives glazes of different colours the veining pattern of natural stones, in particular coloured marbles.

Ornamental pot (1897/1898) by Vilmos Zsolnay (pattern design - presumably)Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Ornamental pot

Nature was often a source of inspiration for Art Nouveau artists.

Ornamental vessel with lid (1898) by unknownMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Ornamental vessel with lid

The careful observation and study of the living and physical environment probably led to a recognition of the beauty inherent in the shapes and materials of nature, and a desire to visualise and represent it.

Ceramic that looks like diorite

Ornamental jug with relief decoration (1899) by Lajos Mack and Sándor Apáti AbtMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Ornamental jug with relief decoration

Designed by Sándor Apáti Abt (1870–1916), these decorative vessels are made of grès and have a thick wall, which gives them a block-like, monolithic quality. 

The eosin-glazed, stylized floral ornamentation on the tall ornamental jug is geometric in character. 

Vase with aquatic plants (1903) by Sándor Apáti AbtMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Vase with aquatic plants

On the other object, which is decorated with water plants, the two handles arch back to the body of the vessel like organic leaves, and are surrounded by the round patches of stylized duckweed leaves.

Ceramic that looks like bone

Beer mug (circa 1898) by unknownMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Beer mug

The Zsolnay factory started to produce the so-called Old Ivory series in 1888. The beer mug is decorated with a hunting scene and imitates an ivory vessel with a relief carving and metal straps—marked by a style and approach still in the spirit of historicism.

Vase with bird skullsMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Vase with bird skulls

The ornamental, eosin-glazed vase at the Museum of Applied Arts is informed by completely different sensibilities: animal bone is no longer represented as a raw material for art, but, startling as it may seem... 

...as a decorative element that is arranged around the body of the vessel, appearing in its naturalistic simplicity. Giving free rein to their imagination, Art Nouveau artists were unafraid to employ new and sometimes bizarre motifs.

Ceramic that looks like a painter’s canvas

Sándor Apáti Abt’s ceramic picture, Golgotha depicts Christ’s death on the cross as recorded in the Bible: under a darkened sky, the figure of a weeping woman (presumably Mary) can be seen in the foreground, looking in the direction of the Golgotha (Matt 27:31–55; Mark 15:20–41; Luke 23:33–49; John 19:17–37).

Golgotha (ceramic picture) Golgotha (ceramic picture), Sándor Apáti Abt, 1899, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Ornately framed, the function of this work of art is not utilitarian but decorative, as is the case with oil paintings; further, the subject matter is meant to serve contemplation. Produced with a technology developed for applied art, it is an autonomous artwork that blurs the traditional line between applied and fine art, a distinction based on function and usefulness.

The Réseau Art Nouveau Network (RANN) has designated a new central topic for the World Art Nouveau Day every year since 2017, and this year’s topic is 'materials in Art Nouveau.'

Vase with aquatic plants, Sándor Apáti Abt, 1903, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Vase with bird skulls Vase with bird skulls, László Mattyasovszky, 1900, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Vase with trompe l'oeil mount, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Ornamental vessel, unknown, 1910, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Vase with the so-called chased pattern, unknown, circa 1900, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Ornamental pot with crystal glaze, unknown, 1903, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Credits: Story

by Ildikó Kálosi (text), Sarolta Sztankovics (editing)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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