When I was 19 I shared a house with three crazy girls. The house was filled with eclectic stuff collected from op-shops, a wild collage of housewares that had accumulated from years of rental since paleolithic times.
The only things I’ve kept from those days are some dear friendships. I know of only one object that endures from the same period: a large porcelain crab, The Crab, as it’s known to us. Its purpose is mostly decorative but when called upon could used to serve dip from its shell-lidded body while its legs make spaces for crackers, celery sticks and the like.
Some people might mistake The Crab for a piece of 50’s-60’s-70’s kitsch, but it’s my belief, that The Crab has Provenance. I don’t mean it’ s an antique, but it has a story and heritage that elevates it from being just a quirky piece of china.
It all began in Portugal.
Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro was born in Lisbon in 1846 into an artistic middle class family. He rapidly became an accomplished caricaturist and made his name first in Brazil then in Portugal as a satirist, writing and drawing for the major publications of the time.
Rafael became quite famous for being a pain-in-the-arse. He was against conservatism, conformity and corruption. He had a wicked sense of humour in creating a little man called Zé Povinho, a peasant and everyman whose most famous pose means “Up Yours!”. Through him, Rafael took sides with the powerless and the poor, in all their apathy, ignorance and discontent.
After about 20 years of stirring up trouble, Rafael abruptly pulled up stumps in Lisbon and relocated to Caldas da Rainha.
Rafael and his much less famous brother opened a ceramics factory dedicated to both utilitarian homewares and artistic endeavour. Rafael continued to apply his sarcastic and political wit in his work as a ceramic artist and sculptor. The high quality of their products became world renowned and as well as directing an arts school Rafael produced large scale commissions, imitating all kinds of fashionable art styles from Art Nouveau, to revivalist Manueline and Palissy (a 16th century French ceramicist who made plates piled with dead things). With clay, he lampooned well known society figures and expanded his family of characters, including Ze Povinho, into 3D. His work was prolific and extremely varied.
Somewhere along the line came the cabbages. As a part of the kitchenware range he designed a range of tureens, bowls and plates styled on cabbages. In Portugal, the cabbage is a symbol of rural life, of peasant life. You don’t normally see it on restaurant menus but cabbage is grown in every kitchen garden north to south. Caldo Verde, a cabbage soup, is a national dish. So you might say Rafael’s cabbages were yet another ambiguous smirk at society. Perhaps he fancied the irony of a bourgeois Parisian housewife with a plebeian cabbage as her table centrepiece. From the cabbages came all kinds of other horticulture, plates of fish for fish, and hence, crabs, I suspect, for crab dip.
It took only 10 years after Rafael’s death (in 1905) for a museum to be created to celebrate his work. Today there are two museums under his name and various others housing private collections. The factory, Faianças Bordallo Pinheiro, was recently saved from bankruptcy and continues to make beautiful ceramics both very stylish and very funny.
If there is further proof of his talent, endurance and timeless fashionability, Rafael imitations can still be found for sale on the other side of the world. Here’s what my sister found in a Sydney furniture shop on the weekend…