25 June 2010

Q & A: Vladimir Kanevsky

Tree peony blossoms in a Chinese vase.

NOTE: This interview with artist Vladimir Kanevsky was published back in March 2010, and I post it again as a virtual thank-you note. Yesterday a large box arrived at the post office and tucked inside, wrapped in mounds of tissue paper, was a branch of tree peony, adorned with two lustrous pale-pink blooms made of the most delicate porcelain. So fragile did it seem that I was afraid to set it down for awhile, so instead I walked around the house with it cradled in my arms until I could find a safe display location. Vladimir, thank you for this extraordinary evocation of eternal spring. And dear readers, I will be rebuilding the AAL archives a bit at a time, so please forgive me if some of the articles posted now and again are ones you've already read.

Auriculas in antique porcelain cachepots.

If Madame de Pompadour were alive today, the taste-making mistress of French king Louis XV would surely be haunting the Fort Lee, New Jersey, studio of artist Vladimir Kanevsky. The Ukraine native’s specialty is magical flowers, each an elegant, naturalistic composition of hand-painted porcelain and tôle, all of them in small editions. These meticulously crafted artificial plants, in fact, are very much what was in vogue at the French court in the mid 18th century, a place where exquisite artifice held center stage in art as in life.

“I dreamed of being a sculptor but needed something to pay my rent,” says Kanevsky, a native of Ukraine who moved to the United States some 20 years ago with $100 in his pocket. Somewhere along the line he met interior designer Howard S. Slatkin, who asked if Kanevsky could reproduce an 18th-century porcelain melon, and the artist confidently accepted the challenge—even if he wasn’t entirely sure of the manufacturing specifics. “Actually I had only a very rough idea of what needed to be done,” Kanevsky admits. “I knew I had to take porcelain clay and put it into a kiln. So I started experimenting at home, using the kitchen stove.”

The melon was a success and for several years Kanevsky worked almost exclusively for Slatkin & Company, the designer's glorious little shop on East 70th Street in New York City, now since closed. In the years since then Kanevsky has been laboriously cultivating a garden of earthly delights under The Vladimir Collection marque—gooseberries laden with soft green fruit, a rose bush dappled with blossoms and rose hips, a camellia tree tenderly tied upright to stake, a hydrangea whose broad leaves bear evidence of nibbling insects. Delicately painted porcelain dahlias raise their fluffy heads above blanc-de-Chine cachepots, and fruiting strawberries emerge from handmade terra cotta vessels smudged with moss. Kanevsky’s work also includes handcrafted tableware, from leaf-like dinner plates in the style of 18th-century Chelsea ware to tureens shaped like blue-ribbon cabbages. The brilliance of his work has attracted legion collectors, including fashion designer turned entertaining maven Carolyne Roehm and interior decorators Howard S. Slatkin and Charlotte Moss (she bought his first lily of the valley). Prices range from $95 for tiny plates measuring 3.5 inches across to $4,800 for a tôle-and-porcelain arrangement of three hyacinths in a ribbed pot, one bloom hosting a delicate butterfly. Custom-made items are priced differently. To see Kanevsky’s offerings and place orders, click here to visit the website of The Vladimir Collection.

A friend of mine is an ardent Kanevsky fan, which is how I was introduced to the artist’s portfolio. The ravishing arrangement of white hyacinths at the center of her dining table is one of his creations, its nodding porcelain blossoms nestled into an 18th-century latticework basket. She also owned one of his towering black hollyhocks, but no longer. “I am always swapping and trading up,” she explains. Her latest acquisition is the bush of white roses standing before a mirror in her sunny bedroom. “It is one of the first things I see each morning,” my friend says, “and the novelty has not yet worn off.”

White porcelain hydrangeas in a terra cotta pot.

An Aesthete's Lament: Vladimir, you are one of the world’s preeminent flower sculptors but people might be surprised to learn you started out as a modern architect.

Vladimir Kanevsky: City planning was one of my specialties, and I designed several new districts in Saint Petersburg, where I moved from Ukraine. I still do a bit of architecture; I designed a villa on the Black Sea for a client. I also designed a neighborhood in Moscow but somebody else developed it. My life is nearly all about the flowers now.

AAL: You’ve come a long way since the days of using your stove as a makeshift kiln. How many workers do you have in your studio?

VK: About five people, who do technical work. Unfortunately I cannot delegate; I like to control everything. My wife, Edita, and I always quarrel about whether we should hire more craftsmen. I always refuse because I like to work with my hands, not to teach people. That is why I quit architecture. I like to touch things and feel things. I enjoy shaping and painting.

AAL: Your own preference is for modern sculpture, and you have spent many years sculpting nudes in bronze. So why focus on porcelain flowers? It’s so dix-huitième.

VK: I think the flowers connect my modern side with my retro side. Someone from the Cooper-Hewitt Museum came to my studio one day and said my flowers are traditional in concept but that they are modern because of the context. Which I think is true. I’m not making them for kings; I’m making them for modern people who put them in contemporary surroundings.

A camellia tree in an antique Chinese ceramic vessel.

AAL: Where do you get your ideas for the flowers?

VK: Everywhere—seed catalogues, paintings, books. For a collection I showed at Bergdorf Goodman I used Carolyne Roehm’s book about flowers [A Passion for Flowers] and studied the photographs very closely. She actually came to the show, recognized what I had done, and bought nearly the entire show! I was stunned. It was a perfect circle.

AAL: You’ve been working a lot with old containers recently, ones clients have supplied. Why is that?

VK: I don’t like making the same things all the time, so this way I can make special custom-made arrangements only for that client and that container. It also gives me an opportunity to participate in a dialogue. It’s a lot of fun to do. The flowers and the container have to look right together, like they are married. I made some flowers for the Chinese Porcelain Company using old Chinese containers, and it was an incredible positive working experience for me. The camellia I made for one container was too big, so I had go back and look at the relationship all over again, to remove some branches and make the arrangements smaller until the container and the flowers were in balance.

AAL: Working with old containers must inform your craft too.

VK: The great thing about working with old containers is that I can study them closely, especially antique porcelain ones. It helps a lot in my understanding of 18th-century painting and glazes and to keep that tradition going.

A group of Kanevsky designs, including a cabbage soup tureen, a potted lily of the valley, and Chelsea-style leaf platters.

AAL: So you are always looking back in time.

VK: I love European porcelain of that period very much. Not only does it have a wonderful history, it is very playful, it has life. It’s not just a model of something, a reproduction of a flower. It’s a sculptor’s idea of how a flower should look, so it has more personality than just a perfect copy. I also study Soviet porcelain too, especially propaganda porcelain of the early 1900s, which can be excellent. Very avant-garde artists of the time were commissioned to paint and sculpt. Sometimes they used porcelain molds made before the Revolution but would use them to create radical figurines and china.

A lilac bush in a terra cotta pot.

AAL: Tell me about one of your recent commissions, a rose bush, which you did for a friend of mine.

VK: She helps me a lot, actually, sending me seed catalogues and photographs of things she has seen that might inspire me or showing me old pieces of porcelain I can study. Her taste is impeccable. Originally she wanted a lilac but the lilac I make is very elaborate, with a thousand little flowers. She wanted something simpler so we discussed making a large rose bush with several large white roses instead; I placed it in an old English terra cotta pot.

AAL: Your latest catalogue is incredible. I’ve looked at it practically every night since it arrived.

VK: What’s pictured in the catalogue is often different that what’s available in the studio. I make a lot of special flowers just to sell in the studio, items that are one of a kind.

AAL: What are you working on now?

VK: I’ve started making chandeliers, unusual ones. One of them is shaped like a tomato plant.

AAL: If you ever start to explore weeds seriously, give me a call. I would like an arrangement of Queen Anne’s lace or cow parsley.

VK: Weeds would be a very different niche!

A Chinese rose in a blue ceramic vessel.


Tara Dillard said...

Those white porceline hyacinths look like hydrangea blossoms.

Is there a hyacinth with hydrangea type blooms? Must have them !!

Glad you are back.

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

Anonymous said...

"...And dear readers, I will be rebuilding the AAL archives a bit at a time, so please forgive me if some of the articles posted now and again are ones you've already read."
Unnecessary. This could start a trend.

[SCENE: Spotlit circle on Gold Curtain]

ANNOUNCER: Ladies & gentlemen: Good evening. The Board & Staff of the Metropolitan Opera apologizes if you have already seen "Aida".

balsamfir said...

I'm so glad. You deserve it, and we all love the work, which is beautiful, amazing, refined, elegant... I am going to download the interview this time for future reference(with credits attached).

An Aesthete's Lament said...

I don't know why I write "hyancinths" when I plainly mean "hydrangeas." Could this be Freudian? Unsure, but thanks. I corrected it.

An Aesthete's Lament said...

Dear Anonymous, Would that I could write something like "Aïda"! Or "Tosca," which is my fave. Thanks for giving me a good chuckle.

An Aesthete's Lament said...

Dear Balsamfir, I remain terrified of breaking it. At present the tree peony branch is held firm in its temporary location with two bits of museum wax until I figure out where to safely display it.

P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

that is gorgeous! don't you just love surprises like that. pgt

Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Welcome back!!

And fabulous news that the archives are returning. Thank you!

home before dark said...

Delightful in every way.

Quatorze said...

Enjoy the eternal spring of that tree peony branch, a gift certainly worthy of La Pompadour.

mary said...

I think that Kanevsky's work is truly unbelievable. So life like and beautiful, Thanks.

Anonymous said...

In this often dark and worrisome world, it is heaven to see you back and look again at the glorious work of Vladmir Kanevsky. Thank you for returning and don't go away again.

Anonymous said...

These are magnificent! They remind me of the glass botanicals at Harvard.
So good to have you back inspiring us.
I'm ading you to my blog roll.

julian Wright said...

I hope you will share a photograph of your new piece.It sounds beautiful and I may want to add one to my own collection.I am so glad I found your blog...

Unknown said...

Aahh...An Aesthete's Lament bringing beautiful prose and ideas back to our computers to enjoy.
Thank you.

china flower delivery said...

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Vladimir said...

What a great surprise! The blog is back! Thank you!

A British writer Patricia Cleveland-Peck wrote to me that the blog is back.
Also she writes (I hope she will forgive me for quoting without permission):

“Do you know this blogger? If you do try to persuade him to continue the blog even if the full ones are less frequent. As a professional writer I know the amount of work that must go into
each one but he was/is so good. ..and is missed…”

I absolutely agree and hope that the blog will go on with “ posts about decoration, fashion, art, architecture, entertaining, design history, personalities, and more.”

By the way Ms. Cleveland-Peck is working on a book about Auricula (history, cultural meaning etc.). Good luck to her.

Virtual thank-you note received with gratitude!
Thanks everyone for comments and opinions. Very important for me and my work. I am having a few days off and finally can sit at my computer and read leisurely.


sophiedahydesigns said...

I absolutely loved this interview! Loving flowers as I do, it was especially interesting to me. I am totally in awe of him and his work!!!

Vladimir Kanevsky said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nick Heywood said...

!!! I stopped checking in because of how sad it made me each time, but finally couldn't stay away -- and viola -- words, and the promise of a returned archive!

Overjoyed. Thank you much!

I hate exclamation points, but am compelled to use them.

Dovecote Decor said...

I'm going over the edge again. These are porcelain, but you can find spectacular tole versions for a sliver of the price of Asprey's at the Pink Door in Greensboro. I remember my Mother taking me to see the glass flowers at Harvard and being stunned that the man died without sharing his secret. I guess I'm entering the N.C. lottery again with hopes for these. I can be a very greedy girl! Forgive me!!