Ballerinas, Chryselephantine sculptures from the Art Deco period
20th century (1920-1930), Bronze and ivory
The history of chryselephantine sculpture is linked to the Belgian colonial empire and the exploitation of mineral resources in the Congo. At the end of the nineteenth century, minerals, precious wood and large amounts of ivory were imported from the Congo. Using these materials proved to be quite difficult, and the Belgian government did everything in its power to encourage it, supplying artists with the best pieces free of charge. A technique that had been used in Greece by Phidias and Polykleitos was eventually rediscovered, allowing the use of ivory and gold together, even in large-scale sculptures: ivory was used to shape the face and limbs, while gold was used in the parts covered by peplos and in the ornamentation. This lent the sculptures a realistic, life-like quality, that combined opulence with divine abstraction. Symbolist iconography informed the production of small-scale sculpture by a great number of artists: many of the works seen here are by Demetre Chiparus, the most important artist to create this genre of sculpture. He was born in Romania but soon moved to Paris where he started to produce many ballerinas in the Art Deco manner, portraying the theatrical movements of their dancing. The chryselephantine sculptures produced during the first two decades of the twentieth century are predominantly female figures inspired by ballet and music halls, but they are also often dressed as Harlequin, Pierrot and Colombina, or as Amazons, jugglers and clowns.