The Amber Room by Inga Walton

It was a gift so extravagant few recipients could have been worthy of its amazing grandeur. Often described as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, the Amber Room (Bernsteinzimmer) was commissioned by Friedrich I (1657-1713), first King in Prussia, for Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin. Installed 1701-09, it consisted of some 100,000 pieces of carved amber panelling, inlaid with jewels, backed with gold leaf and mirrors, and would eventually cover some fifty-five square metres. At a time when amber was twelve times more valuable than gold, the six tonnes it incorporated represented an astonishing display of craftsmanship and regal magnificence.

On a state visit in 1716, Tzar Peter I ‘The Great’ of Russia (1672-1725) admired the opulent room, prompting King Friedrich Wilhelm I (1688-1740) to present it to him. This cemented their alliance against King Karl XII of Sweden (1682-1718) in the Great Northern War of 1700-21. Thereafter, it was installed first at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and then at the Catherine Palace, the Rococo imperial summer residence at Tsarskoye Selo. In October, 1941 the Amber Room was dismantled and looted by the Nazis, one of their many egregious acts of cultural vandalism. It was taken to Königsberg Castle in East Prussia (since 1946, Kaliningrad in Russia), where it was partially displayed for two years. After which, it was never seen again.1

The fate of the Amber Room after 1945 has become a source of endless speculation, conspiracy theories, and the quest of numerous treasure-hunters; most recently in February, 2008. Robert Doble positions his latest and most beguiling body of work within the escapist legacy of this now mythical space. The glowing and intensely detailed paintings represent a return to his earlier, uncompromising palette of blackened tar, burnt umbers, metallics, and deep reds. These earthy tones reflect a childhood spent on the edge of Dartmoor with its granite tors, bogs, and Bronze Age remnants. In mid-2006 Doble relocated his workspace from a laneway off Bridge Road, Richmond to the seclusion of Denver, in South-Western Victoria, near Daylesford. This represents the most ideal and creatively liberating studio situation Doble has ever worked in, allowing him to react more freely to disparate influences, and consolidate his vision undisturbed.

Doble has drawn elements from the Amber Room’s convoluted history and reconfigured them as a cohesive and deeply personal dreamscape: a journey which in some way parallels our own troubled path to ascendancy and redemption. The works play upon the contrary properties of Amber itself: a resin hardened over millennia; an organic ‘gem’, but not a mineral; a fossil which both preserves and traps; inert but vital; a polished tomb delicate enough to crumble; transparent but unfathomable. Amber becomes metaphoric of the impermanence and fragility of all living things, a theme which has long preoccupied Doble. Winged creatures populate the frames, each conferring a different meaning. They are expressive of transience within the natural world, glorious forms destined for a fleeting existence.

Bees are the dominant motif; prevalent in symbolism throughout the Egyptian, Roman, and Christian traditions. They variously represent industry, monarchy, prosperity, interdependence, and the rational. Honey has long been used as a means to illustrate moral teachings, and associated with Christ in devotional and mystic texts. Bees are closely linked with St. Ambrose (c.338-97), on whom it is said a swarm settled whilst he lay in his crib, leaving behind a drop of honey as a harbinger of future eloquence. With the bee came the decision to work entirely on wood, like an apiary, or hive borne aloft in a tree. Doble selected the boards for their knots and grains, and how these might govern the execution of a particular work. It has also allowed for a more aggressive edge, of scars and stitch-marks, the surface incised with a grinder. Natural pocks in the wood have been filled with local specimens coated in shellac.

Amber, with its capacity to smother and ensnare, could also be perceived as oppressive. Several works explicitly address mortality and suffering, of life suspended, or in the balance. Doble ruminates on his past diagnosis with Lymphoma: of being bolted to a gurney under the claustrophobic confines of a heat-resistant plastic targeting mask for radiotherapy; immobilised by injections of methotrexate into the spinal canal (intrathecal space surrounding the spinal cord) to circumvent the blood-brain barrier; and tethered to a vincristine drip for his chemotherapy. Cell fragments, broken sections of honey comb, gusts of pollen, and falling leaves drift across backgrounds of golden dew drops suspended from heavy webs. To fade and decay with the passage of time follows the biological process of senescence, as living organisms age. Doble has long been influenced by the artistic tradition of ‘Memento mori’ (‘Remember you will die’ or ‘Remember your death’) and ‘Vanitas’ works. Though from his personal experience, it would be more appropriate to characterise such expressions as ‘Memento vivere’’ (‘Remember that you have to live’).

The isolation of these figures suggests that ultimately we face the most defining experiences of life alone. Doble is interested in the intangible nature of the spirit, the process by which the individual attempts to transcend or overcome accumulated fear, trauma, loss, and disappointment. He envisages the Amber Room as a site within which we contemplate the principles, beliefs, and decisions which govern our flawed lives. Doble is particularly concerned with those aspects of mortality which leave a trace. It seems to be the fate of many things which are tantalisingly out of reach, or lost to us, that they resonate as objects of fascination and longing in our collective imagination. For over sixty years the Amber Room has been the subject of fantasy, desire, and wish-fulfilment: Doble offers us some degree of satisfaction with his own resplendent interpretation.

Inga Walton, April 2008

1 Barry Shifman and Guy Walton (eds), Gifts To The Tsars, 1500-1700: Treasures From the Kremlin, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2001, p.104-05