Cybis ‘First Flight’, Times Four (and a half)

One of the fascinating aspects of chronicling Cybis Porcelain sculptures is how often a piece that appears simple and straightforward can turn out to have a complicated ‘life story.’ Take, for example, the one known to most collectors as First Flight. There are four known versions of this design – if versions is indeed the correct word – plus one that might be called a “spinoff” (that’s the ‘half’.)

First Flight

FIRST FLIGHT by Cybis view 1

The first plot twist regarding this figure concerns its introduction year: We have three “dueling dates” appearing in different Cybis publications! The 1978/79 catalog Appendix says that First Flight was introduced in 1966 and retired in 1973. This contradicts the 1970/71 museum exhibit catalog Cybis in Retrospect (whose information was obtained from Cybis) which states that it was introduced in 1959. The earliest Cybis price list I currently have is the one from Spring 1963; it includes First Flight (Kneeling Girl with bird) within the category of “Objects d’Art”. This suggests that the 1959 issue year is probably the correct one and therefore the 1978/79 catalog is in error (and not for the first time.)  The 1963 price was $20, which does correspond to the catalog’s reporting of an issue price of $20, however. I have a copy of their Spring 1973 price list, on which it appears at $40, as well as a Spring 1974 list on which it is noted as Retired but still available for purchase at $50.

First Flight is attached to a wood base and is 4.5” high overall. Her Cybis design number is 410 (non-religious human figures were assigned design numbers beginning with 4.)

First Bouquet

FIRST BOUQUET by CybisIn 1976, the studio designated a variation of First Flight as their dealer-event piece for that year and titled it First Bouquet. It is identical to First Flight except for the substitution of flowers for the bird, and a different color hair ribbon (orange, to match the color of the flowers.) It, too, is attached to its wood base.

Not all dealer-event pieces were given names, but this one was. We acquired ours at Brielle Galleries and, if my memory hasn’t failed me, I believe the price was $75. The typical production quantity for a designated event piece was 200, but I think that there may have been more of these made, given its relatively low price. Not all Cybis retailers offered an event piece, and the designated quantity was the production total – not the total assigned per retailer.

Because this was a retailer-event piece, First Bouquet does not appear on any Cybis-printed price lists and so we don’t know if she was given her own design number; probably not. Thus, both First Flight and First Bouquet disappeared from the Cybis landscape before the end of the 1970s.

First Flight/Bouquet with Infant Jesus

The discovery of this piece upended everything that I thought I knew about the foregoing pieces, because it appears to be a ‘nativity’ (??) version of First Flight/Bouquet!

I first spotted this in one of the 2019 lots during one of the Cybis studio’s liquidation auctions. The auctioneer, having hundreds of Cybis to dispose of, grouped the pieces into multi-item lots according to various themes. Most of the other pieces in the lot were religious subjects such as madonnas and angels, although there were also some doves. Several things combined to suggest that this was a 1950s piece.

The baby’s mold appeared to be the same as in one of the 1950s Nativity Murals. The only change was the addition of a longer swaddling cloth around his legs. The base also suggested some of the naturalistic 1950s groupings such as the Woodland Bear Scene which also has a tree trunk or stump. The workmanship of the flowers and leaves is also 1950s-style. The brownish tone of the figure also appeared to be ‘Cypia’ which is only found on 1950s pieces.

There was only one photo of this piece and no mention or photo of the underside where one would expect a signature to be. Clearly, I thought, what we have here is the mold for First Flight but with a scarf (‘babushka’) added, although the intention/meaning of the composition eluded me. Was this supposed to be a peasant girl and her baby on an outing in the forest, field, or garden? Anyway, the most logical assumption was that this was probably a mid-1950s precursor to the 1959 introduction of the familiar First Flight.

It turns out that I was not even close.

The Museum of American Porcelain Art was the high bidder on the lot that contained this piece, so I contacted them to ask how (or if) the piece was signed or marked on the bottom. I was curious to see whether the Cybis name was stamped (as many 1950s items were) or hand-signed.

I received photos from them shortly after I had uploaded a new Archive post (now deleted) presenting my theory that this could be a 1950s piece in Cypia coloration. Clearly, the brown was notCypia’ but was yet another case of a sculpture being absolutely filthy from having been stored in abysmal conditions!

This photo also showed what the auctioneer’s had not: The baby is wearing a halo, clearly identifying him as Jesus and thus, this is indeed a nativity/religious piece. However, I still don’t think that the girl was intended to be Mary.

What completely gobsmacked me was the presence of a mold impression and registered-trademark symbol, instantly blowing my “1950s” theory to bits. This profile-style mold impression was not used by the studio until the 1980s!

The good news is that there is a design number on the underside (4065.) The bad news is that this number should NOT correspond to a religious piece. Religious pieces, including all nativity figures, were assigned numbers with 2 as the first digit. The 4xxx series belonged to non-religious human figures.  Let’s examine this mystery piece (which I suppose we should call First Flight/Bouquet with Infant Jesus because we have to call it something) further, thanks to additional photos kindly sent to me by MAPA after the piece’s final cleaning.

Here we can also clearly see what I’d originally thought were flowers or leaves on the branch/stump, but is actually a tiny bird! It is the same bird that was originally held by First Flight, of course.

These two angles show that two changes were made to the girl’s hair. First Flight and Bouquet both wear it as a single long braid down her back. Here it is unbound, with a scarf added over it.

What at first had appeared to be the same baby mold that Cybis had used for their 1950s nativity set turned out, on proper inspection, to not be. The pose is very similar, but the heads are different. The problem is, the “Flight/Bouquet” baby doesn’t match any other known Cybis mold either. This may have been a “head swap” with the baby that was used for their 1980s nativity set (it is not exact, but is closer than the others), or a mold that was designed sometime in the past but never used for anything.

The workmanship of the flowers and leaves perplexes me, because they look much more like circa-1950s work than what the studio was doing in the 1980s. I’ve stared at photos of small 1980s flower decorations until my eyes almost crossed, and these still look more “fifties-ish” to me. ‘Tis a mystery.

The 4065 design code dates this firmly to the 1980s even if the phoenix mold impression wasn’t there. Design #4064 is Persephone who was introduced in Summer 1988. Design 4062 was Little Gymnast who was introduced sometime between Fall 1983 and February 1988 (I am missing price lists for those intervening years so can’t pinpoint her.) Design 4068 was the Cupid Bowl Award which came out sometime between 1991 and 1993. So, we can confidently say that this mystery piece was created in the late 1980s even if they didn’t actually produce it for retail.

Those missing (for me) mid-1980s price lists also raise the possibility that this may have been offered as either a retail or dealer-event piece for a very short time during those four years. Without having any of those lists, I cannot say for sure, but their 1986 catalog makes no mention of anything like this. Because the example at MAPA is not signed Cybis, I think it more likely that this was either a ‘concept’ piece or something that was cobbled together “just for fun.” Quite a bit of that took place during the 1960s and 1970s, but the workplace ambiance had noticeably changed by the late 1980s so I’d consider that scenario less likely. But, still possible. Then, of course, there’s the next example!

Peasant Girl with Rose

I have no idea what this piece may actually have been called – if anything – or even whether any others exist. Peasant Girl with Rose seems as good a name as any.

She is the girl from First Flight/Bouquet with Baby Jesus but in color and as a stand-alone item.

Unlike her predecessors, she is not affixed to a base. She is signed on the bottom, in typical post-1960 brown-paint style. There are no mold impressions, and the underside is not ‘finished’ as nicely as a normal retail piece would be.

Knowing that this piece was once in the collection of someone who was acquainted with Marylin and Joe Chorlton personally, and who purchased a lot of Cybis, I strongly suspect that this was some sort of test piece or maybe created as a special order or gift. The rose she holds is definitely of 1970s or 1980s workmanship. In fact, it had become detached from her hands at some point and was only placed there for photography purposes when these pictures were taken. Because she is cast from the First Flight mold but isn’t affixed to a base, she is probably four inches high.

First Bath

This piece is the ‘and-a-half’, or spinoff, introduced in 1993 as First Bath (companion to First Flight), an open edition for $325. Dimensions are given as 5.75” high and 6.75” wide. Her design number is 5083; the studio had begun assigning 5xxx design numbers to some human figures during the mid-1980s.

She is ¾” taller/higher overall than the two retail “Firsts” (First Flight and First Bouquet) and I am not certain that she is cast from the same mold as they were – although it would be an easy matter to tweak her hair and hand/arm positions, or to upsize it. In fact, it may be that this mold is the earlier one! I have found only two photos of this piece: the one that used to be on the Cybis studio’s website during the early 2000s, and this one from the auctioneer that conducted the liquidation sales in 2019. It was in a multi-item mixed lot of ‘child’ pieces, and is obviously missing her bird.  Along the bottom edge, where the Cybis signature can be seen in the studio’s website photo, the copyright year impression 1992 can be seen (although not a signature.)

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