Dressed up for center stage, Dixon's porcelain collection takes breath away

A detail of the Meissen Harlequin and Columbine Dancing from the Commedia dell’ arte, ca. 1744.

A detail of the Meissen Harlequin and Columbine Dancing from the Commedia dell’ arte, ca. 1744.

The rearranged exhibit groups together figures such as the circa 1744 "Harlequin and Columbine Dancing from the Commedia dell'arte." The items previously were displayed according to manufacturer, placing figures with serving pieces.

The rearranged exhibit groups together figures such as the circa 1744 "Harlequin and Columbine Dancing from the Commedia dell'arte." The items previously were displayed according to manufacturer, placing figures with serving pieces.

Meissen teapot, circa 1725. The Dixon's collection includes "some great rarities," according to cataloguer Letitia Roberts, former head of the porcelain department at Sotheby's.

Meissen teapot, circa 1725. The Dixon's collection includes "some great rarities," according to cataloguer Letitia Roberts, former head of the porcelain department at Sotheby's.

Imagine dipping soup from a Meissen tureen from the Sulkowski Service, circa 1735. The lid is guarded by a roaring lion, clutching the owner's family coat of arms. It's part of the Dixon's permanent collection, featured in the "Fire and Desire" exhibit.

Imagine dipping soup from a Meissen tureen from the Sulkowski Service, circa 1735. The lid is guarded by a roaring lion, clutching the owner's family coat of arms. It's part of the Dixon's permanent collection, featured in the "Fire and Desire" exhibit.

Redecorators know: Move a familiar object to the right spot, add the perfect lighting, and see it pop in a fresh way. Just so, "Fire and Desire: A Passion for Porcelain in the 18th Century" at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens moves the Warda Stevens Stout collection of German porcelain out of its familiar gallery into the main exhibition space.

In room after room, the results are breathtaking. Visitors will enjoy a "where have you been all my life?" moment, and the show should prove a popular destination for friends and family groups through Jan. 20.

"The exhibition will run through the holidays, so there will be a number of special events," said Dixon director Kevin Sharp. "More than anything, we have taken works from the collection and displayed them in a different way. For one thing, we're putting the objects together thematically rather than by factories in strict chronological order."

In one room, there is a gathering of charming genre figures that capture slices of 18th century daily life in porcelain. In the main gallery, cases resemble grand visions for a dining scenario with centerpieces, tureens, chocolate pots and tea services.

A magnificent Meissen tureen from the Sulkowski Service, circa 1735, is topped with a roaring lion clutching the owner's family coat of arms. What a setting for the soup of the day!

Viewers can also spot the amusing costumed conductor of a Meissen monkey band, the regal busts of notable Habsburg rulers in all-white porcelain, or a very high-style interpretation of the traditional turkey platter.

"Porcelain is a huge part of our permanent collection with its own dedicated gallery," Sharp said. "I think we can improve the way the collection is interpreted and presented. And we're producing a catalog that was 20 years in the making."

With the collection removed, the dedicated Stout porcelain gallery is undergoing a light renovation. When it reopens on March 15, 2013, the long-anticipated scholarly catalog of the entire collection will be available.

To prepare the catalog, Dixon trustees chose two luminaries of the decorative arts world — Letitia Roberts, former head of the porcelain department at Sotheby's auction house in New York, and independent curator Dr. Christina H. Nelson. "The catalog will be a much-needed history of 18th century German porcelain through the lens of our collection," the director notes.

The Stout collection includes exquisite pieces from not only the prestigious Meissen factory near Dresden, but also other German workshops such as Hochst, Frankenthal, Ludwigsburg and Furstenberg. The 550-page catalog has been lavishly illustrated and will become a valuable reference for collectors.

Previewing the upcoming book, porcelain specialist Roberts, who has spent years working on the catalog, has written a history of Mrs. Stout's adventures as a collector: "She was buying at time when you could get just about anything you wanted — the '40s, '50s and early '60s — that's when the great things were being sold."

"It's a good representative collection, strong in early pieces," Roberts says. "She has some great rarities. For instance, the teapot with Italian comedy figures on it — that's desperately rare. Another rare piece is a tankard with chinoiserie decoration, which has a wonderful provenance from a very fine early collection."

"Fire and Desire: A Passion for Porcelain in the 18th Century"

At the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park, through Jan. 20. For more information, visit dixon.org or call 901-761-5250.

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