sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 6

Rachel King: Amber

For centuries, people across the globe have treasured objects carved in amber and written about the material properties and affordances of the medium from which these wondrous things were made. Yet for an artistic material as celebrated and desirable as amber, there is surprisingly little scholarly appreciation for the role it has played in cultural life. Recent studies have paid significant attention to materials like bronze, silver, gold, marble, ivory, silk, and cotton providing fresh insights into the resonances that these creative media held for their makers, collectors, and users across many cultures and time periods. English-language historical examinations of amber, however, have traditionally privileged the Baltic variety of the material and its European contexts of manufacture and reception. Rachel King's long-awaited critical overview of amber's historical significance is thus a welcome addition to the growing literature on materials' cultural valences - not only because it inserts a lesser explored medium into mainstream art-historical discourse, but also because it provides a range of new sources and interpretations that situate amber in a wider, global perspective: from its role in diplomatic gift-giving and long-distance trade, to its use as a currency in the buying and selling of humans, and its easy slippage into nationalist ideologies as an identity marker (including National Socialism in Germany). Written by a foremost expert on the subject, this lavishly illustrated book does not shy away from asking provocative questions, offering to bring the study of amber out of its relatively niche readership to new audiences and renewed recognition.

With an expanded purview of amber's role in history always at the fore, King's focus on the material's global reach and its local nuances is a cause for celebration. Indeed, much remains to be done to remove amber from its conventional role as an appendage to area studies: Its branding as a translucent artistic medium sourced from the Baltic Sea - and thus, by association, its German, and after 1945 also Polish and Russian character - has been the standard interpretation both in the region itself and in international scholarship. This geographic essentialism found its strangest expression in Nazi Germany where luxury bindings of amber for Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf gave fashionable form to nativist sentiment (126). The seven chapters of King's book contextualize the material's linkages to the region, while simultaneously taking us away from the southern Baltic realm to Sicily, Myanmar, the Dominican Republic, and anywhere else where amber has been sourced, fashioned, and appreciated. Encouraging a multicentered approach, King resists the temptation to only feature European authorities on amber like Georgius Agricola (1494-1555), Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), Andreas Aurifaber (1514-1559), and Severin Göbel the Elder (1530-1612), giving equal weight to authors in other parts of the world, for example the renowned Chinese naturalist Li Shizhen (1518-1593). Chinese artists, it seems, mostly worked amber of Baltic origin, though they also had access to burmite, a variety of the material from Myanmar (64). Amber-made figurines of cats - possibly crafted in the Roman Empire - were found in the crypt beneath a Tang-era temple, implying the material's entangled, interconnected history (65). In medieval times, Baltic amber travelled via Novgorod and Kyiv to Constantinople, and from there it began to spread through the Arab lands (67-68). Later, in the early modern period, Armenians and Jews set off from Danzig to carry Prussian amber as far afield as West and Central Asia, and even Bhutan (170). In Anatolia and the Balkans, amber was a common feature in smoking mouthpieces and hookah pipes, likely as a substitute for silver and gold, which were prohibited in objects designed for eating and drinking (138). There are less celebratory aspects of this transcultural reality, especially the use of amber beads as payment in Sub-Saharan Africa: a topic that remains to be fully explored, especially for its links to Transatlantic slavery (150-157). By pointing to both uncomfortable facts and lesser-known episodes in the material's global past and present, King has opened up troubling lacunae and promising directions in amber studies that will guide future research.

Just as it helps us better understand Central and Eastern Europe's ill-examined role in the slave trade and colonialism, King's monograph also invites its readers to rethink amber along the lines of recent attempts to frame artistic materials as an important nodal point for environmental art history and histories of resource extraction (chapter 4). For centuries, Prussian rulers claimed the sole right to extract amber under a droit de régale that deemed any unauthorized collection unlawful (74). Amber constituted nearly 40 per cent of the Teutonic Order's total revenue, which explains the strict legislation (76). When Prussia fell under the suzerainty of the kings of Poland, the regalian right was outsourced to a single family, the Jaskis, who held this privilege until the 1640s (85). Prussian beaches were out of bounds for anyone not working in the sea and even fishermen had to swear not to collect amber for their own profit, unless specifically asked by the ruler (79). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, amber was also extracted from the dunes of Samland, the peninsula north-west of Königsberg (86). This was an arduous and difficult process as amber deposits lay deep underground and miners only used basic tools like shovels. Makeshift pits and shafts can still be seen in illegal mining operations in Ukraine and Myanmar, manifesting the dangers of working in the informal extraction industry, now and then (94). And what an industry amber mining has been: by the nineteenth century, excavation of "Prussia's gold" - as the natural resource was often called - had become commercialized and automated, processing tonnes of material each year - with considerable damage to the local environment and ecosystems (90). This environmental destruction needs to be recalled when appreciating beautiful amber artefacts in public and private collections, and no reader of King's Amber will ever look at the material in the same innocent way again.

In the industrial era, around three quarters of the total harvest was transformed into amber oil, amber acid, amber varnish, pressed amber, and other industrial materials. Only about a quarter of the yield was suitable for working amber into art objects and jewellery, thus justifying the high prices carved ambers reached on the market, particularly in pre-modern contexts (90). Indeed, large objects could cost as much as sixty times the annual rent of a house in Danzig. Artworks by several early modern amber masters are signed, or can be traced to signed preparatory drawings, and are preserved in relatively high numbers in today's collections; these include the Königsberg-based Georg Schreiber (d. 1644) and Jacob Heise (d. 1667), and the Danzig-based Michael Redlin (1669-1688) and Christoph Maucher (1642-1706). Their ingenious and sought-after work demonstrates what could be produced in this medium during its early modern heyday (chapter 7). The wide variety of objects investigated by King, aside from revealing her mastery of the subject, also point to amber's dialogue with the lived experience of its beholders. The artists and patrons who enjoyed the feel, look, scent, and narrative potential of carved ambers appreciated them not for any fixed meaning, but precisely because their meaning was fluid and open-ended and, therefore, could travel across contexts and geographies. There were as many views on amber as there were amber enthusiasts.

As Agricola remarked in 1546, "there are no fewer opinions as to what amber may be than there are names for it" (10). Today's earth scientists continue to debate the specific geological mark when a yellow-looking resin matures into amber. Yet amber's age or its chemical composition are not exactly the reasons why the composer and piano virtuoso Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) passed amber through his fingers to relax and why the celebrated conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) - whose German last name translates into English as amber - used an amber baton to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (159). To them, amber's value may have lain somewhere between the affordances of the material, its colour and pleasantness to touch, the stories told to enliven it, its cultural prestige, and - ultimately - the object itself. King weaves all these strands and facets of amber's materiality and historicity into a highly readable account that foregrounds historical documents and sources without ever imposing arbitrary meaning onto the monograph's rich material. For this, and many other reasons, students and scholars of amber should be grateful for this book. Lucid, highly learned, and immensely stimulating, it will inevitably inspire further work in this exciting, if underappreciated, field.

Rezension über:

Rachel King: Amber. From Antiquity to Eternity, London: Reaktion Books 2022, 272 S., ISBN 978-1-7891-4591-5, EUR 40,00

Rezension von:
Tomasz Grusiecki
Boise State University, Boise, ID
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