LONDON — In early 2021 the Victoria and Albert Museum announced, then reneged on or revised, sweeping cuts across its workforce in an attempt to save £100 million a year following devastated visitor numbers from COVID-19. Uncertainty still hangs over curatorial and expert staff, and the museum has benefited from emergency government funding. Meanwhile for the general British public, October 2021 saw a government budget which indicated high inflation and taxes will squeeze households over the coming 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 shouldering the now everyday burden that is living with COVID, and in terms of moral integrity.
Against this backdrop, it is a curious decision to bank on a major Fabergé blockbuster, opened 20th November, to tempt punters back into the museum. The V&A has a strong history of superb blockbusters focusing on popular culture to guarantee sell-out runs, such as Bowie in 2016 and Dior in 2019. Yet, while the V&A justifies focusing on Fabergé in an academic sense — focusing on its little-known London outpost — these jewels exist in the highest elitist echelon in terms of populism; they were created for consumption only by royalty and aristocracy. People may aspire to Dior, but Fabergé exists in another universe.
The brand Fabergé (the Francophile name is derived from the name Favri, to appeal to the French speaking Russian aristocracy) under Carl Fabergé became famous for pushing jewellery to the extremes of artistry, and for patronage of the ruling Tsars. Tsar Alexander III first commissioned a Fabergé egg as an Easter gift to his wife, which became a tradition each year continued under his successor Nicholas II. So legendarily precious and complex are these eggs that they have become a byword for insane expenditure, lampooned by the Simpsons character Bleeding Gums Murphy by likening it to a bigger waste of money than an opiate addiction.
Fifteen have been assembled here as the show’s grand finale. They are celebrated as exquisite examples of craftsmanship, yet they were produced solely to be “intimate gifts” between the imperial family. Similarly, English creations displayed include hardstone portraits of the farm animals King Edward and Queen Alexandra bred at Sandringham, and an incredibly rare figurine of a veteran English soldier. This is art created for the enjoyment of a handful of select people. The gulf between the lives of the ruling classes and the masses is echoed by the V&A statement that there will be extra security bag checks for visitors — the commoners given this rare glimpse into the playthings of people who seemingly occupy another planet, the highest strata of unattainability. If the V&A wanted to bring in punters with a populist show, pretty much any other luxury brand would have been more relatable.
What adds to the queasiness of this show is its emphasis on “the romance, glamour and tragedy of the Russian Imperial family.” These romantic words breeze over the wider and more brutal connotations of autocratic Tsarist rule under Nicholas II, which saw widespread hardship and low morale for the general populace stemming from the devastation of the Russo-Japanese war, the First World War, and the domestic uprisings leading to the February Revolution of 1917 and Nicholas’s eventual abdication. The Fabergé workshop ceased production with the 1918 Bolshevik rise to power and swing to Communism after a government too long informed by the interests of capitalists. The show speaks of a “global fascination with the joyful opulence of [Fabergé] creations,” yet the “joy” is tainted by the contrast between an out-of-touch ruler and the suffering of the public during the time of their production.
We are in no means as dire a situation as that of the Russian Revolution, but it is difficult to view these exemplary jewels in such a time of austerity and governmental corruption dispassionately, with the “joy” that we are intended to. Think also of the extra security required, not to mention costs of production and insurance in mounting such a show when elsewhere V&A expert staff are facing redundancy and an uncertain future. There is surely a time and a place for a show such as this, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it at present. While many in Britain suffered loss of work and habitat during the economic downturn, segments of the luxury goods market traded healthily as the wealthiest individuals continued to spend. Perhaps this show is for them, who can afford to shop at the currently operating Fabergé store in Mayfair.
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