"... and still I am an exile in my own country - this does happen sometimes" (from a letter by F.P. Birbaum to the Academician A.E. Fersman, Switzerland, dated 22 February 1921) (1)
What caused Franz Petrovich Birbaum to make such a bitter admission? Which country did he regard as his own -
And who can give us the answers to these questions, which are of the kind to
which there are no answers, like "who was a mother to you, the one who
gave you birth or the one who fed you, nurtured you and helped you all your
life?" Why did the Swiss Birbaum feel like an exile in his native land?
Perhaps because he was torn away from his mother country, "Mother
Russia", where he had spent 27 happy years, and was cast into exile,
"returned to place of registration"... indeed not an easy experience
for a man of 48, the chief workmaster and designer of the largest and, by
general admission, the best jewellery firm in the world. He never returned to
his adopted country for" well-earned retirement", as had his great
predecessor and fellow-countryman Jerome Posier, court jeweller to Catherine
the Great. It was early for him to retire, and he was full of creative ideas,
apparently still planning the designs of the surprises for the Imperial Easter
eggs of 1918. Alas, those ideas were fated never to come to fruition. Switzerland
He tried to find oblivion on the mountain slopes of his native land, but his memory persistently took him back to
, to the
Bolshaia Morskaia, to the "House of Faberge", as it was generally
known in the capital. Sometimes he would recall his life in the two-storey
wooden house on the Petrograd side of Lakhtinskaia Street, where he and his wife
Ekaterina lakovlevna rented a flat from the owner, Alexander Petrov, a master
enameller of the firm. It might have been here, on the Lakhtinskaia, that
experiments in enamel work were continued with Petrov's sons, Nikolai and
Dmitrii - those very enamels which brought fame to the House of Faberge.
Birbaum's wife, whom he had already noticed among the pupils of the Baron
Stieglitz Central School of Technical Drawing in the late 1890s, died in
starving St. Petersburg
on 1 July 1918. St. Petersburg
The Faberge workshops had already ceased their operations, and Franz Petrovich would sell brooches he had made himself at auctions. The owner of such a brooch, purchased, or rather exchanged for food, in 1918, never suspected that it had been made by a jeweller through whose hands most of the Imperial Easter eggs had passed. Some work turned up at the Peterhof Imperial (now "former Imperial") Gem Carving Factory, where Birbaum often met the Academician A.E. Fersman, of whom he had of course known of before as the author of the first Russian monograph on the faceting of diamonds. Two great experts and amateurs of gemstones thus found each other, and spent long evenings conversing about the beauty and poetry of gemstones. Whereas the ex-Soviet reader knows of only one gemstone expert, A.E. Fersman, the Academician, being an honest man, acknowledged Birbaum's supremacy in gemology. Yet we know nothing, or almost nothing, about Franz Petrovich: can this be because he left
in May 1920? But how could
he have been regarded as one of those emigres who generally could not be
Franz Birbaum's life history can be divided into three parts. The first, from 1872 to 1893, was spent in Switzerland, culminating in his graduation from the jewellery department of the Fribourg Polytechnicum; the second, from 1893 to
1920, a period of 27 years, in Russia with the
House of Faberge, the last two years at Peterhof; and the last, another 27
years, from 1920 to 1947,
in Switzerland again. This last period of his life is
shrouded in mystery. All we know is that in 1925 Franz Petrovich was divorced
from his second wife, Evgenia Petrovna llyinskaia, and during that same year
married, for the third time, a Swiss lady named Hortense-Marguerite Dupertuy.
It is perfectly possible that in marrying E.P. llyinskaia as his second wife at
Peterhof in February 1920, Franz Petrovich was simply helping a talented artist
of the Faberge firm, daughter of a State Councillor and a graduate and former Paris pupil of the Baron
and escape persecution. The Faberge biographer G.C. Bainbridge tells us that
towards the end of his life Franz Petrovich engaged in making cheese: we can be
sure that he was successful in this venture too, for whatever this master
undertook always turned out to be first class; apparently he could not do
otherwise, so strict were the requirements of the Faberge school. According to
the same biographer, Carl Gustavovich himself was a great gourmand and gourmet,
and indeed a feeling for composition is as essential for a master jeweller as
it is for a great chef. Unfortunately, we do not know of any
"Birbaum" or "Faberge" brand of cheese, but we do all know
that Swiss cheese and Swiss chocolate serve as universal quality standards. Russia
The "Russian Swiss" Franz Petrovich Birbaum died at
, on 14 October 1947, at
the age of 75, having lived one year longer than his teacher Carl Gustavovich
Faberge. Aigle, Switzerland
Franz Birbaum was born on 6 September
1872 in Fribourg. a small
Swiss town with a population of about 10 000. The Faberge firm had already
existed for 30 years in ,
and it was in that year 1872 that its leadership was taken over by an energetic
26-year old merchant and master goldsmith, Carl Faberge. St. Petersburg
How did Carl Gustavovich become acquainted with young Franz? No information is available on this subject, but it may be supposed that Evgenii Carlovich Faberge, the eldest son of the owner of the firm, who had studied at the Hanau Academy, came to Fribourg to choose assistants for the rapidly expanding business: a large establishment had been opened in Moscow in 1887, the chief jeweller August Holmstrom was over 60 years old, and here was a gifted expert who was not only familiar with technology, but was apparently a splendid designer - a very rare combination. In fact, speaking in modern terms, the duties that Franz Petrovich performed for the firm were those of chief engineer, while at the same time he was among its foremost artists, being both an artist-compositor - in other words, a designer - and a miniature painter. In addition to all this, he carried out the duties of chief technologist, for which his reports on enamel working and casting techniques show him to be eminently fitted (2). Yet Franz Petrovich had not studied at any geological or technological institute or any academy of art: how, then,: could he have found time to familiarize himself with the latest technical innovations, to draw sketches for pieces of jewellery and to write serious articles on problems of the development of the jeweller's art? We cannot but marvel, not only at Franz Petrovich's many-faceted talents, but also at the skill and intuition shown by Carl Faberge in choosing like-minded assistants. It was indeed the presence of such talented collaborators that built up the renown of the firm, which really was "one large family". Many of the artists who worked for the firm subsequently became professors - B.O. Froedman-Clusel. G.I. Malyshev, C.F. Seidler, L.G. Strich and A.C. Timus - while R.R. Bach, A.N. Benois, L.N. Benois, L.C. Marshner, A.L. Aubert, M.V. Rundaltsev, F. Grunberg-Salkans, G.K. Savitsky, F.P. Schechtel and K.K. Schmidt either were or later became Academicians. What a constellation of names!
Franz Petrovich himself probably never gave a thought to whether or not he deserved the title of professor or academician. He had no time for such vain considerations, having worked for the glory of the firm from the age of 21, and felt quite at home among colleagues who had such titles. The biographer G.C. Bainbridge wrote of Birbaum "... after Carl Faberge.I put him at the top. Nobody had a bigger share in deciding the eventual shape and colouring of Faberge objects than he". (3)
"As I think of him", Bainbridge continues, "I see a rather frail man of medium height with a moustache and neat Vandyke beard, a quiet, gentle man of a fine humour, much after the pattern of Faberge himself".
G.C. Bainbridge was impressed by the friendly atmosphere that prevailed in the firm and by the fact that all the employees addressed each other and Carl Gustavovich by their names and patronymics, a familiarity which would have been unthinkable in a British firm.
"There was always something to watch", Bainbridge writes, "when Birbaum went into Faberge with his designs. He did not take a step into the Holy of Holies or the Lion's Den; there was nothing of "sir" or "chief" about his entrance and after-behaviour".
"Francois Birbaum, the chief designer, and those working with him, were responsible for very many" (designs), "but it was a sine qua поп that these should be submitted to the head of the House before further work was continued on them and that the last elaborated sketch was further submitted for examination in every detail".
Franz Petrovich's own memoirs and Bainbridge's work bear witness to Birbaum's close creative collaboration with Carl Faberge, who was for him a teacher and friend, and only in the last instance a master. Franz Petrovich describes his teacher in the warmest terms, giving examples of Carl Gustavovich's Gallic wit, and also has kind words for the prematurely deceased youngest of the brothers, the talented artist Agaphon Gustavovich.
For nearly 15 years Franz Petrovich served as treasurer of the Russian Industrial Art Association. The activities of this organization, whose members were practitioners of the decorative and applied arts (mainly graduates of the
), consisted of enhancing the
qualifications of its members and organizing competitions and exhibitions. The
first chairman of the Association was the architect I.A. Halnbeck, chief
librarian of the Stieglitz School . In 1917 the
Association had 93 members, including 17 employees and artists of the House of
Faberge - F.P. Birbaum, I.A. Halnbeck, F.A.Grunberg-Salkalns, M.V. Musselius,
M.D. Rakov, G.K. Savitskii, A.K. Timus, C.F. Zeidler, G.G. Oeberg, E.E.
Jacobson, I.A. Armfelt, G.E. Wigstrom, A.A. Holmstrom, P.M. Kremlev, V.G.
Nikolaiev, N.. Petrov and E.C. Faberge. The Association was under the high
patronage of the Grand Duke Georgii Mikhailovich, a well-known coin collector
and numismatist and Director of the Stieglitz
School . Russian
In 1912 the Russian Industrial Art Association organized a "Design Competition in the name of the court jeweller C. Faberge", presumably to celebrate Carl Gustavovich's 40th year at the head of the firm and the 70th anniversary of its foundation. Franz Petrovich won the first prize in this competition for his design of a pectoral cross, thus earning for himself a fitting present to commemorate his 40 years with the firm.
The archives of the Academician A.E. Fersman contain a testimonial issued to Birbaum two years after the October revolution.. The text reads as follows: "Franz Petrovich Birbaum completed a course at the Polytechnicum of Fribourg (
) and served for 25
years as chief supervisor of the artistic jeewellery workshops of the House of
Faberge. The most important creations of this firm were executed after the
designs of F.P. Birbaum, who frequently received high awards at exhibitions of
applied art. At the present time he is a senior master craftsman at the
Peterhof Gem Carving Factory and a member of the Gemstone Department of the
Commission on Russian Production Forces of the Switzerland . Academy of Sciences
"Original signed by A.E. Fersman, 7 November 1919." (4)
This testimonial was required for his appointment to a new post, that of head of a department of the
Institute of Architectural Technology of the .
The heads of other departments chosen at the same time as Birbaum were V.F.
Levinson-Lessing (a future Academician), the Academician A.E. Fersman,
Professor M.V. Farmakovskii and Professor N.N. Kachalov (another future
Academician) - so high was the required level of qualifications. It was this
post that Birbaum left to return to Switzerland, and on 28 May 1920 Academician
A.E. Fersman writes that "in view of F.P. Birbaum's return to his native
land, a replacement should be found for him, and it is proposed to enter into
negotiations with Agathon Carlovich Faberge and Alexander Franzevich Kotler,
who are eminent experts in jewellery techniques and have scientific training
and wide practical experience". (4) Academy of Material Culture
While setting up a jewellery and gemstone carving workshop at the Institute of Architectural Technology, F.P. Birbaum made heroic efforts to preserve the equipment of the F.P. Woerfel factory and the Faberge workshops, but the Sovnarkhoz (People's Economic Council) had already handed over the Woerfel factory workbenches to other enterprises, and in May 1920 Franz Petrovich announced at meeting ot the Academy Council that the Faberge workshop equipment also could not be obtained, because the Sovnarkhoz would not give its permission. As early as September 1919. it had been proposed to invite the master craftsman Nukian to head the newly re-established workshop (there seems to be an error in the Academy's archives - the reference is most probably to Gabriel Nukkianen). (4)
The autumn of 1919 was a period of tireless work for Franz Petrovich, and a school of arts and crafts was reopened at the Peterhof Gem Carving Factory in October, under the supervision of Birbaum and llyinskaia. At that time too, in starving
. Franz Petrovich delivered a popular public
lecture, with an epidiascope, on the theme of "The Stone in Art", in
which he expressed a number of seminal ideas. Thus, he regarded the working of
precious and semi-precious stones not only as a means of creating material
wealth, but as a sphere in which stones become the objects of artistic creativity,
promote the discovery of national artistic potential and consequently acquire
the status of national resources. Art in its turn is also a productive force,
motivating various forms of production and thus enhancing the national welfare.
Another tribute to Birbaum can be found in the archives of Academician A.E. Fersman, who noted in his analysis of the situation of Russian gem-carving in 1919 that "the most normal conditions were to be seen at our large stone-working factories, for instance, at Woerfel's and particularly over the past ten years at Faberge's, where, thanks to the talented and thoughtful Birbaum, the staff have learned to combine the "incombinable" and to harmonize stones with leather and stones with bronze". (6)
It is difficult at this stage to determine how Birbaum reacted to the revolution. His critical attitude to the
Imperial Court may
be seen from his memoirs, which also bear witness to his appreciation of the
leading representatives of the bourgoisie who showed respect for artistic
creativity. In May 1916, when Carl Faberge's jewellery firm was turned into a
company, Franz Petrovich .became a member of the Board, with a salary of 5 000
rubles. Business was not bad, and even after the February revolution the shop
on the Morskaia was crowded, the customers being revolutionary sailors carrying
bags of coins, nouveaux
riches and new commissars.
Then suddenly everything collapsed, but although he could hardly have been
pleased by the new regime, Birbaum worked actively in the Union of Artistic
Workers, which had nominated him as the member of the Executive Committee for
artistic matters in April 1918. Others elected with him to the Applied Arts
section were such well-known personalities as A. Golovin, M.P. Dobuzhinskii,
D.I. Ivanov, V.S. Shcherbakov and V.V. Emme.
The quality of the membership of other sections of the Executive Committee may be seen from the following list of names: the composer K.A. Glazunov, the sculptor L.V. Sherwood, the painters Y.P. Annenkov, I.I. Brodskii and K.S. Petrov-Vodkin, the writers M. Gorkii, L.N. Andreiev and D. Merezhkovskii, the actor Y.M, Yuriev and the art historians A.N. Benois and Count V.P. Zubov.
Franz Petrovich prepared for the Union of Artistic Workers a report on the problems of the development of the art industry, once again coming to the defence of applied art: "Until quite recently, it was customary to divide art into the pure and the impure, or applied, the latter being regarded as something interior. Do we have to point out how erroneous this view is? The artistic value ot a work depends on the element ot creativity invested in it - not on the material in which it is executed, but on how it is executed" (italics by F.Birbaum - V.S).
"Many ceramics, both ancient and modern, are works of art, while many paintings hanging in living-rooms are anti-artistic objects.
"The equal value of applied art must be acknowledged, and its best manifestations must be accepted for art exhibitions.
"At the same time, it is essential to encourage the best artistic, scientific and technical personnel to participate in artistic creation" (2)
In December 1918, after visiting the Peterhof Gem Carving Factory on behalf of the Industrial Arts Department, Birbaum prepared his proposals for the resumption of the factory's operation. During the same period, he drew up a report on the unification of the Detskoie Selo bronze-casting, gold and silver work, jewellery and enamelling workshops in a single "artistic metal-working factory", accompanied by a draft Statute and plans and cost estimates for the workshops which it was proposed to set up in the Fedorovskoie village of Tsarskoie Selo; the report was sent to the industrial arts sub-department of the Representational Arts Department. In preparing this material, Franz Petrovich drew upon his pre-revolutionary organizational experience, when as a member of a commission composed of artists, manufacturers and craftsmen he had drawn up at the instructions of the Russian Industrial Arts Association a plan for workshops for the training of invalid soldiers: that was how Birbaum saw his contribution to the fighting at the front. (7)
Early in 1918 Franz Birbaum wrote his article on "Applied Art and the Art Industry" (the manuscript has not been published), which contained the following passage:
"The art industry of
, which has always been in a
condition of backwardness and stagnation, has now been destroyed by the
whirlwind of events (here the adjective "political" has been crossed
out by Birbaum - V.S.). We are now faced with the task of re-establishing the
industry, and in doing so it will be essential to avoid the organizational
shortcomings which caused its stagnation. We hardly needs to point out that,
now that art is destined to become ("the people's heritage" crossed
out by Birbaum - V.S.) closer to the people, the role of applied art as the
best means of conveying artistic culture to the masses acquires a special
significance. The objects concerned are to be seen everywhere, and depending on
their quality can either convey artistic culture or inure the viewer to being
surrounded by ugliness". (5) Russia
The words crossed out by Birbaum are significant. Like many members of the Union of Artistic Workers, he dissociated himself from politics, crossing out the word "political", and further on wrote that art was destined to become closer to the people, not "the people's heritage". Indeed, Birbaum was able to see for himself what happened when works of art became the heritage of the people - Agathon Faberge's country house was completely looted.
Before the revolution, the general trend in gemstone working as an applied art was not to try to incorporate stones into everyday life, but to regard them as luxury and decorative items or as trinkets. Faberge combated that trend, not without some success. In the article just quoted, F.P. Birbaum rightly observes that "objects of the art industry must primarily become articles in everyday use" and that "art must introduce an element of beauty into objects which are in constant view and use".
"There can be no doubt, however, that such a transition from the sphere of luxury goods to that of utilitarian articles will lead to mass production in factories, and this is also dangerous. In the German gemstone working industry, mass production has destroyed creative individuality and has alienated the artist from his work". To avoid going to such extremes, Birbaum proposes a series of measures, for which he gives some interesting motives: "The Russian art industry is at an early stage of development, when handicraft still predominates over factory production. From the artistic point of view, this is a favourable situation, since hand work always bears the individual stamp of the master, whereas mass production lacks this stamp which is artistically so valuable.
"With the development of factory production, apart from general measures for raising the cultural level, it is essential to provide the factories with models designed by first-class master craftsmen and manufactured in State art workshops. Modern technical improvements have made it possible to reproduce models with facsimile precision, and we shall thus be able to supply the market with artistic reproductions of first-class originals". (5)
Franz Birbaum's ideas were extremely pertinent, but history prevented them from being put into practice. When he was already in
he offered his services as representative of Russian gemstone carving and
porcelain factories, submitting proposals for their development, but his offer
met with no response. Switzerland
Even before the revolution, Franz Petrovich wrote a number of articles for the journals "Yuvelir" (The Jeweller) and "Iskusstvo i Zhizn" (Art and Life), some of which contain the master's interesting reflections on the future development of a Russian
"The time has come to give more serious thought to the problems of applied art. If a national style is indeed to re-emerge, it must assume more cultured forms". (8) The artist advocates functionality for Russian-style products: "When articles are manufactured, we have the right to demand that they should correspond to our real needs, and should not. only serve decorative purposes" (8)
"A style is created by a combination of two factors - national artistic creativity and the cultural requirements of the time. It is not created by one person, but by whole generations. A national style will not be developed in our country until we have artists who are imbued with a Russian creative spirit and with contemporary culture".
These reflections are most profound and help us to understand the specific character of the Faberge style. According to Birbaum's theories, this is not the style of a single firm, but that of the Russian national jewellery school of the second half ot the XlXth and the early XXth centuries. The style was not created by one man, Carl Faberge, who only gave it his name, but evolved through the creative work of the jewellers of such famous Russian firms as "Nichols and Plinke", "Sazikov", "Khlebnikov", "Ovchinnikov", "Bolin", "Morozov", "Grachev Brothers" and other excellent masters, although it is most strongly and consistently expressed in the works of the artists of the House of Faberge.
It seems to us that even a brief perusal of Franz Petrovich's writings shows what an outstanding person he was. and that it would be most desirable to collect all his articles and to publish them in a separate book. We hope that our readers and fellow-researchers will find some new, hitherto unpublished literary works of the chief workmaster of the House of Faberge.
Birbaum's full name was Franz-Peter, so that he, like Peter-Carl Faberge, bore a second name meaning "rock" - a significant coincidence! For such he was in life, a gentle and kind man, but rock-like in his defence of the aesthetic principles he had espoused as a youth when entering the service of the House of Faberge. These principles may be summarized as "BEAUTY and USEFULNESS".