The best-known figure produced by Wendt & Kühn is a small angel with green wings, adorned with eleven tiny, white dots. Plump and barefoot, the angel is clad in a white smock that barely covers its little bottom. It has a merry expression on its face, and holds a musical instrument in its hand. Though only six centimetres tall, this angelic musician is a big success. Wendt & Kühn has been making traditional folk art from the Ore Mountains for 100 years from its home in the village of Grünhainichen.
Especially at Christmas, these musical angels appear in living rooms everywhere as festive decorations. Collectors the world over are enamoured of them, and look forward every year to a new creation, another member for their orchestra collections. The company has produced around 75 different musicians, the most recent being an angel sitting at a drum set. Company director Claudia Baer, grand-niece of founder Margarete Wendt, knows what makes the tiny figurines so appealing, and sees plenty of reasons for their worldwide popularity: “Grete Wendt’s products express a fondness and patience for the craft. The figurines have a soul all of their own, and exude a sense of harmony. Even though they were designed in 1923, they still have a timeless, childlike and innocent appearance today.” According to Claudia Baer, some of the brand’s more famous collectors have included Walt Disney, actress Marlene Dietrich and conductor Kurt Masur. Even the Swedish royal family is known to have a Wendt & Kühn music box with angels.
Another reason for their lasting success is the history of the wooden figurines and their designer, Margarete Wendt. The story is closely entwined with the region, the Ore Mountains, which is famous to this day for its distinctive Christmas traditions. Margarete, or “Grete”, was born in the Ore Mountains. Her father Albert was director of a school for makers of wooden toys. Around 1900, Christmas had become an established family tradition in Germany, and parents were increasingly able to afford presents for their children. The Ore Mountains supplied the corresponding wooden figurines, nativity scenes and pyramid candle holders. Simple, lathed figures, angel candle holders, “Räuchermann” incense smokers, and wooden animals made using a locally developed wood turning technique called “reifendrehen” were typical of this period. They were manufactured in large quantities at a low cost by cottage industry workers.
The reason why this craft emerged specifically in the Ore Mountains has a lot to do with the mining trade. After the 12th century, silver mining brought great prosperity to the region. Magnificent churches in Freiberg, Annaberg and Schneeberg attest to the economic growth of this era. Small villages grew into major cities with at times larger populations than even Dresden or Leipzig. But when the golden age of mining came to an end in the late 16th century, the miners had to find other ways to earn a living. Both wood and light played a part in their choice of trade: Wood was available in abundance in the thickly forested hills, and light had a special significance for the miners, who had spent much of their lives in darkness underground. They developed unique skills in manufacturing wooden figurines, which they often decorated with candles. (excerpt)
Photo: (c) Wendt & Kühn KG Grünhainichen