Modern Classicist at Schmuck 2022. Robert Baines interviewed by Klimt02

Interview  /  Artists   MunichJewelleryWeek2022
Published: 01.06.2022
Robert Baines Robert Baines
Carolin Denter
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Robert Baines. Bracelet: Car bracelet, 2010. Silver electroplate, collected objects.. Photo by: Gary Sommerfield. Robert Baines
Bracelet: Car bracelet, 2010
Silver electroplate, collected objects.
Photo by: Gary Sommerfield
© By the author. Read Copyright.

Every year the special show SCHMUCK  honours a Modern Classicist in a retrospective. In 2022 this is the Australian Robert Baines. The former professor of gold and silversmithing at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) is one of the leading researchers in the field of archaeometallurgy and has studied and revived Bronze Age goldsmith techniques for more than 40 years. He has received several awards, including the Bavarian State Prize (2005) and the Cicely and Colin Rigg Craft Award (1997), Australia's highest craft award. His extraordinary works enjoy a worldwide reputation and are exhibited in museums in Paris, New York, Houston and Hamburg, among others. At SCHMUCK a selection of his most important works will be shown once again. 
The Handwerk & Design with its special shows SCHMUCK, TALENTE, EXEMPLA, and MEISTER DER MODERNE are a byword for most jewellery artists. How do you feel about the annual event? 
Those multiple annual surveys provide world opportunities worldwide for newcomers and practitioners in the field to show and test their work. I have the utmost regard for the organisation Handwerkskammer für München und Oberbayern and those that continue this service and a wonderful opportunity for artists.

You are honoured with the "Modern Classicist" retrospective at Schmuck 2022. This is a great honour, but it also goes hand in hand with responsibility, as the term classicism can mean setting standards in taste and creating an ideal. Please share with us some of your thoughts regarding being a Modern Classicist. 
 I don’t feel any responsibility for setting standards in taste or ideals.’Modern Classicist’ is a broad umbrella for what is happening in contemporary jewellery internationally.  It is a lovely gesture and opportunity to put forward a measure of my work spanning 50 years. 

This very limited showing of my work is an abridged autobiographical jewellery statement. The event is daunting but a privileged occasion to put forward my personal jewellery vocabulary and language. My researched idiom manifests a chosen subject and my hope is that the exhibition can give some account of various subjects I have pursued over time.  A fundamental condition is that the jewellery captures human drama and in that is a wealth of possibilities. The great limitation is the jewellery is shown in the absence of accompanying text.

My endeavour and direction are to build a contemporary statement referencing cultural history with jewellery as the vehicle.  There are dangers in this strategy as the work could be hastily dismissed because of its seeming preoccupation with historicity.
Making jewellery is a spiritual act and becomes an incarnation when there is the rendering of the invisible idea into a materialised visible object.  Building jewellery has the nature of spiritual choices while there is uncertainty in making art.  I have had the view for a long time that the work has to be positioned where it can be challenged universally and in showing it can be contested internationally.
Increasingly my undertaking has been to build a visual intrigue in the structural artifact where there is the availability of travelling visually through the piece.

Having chosen the direction of building linear structures and networks to convey the subject, my premise in the making is to expand the possibilities of systems of options and iconography.  It is building a jewellery vernacular.  This means that quite often time is spent just exploring technical factors quite absent from the subject or concept meaning.  There is an ongoing effort to arrive at a complexity.  Intricate positions from my own constructed vocabulary are a primary consideration without drawing from solutions of the readymade.

A retrospective always offers a fertile field for re-apprising and re-evaluating an artist’s course and oeuvre. What do you want the audience to understand or see, overviewing your work? 
Not all my jewellery is about history.  Some groups are abstractions that are sculptural in their complex structure and the colour systems of their componentry. I see it as art practice. The open structures are not confined to the material that they are made with.  Colour has a symbology to be engaged with. I decided to extend the meaning of my work by using red. Not confining red to its colour, but to the condition of red has many possibilities of meaning such as emotion, love, hate, anger, affection, danger, and forgiveness. Many of my pieces that followed were red. After some time this became tiresome in the making. The Claes Oldenberg statement: “Red is redder than green, it is meaner than yellow and bloodier than black”.  This was a release to use other colours and still talk about the ‘condition’ of red.

I do not consider the human form any further than ensuring the condition of wearability of the jewellery. There is sometimes a trade-off for the artistic statement over the expense of wearability.
Your retrospective at the SCHMUCK in Munich this year surveys more than half a century of activities and jewellery. How different is it for you looking back compared to looking forward now?
This is more like a survey, a glimpse and the restriction in the number of representative works cannot convey the intensity of all my jewellery subjects.  Most pieces are a representative excerpt of a subject and placing these together could project a seeming assortment of meaning. This is particularly so with my history pieces in which I have chosen bracelets as the vehicle with their absent accompanying story.
The premise in the making is that the historical works are considered technical and stylistic links with great masterpieces of the past. My jewellery research of scientific and technical factors are considered alongside their aesthetic and historical perspective.
The selection of the history works may appear challenging and confusing, and hopefully, a viewer unfamiliar with his sense of artistic ambiguity can easily be taken in.
In each work, there is a code to be unlocked to understand both the serious intent and the playfulness. Each jewel accompanied by a story (in this exhibition the story is absent) is posed as a riddle and in doing so asks some big questions about authenticity, about the idea of the bogus, and what after all is really real.
These historical jewels are all derived from a broad premise which is a question. Is it ever really possible to safeguard cultural history from sabotage, and more fundamentally whether trying to do so is even important?
And how do you think your older artworks will resonate with audiences today - will their reception be the same? 
 I have no insight into how a collective thought thinks.

You have been trained as a goldsmith first. Which work do you think of as your first real contribution to contemporary jewellery?
It is very difficult to measure one's contribution to a field of activity I haven’t always felt part of. I dislike the word trained. My learning experience has been an ongoing revelatory awakening in parallel with historical and technical conditions.
Clearly, my teaching activities at RMIT University are a clearer measure of contribution. It has been a great privilege over many years to have had a teacher-student learning relationship. It was never just about making but the consideration of ideas and this was the field for personal development I enjoyed very much.
Regarding our ongoing series about critique, I found one of your sentences from an earlier interview particularly interesting. You stated you would be not interested in the global and leave that imbroglio to its own rapacity, as well you mentioned you agree with Robert Hughes who sees a rush to insignificance in contemporary jewelry. What kind of impact do you think your work has had on the Australian or international jewellery scene?
I have shown very little of my work in Australia, though my ‘Living Treasure...‘ exhibition went to 13 venues. The jewellery politic in Australia is too overbearing. International impact is not easily readable though I enjoy lifelong friends in the field.

Can you explain a bit further what you mean by insignificance?
 In the 1960s Robert Hughes prophesied that he saw the future of contemporary art as a seeming ‘rush to insignificance’.  Contemporary art jewellery could be a parallel to this. It is a consumerist field with an easy pathway to the banal and is largely a self-referential movement.

The blank is a visual presence in your work and also allows your pieces to become relatively big, virtuoso-looking objects. You stated in an interview with Bonnie Levine that It is a binary world where space is more predominant than mass and this is a metaphysical place to work within. Can you speak to this relationship and how you marry both form and function in your designs?
In jewellery structure, I don't see space as blank. It is an empowered space imbued with meaning determined by a linear boundary. Some works are expressions of a binary world within a belief that there is a visible and an invisible world, whether things on earth or things in heaven, and where the light shines out of darkness and there is a beginning and an end.

Your pieces are very detailed and filigree. Between your fine wires and ornaments, there is a lot of blank space, as mentioned above. The constructions remind me partly of the scaffolding that supports 3D printing when freshly out of the printer.. Especially the electroformed or Powdercoat objects have sometimes the outer appearance of plastic. In some pieces, you also use found objects of different materials.
The jewellery word filigree as description is anathema in my thinking. The preliminary structures of filigree rely on tension and pressure prior to their soldering campaign. There has been so much bad jewellery done in the name of filigree.

But have you ever thought about making your pieces with the help of modern technologies like 3D printing? How do you see the use of modern technologies in goldsmithing in general?
I have no interest in computer-aided making methodologies but I do regard the intimate proximity to the fire during the making as critically essential. 
Following up on this question, what meaning has the value of material for you? I imagine one can be dazzled by glamour and pomp while studying historical jewellery, and treasuries. 
Working with principally silver and gold alloys seems to be a premise for my manufacture. It is within this frame of knowledge I can expand my rudimentary vocabulary to expand the repertoire of making. Choosing the most appropriate material as a vehicle for my subject is a highly critical condition.


About the Interviewee

Robert Baines is both a jeweler and scholar. One of the most prominent contemporary goldsmiths in the world, he is the recipient of numerous international awards, amongst them the Bayerischer State Prize (2005) and Friedrich Becker Prize (2008) from Germany; and the Cicely and Colin Rigg Craft Award (1997), the richest craft prize in Australia. He holds a PhD from RMIT in Melbourne, where he is a professor of gold and silversmithing. In 2010, he was designated a Living Treasure: Master of Australian Craft. Baines’ astonishingly detailed metalwork, which reflects studies in archeometallurgy, embodies ancient techniques such as linear wirework and granulation but with the scale, grandeur, and irony of current practice. He sometimes incorporates objects, either found or fabricated, into his complex “worlds.” His work is in countless international museum collections, including National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Powerhouse Museum, Sidney; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Schmuckmuseum, Pforzheim; Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg;and Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris.

About the author

Carolin Denter
 completed her training as Goldsmith at Master School for Craftsmen in Kaiserslautern in 2013. From 2015 to 2016 she made an Internship as Content Manager at Klimt02 in Barcelona. In 2017 she graduated as Bachelor of Fine Arts in Gemstone and Jewellery at the University of Applied Science Trier, Campus Idar-Oberstein. After her graduation, she worked as Assistance at Campus Idar-Oberstein in the Gemstone and Jewellery Departement till the end of 2019. Since 2020 she is Marketing and Content Manager at Klimt02.