How could it be a good time for a Fabergé show at the V&A?



LONDON – In early 2021, the Victoria and Albert Museum announced, and then canceled or revised, sweeping staff cuts in a bid to save £ 100million a year in the wake of visitor numbers devastated by COVID- 19. Uncertainty still hangs over curatorial and expert staff, and the museum has received emergency government funding. Meanwhile, for the UK general public, October 2021 saw a government budget that indicated high inflation and taxes will squeeze households over the next few years, and a corruption scandal engulfing Parliament continues. There is an atmosphere of one rule for the ruling elite, another for the masses, both in terms of carrying the now daily burden of living with COVID, and in terms of moral integrity.

In this context, it is a curious decision to bet on a major blockbuster of Fabergé, inaugurated on November 20, to try to return to the museum. The V&A has a long history of great blockbusters focused on popular culture to guarantee sold-out series, like Bowie in 2016 and Dior in 2019. Yet while the V&A justifies focusing on Fabergé in an academic sense – in itself focusing on its little-known London Outpost – these gems exist in the highest elitist echelon in terms of populism; they were created for consumption only by royalty and aristocracy. We can aspire to Dior, but Fabergé exists in another universe.

The Fabergé brand (the Francophile name is derived from the name Favri, to please the French-speaking Russian aristocracy) under Carl Fabergé became famous for taking jewelry to the extreme of art and for patronage of the ruling tsars. Tsar Alexander III first ordered a Faberge egg as an Easter gift to his wife, which has become a tradition each year that continued under his successor Nicholas II. These eggs are so legendarily precious and complex that they have become synonymous with mindless spending, mocked by The Simpsons character Bleeding Gums Murphy as a bigger waste of money than an addiction to opiates.

Fifteen have gathered here for the grand finale of the show. They are celebrated as exquisite examples of craftsmanship, but they were produced only to be “intimate gifts” between the Imperial family. Likewise, the English creations on display include hard stone portraits of the farm animals King Edward and Queen Alexandra raised at Sandringham, and an incredibly rare figurine of a veteran English soldier. It is art created for the enjoyment of a select few. The rift between the life of the ruling classes and the masses is echoed by the V&A’s statement that there will be additional security checks for visitors – commoners given this rare glimpse of toys from people who apparently occupy another planet, the highest stratum of unachievable. If the V&A wanted to attract punters with a populist show, pretty much any other luxury brand would have been more accessible.

Installation view of Fabergé in London: from romanticism to revolution

What adds to the unease of this show is the emphasis on “the romance, glamor and tragedy of the Russian imperial family.” These romantic words hover over the broader and more brutal connotations of the autocratic Tsarist regime under Nicholas II, which saw widespread hardship and low morale for the general population resulting from the devastation of the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, and national uprisings. leading to the February 1917 revolution and the eventual abdication of Nicholas. The Fabergé workshop ceased production with the accession to power of the Bolsheviks in 1918 and the switch to communism after a government too long informed by the interests of the capitalists. The show speaks of a “worldwide fascination with the joyous opulence of [Fabergé] creations ”, yet the“ joy ”is colored by the contrast between a disconnected leader and the suffering of the public during the time of their production.

We are by no means in such a dire situation as that of the Russian Revolution, but it is difficult to see these exemplary gems in a time of austerity and government corruption without passion, with the “joy” that is destined for us. Also consider the extra security required, not to mention the production and insurance costs to put on such a show as V&A expert staff elsewhere face layoffs and an uncertain future. Surely there is a time and place for a show like this, but it sure doesn’t look like it right now. While many people in Britain lost their jobs and homes during the economic downturn, segments of the luxury goods market traded healthily as the wealthiest individuals continued to spend. Maybe this fair is for them, who can afford to shop at the currently operating Fabergé store in Mayfair.

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