The ceramic figurine is caught dancing gaily, her billowing skirt held coyly in one hand, a delicate fan in the other. She is blissfully unaware that outside of her dream-like existence, she has created a world of preconceived notions of femininity. It seems a lot to assume of these little collectable statues, all meek upon grandmother’s mantelpiece. You’d marvel at her literally porcelain complexion while your gran shrieked in the background, “Watch it, she’s fragile!”
Ceramic, the product of fired and hardened clay, is what gives the figurines their brittle nature. Existing in many different forms, bone-china is the cheap, mass-production option with only the posh totties being crafted from porcelain. Both are equally as breakable – it’s a wonder she can survive the pressure from all of those preconceived expectations.
The European models date back to 1700s Germany, with the Meissen porcelain figurines made for the wealthy. Yet it was the late-Georgian to Victorian periods that imposed unrealistic porcelain-like expectations upon women. The figurines and women-alike would display themselves as nothing more than vanilla-flavoured eye candy.
‘Ladies of Leisure’, the Crinoline groups depict girls wearing bulbous hooped skirts in hopeless gaggles, waiting for the wooing hand of a gentleman. Before his arrival, a bluebird perches upon each of their palms to keep their hands warm; a typical image of gentle femininity. Alternatively, they’ll make themselves look busy, caught fanning their cheeks, pretending to read a book – no words, just blank pages – and taking shelter from the sun under a twee umbrella. One doesn’t wish to catch a tan now, does one? Historically, pale prevailed. A signifier of nobility, the servants would labor in the fields and catch the sun, allowing their masters to preserve a milky complexion. A perfect lady could never get her pure hands dirty. Her arms would also snap off if she tried to pick up a shovel. Gold gilded and dripping with fine, flower-embellished Dresden lace, she flails her arms about, responsibility-free, the unrealistic expectations endless. She’s missing a battered pair of trainers poking from the bottom of her petticoat to prepare her for the daily commute to work.
Cumbrian artist Jessica Harrison felt compelled to contradict porcelain ‘perfection’. In fact, Harrison thought the figurines would be better off strewn with blood, peeling the cursed pale skin from their own faces. Her provocative ceramic works ‘Broken’, use ‘found’ figurines to interpret female representation, the body and the gaze. An emphasis on re-interpreting existing pieces, Harrison claims, “there doesn’t need to be anymore in the world”.
The ceramic figurines become the protagonists in her work, draped in their own intestines still poised in their pink enameled gowns. Working to dispel the proliferation of overly feminine depictions of women, Harrison’s ‘Broken’ sculptures are ironically made wholesome again. She explains, “I do feel like I’m rescuing them a little, in the sense that they are being allowed to participate in their own actions. I don’t like the static image of the ‘perfect’ female that is depicted in the unbroken figurines.”
Rescued from the wordless books and all that prancing around, Harrison grants the figurines the choice to decide their own (if somewhat gruesome) fate. But unfortunately, there’s only one Jessica Harrison freeing the figurines from eternal feminine stereotype. The demure delicate statues who’ll only lift a finger to powder their noses are here to stay, presented on the pedestal of granny’s shelf.
Illustration by Lea Rimoux
Words by Alice Freeman