‘The Phoenix’ – An Unusual Cybis Bird Head

Every now and then something utterly unexpected from the Cybis studio comes to light, such as the discovery of a very unusual limited edition that was available for a relatively short time.

(Some of this content originally appeared as a previous Archive post that described this sculpture as a gallery-exclusive special-event piece. However, official Cybis literature has just been found that positively identifies it as a normal limited edition that was available to order through any Cybis-affiliated retailer.)

First, some backstory. During the 1940s and early 1950s Boleslaw Cybis created a variety of plaster decorations for his first two studios and also for his eventual home in Princeton. As more fully described in the 1940-1968 Studios post, a number of these were face and/or body casts taken from life – often using his studio employees as the models. Sometimes only an expanded torso cast was taken which was then topped by a fantastical artistic representation of an animal head. Many of Cybis’ plaster creations were mounted on the walls and ceilings of the Church Street studio, as seen in the photo below.

The studio relocated to a new building about a decade after Boleslaw Cybis died; the old plaster decorations were placed in the new building’s warehouse for storage. Sometimes the Cybis moldmakers would experiment with making porcelain molds from the old plaster pieces, just for fun, and also with doing their own life masks in plaster and porcelain. Marylin Chorlton always encouraged such creative endeavors and in fact at least one casting was taken of her face and also of her hands.

This photo from the Spring 1982 Brielle Galleries Cybis event shows the stage erected for the presentation of a special award to Tony Randall (artist Dorothy Kaminski and Joseph Chorlton shown with Mr. Randall) with the latticework stage backdrop decorated with the plaster casts from the early Cybis studios. There is a body cast with a bird’s head attached to the latticework backdrop at the far left. It’s not known if these were the actual original plaster models or replicas made for this particular purpose, but they are definitely not made of porcelain.

We now need to fast-forward a few months, to the color brochure that introduced the 10 new Cybis pieces for Fall 1982. It features Sleeping Beauty as the cover photo, and a beaked bird head named The Phoenix on the back.

The Phoenix

The Phoenix is the same bird head that was displayed atop the plaster torso at the Spring 1982 Brielle Galleries event. The introductory brochure text reads:

Inspired by the mythological figures which adorned the walls of the original Cybis Studio. The Phoenix is named for the legendary bird consumed once every thousand years in a flaming pyre from which it sprang in renewed splendor. To the artists of Cybis this is the perfect symbol for the yielding clay which emerges from the kiln’s heat as exquisite porcelain.

This is an impressively sized piece that is 18.25” high overall including the wood base (this is the same base that Cybis was using for their Eros child head bust at the time) and 14.5” across at the widest point.

Notice that the left and right sides of the bird’s crest are different and thus offer a choice of effect depending on positioning. These are not only very dramatic but also a striking departure from what one would normally expect to see in any post-1940s Cybis pieces. It was a limited edition of 100 pieces.

The material is, of course, bisque (white) porcelain. All have the Cybis signature and an individual sculpture number applied in brown paint. One bird is #13 and the other is #24.

According to an artist who was at the studio during the 1980s, The Phoenix was a cast taken from the original 1940s plaster bird head mold that was also used for the Brielle event stage decoration. The ‘cleanup’ and delineation of the detail work was then done by Susan Clark Eaton. More versions of this same 1940s bird head mold, but with differing decorations, that were sold during the studio’s 2019 liquidation can be seen in the 1940s Papka and Porcelain post.

Unfortunately, the 1982 brochure does not include prices for the introductions, and my next “official” Cybis price list currently in hand is from February 1988; The Phoenix does not appear on it, which means the edition was either completed or ended early by then. However, I do have a major retailer’s own list from April 1983 and this piece is not on it. This indicates that the studio had already taken 100 orders (or had closed the edition early) and thus the retailer could no longer offer it even as soon as six months after introduction. I would like to find a Fall 1982 or Spring 1983 price list from Cybis themselves which would of course have included the retail price of this piece. (The 1982 catalog was printed before The Phoenix was introduced.)

It is quite possible that this unusual piece was only available for a year or less, which would place it among the shortest-term limited editions as well as one of the most unexpected in design. At least one of them was made into a lamp base by the studio:

This is part of one of the realtor’s listing photos taken when the building was put up for sale in early 2019. Another photo shows the Dream of Venus as a lamp as well, so apparently the old “Cordey lamp legacy” popped up one last time! The Cybis studio never offered a lamp as a retail item.

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