Figurative ceramics underwent a revival in the first part of the 20th century, with Doulton beginning a series of modelled figures in Britain just before the First World War, Meissen advancing its tradition of figure-making with the recruitment of new modellers in Germany, and parallel developments in Austria, Hungary, Denmark and Italy. Within modelling there was a strong counter-current to modernism, a revival of Rococo, an inevitable dialogue with 18th-century porcelain, whether Chelsea or Dresden.
Vally Wieselthier (1895 – 1945), lead ceramicist of the Weiner Werkstätte, won Gold at the Paris Expo in 1925 for her figure Vanity, a remarkable fantasy in porcelain reminiscent of Dresden but wholly modern, playful and mocking, showing a woman at her toilette with African and Chinese attendants. Vanity was not unique though, and a similar piece, Lady with a Moor, had been designed by Paul Scheurich, a brilliant sculptor employed by Meissen, in 1919. Scheurich’s clothed figure, however, is less ironic, more restrained.
The similarity of Wieselthier’s and Scheurichs’ work disguises different artists and very different intentions. Wieselthier was from a bourgeois Jewish Viennese family. Vanity was in many way an untypical work. Her other ceramics were more experimental and expressionistic. In 1928 she left Vienna for New York and established her career there before her premature death.
Sheurich (1883 – 1945) was a much more establishment figure, designing German banknotes in the 1920s and 1930s, continuing to work under the Nazis, for whom he designed a tapestry at the Reich Propaganda Ministry. As early as 1907 he had illustrated an anti-Semitic pamphlet in Berlin about the “Judaization” of the theatre.