Updated: Apr 15, 2022
Forget plain white plates--how about dishes shaped like cabbage leaves, pitchers resembling sea shells, and a tea set wrapped in fern leaves?
Majolica (pronounced ma-JO-li-ca), an exuberant 19th-century style of ceramic ware that is molded into naturalistic shapes and glazed in vibrant colors, is now in the spotlight of a new exhibition at NYC’s Bard Graduate Center Gallery, "Majolica Mania."
The show, which was canceled twice due to COVID-19, has opened at last and will run through January 2, 2022. It will then travel to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Potteries Museum in England. Comprising 380 pieces displayed over four floors, it is the largest exhibition that the Bard Graduate Center has ever presented. With its delightful shapes and bright jewel colors, the vibrant tableware is bound to bring a smile to your face.
Majolica was first introduced in England by the ceramic manufacturer Minton & Co.
at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Minton developed colorful, lead-based glazes that could be simultaneously fired onto a glossy surface. “Other materials like porcelains had to have colors fired individually, so this innovation was less expensive and more affordable,” notes Earl Martin, Associate Curator at the Bard Graduate Center.
At the same time, modelers were designing new and unusual textured shapes for tableware and household objects. Molds were made of the objects, and clay was forced into the molds to create the factory-produced pieces. With scientific advances in the 19th century, Victorians were interested in botany, zoology, and Darwin’s ideas of evolution. Majolica reflected this fascination and often featured plants, flowers, birds, and fish. The result could be, for instance, a garden pot decorated with textural foxgloves and ferns, and painted in woodland hues of green and brown with a rosy pink interior.
The new invention grew in popularity, and soon enough there were dozens of English and then American potteries making majolica. The growing and prosperous middle class on both sides of the Atlantic sought to decorate their homes with affordable, beautiful things, bolstering the demand. Later, however, with the simplicity and austerity of Modernism, majolica began to fall out favor and be viewed as a marker of Victorian excess.
It was also found that the dust from the lead used in glazes was unhealthy, and production came to an end. Majolica faded from view until the 1970s, when collectors started enthusiastically buying it again.
Today, majolica is both desirable and collectible, and the show at Bard sheds new light on the art. “The purpose of our exhibition program is to look at understudied areas of decorative arts design and take a very in-depth, research-based academic approach,” says Bard’s Martin. “One of the underlying goals of this exhibition is to get people to take another look,” Martin notes.
Of course, some followers need not be encouraged. Beyond the ebbs and flows of fashionable trends, ardent fans have for centuries admired the delightful natural ornamentation and richly glazed colors of majolica.