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Friday, 12 October 2012

1. EXHIBITION CONCEPT:the search for a popular ceramic modernity



Over half a century on from the pioneering experiments with color glazes conducted by Dalpayrat and others — which could, if better publicized in the UK, have set the course of British ceramics on a different course — a second wave of radical color experiments  were carried out in France and Germany during the post war years, when 
'Écume de mer' in Vallauris'Émaux des glaciers' in Annecy and 'Fat Lava' in Germany radically changed the look of industrial ceramics.

By transposing some visual qualities of Abstract art onto decorative objects for the home (vases, jugs, bowls, plates, decorative plaques, etc.) these experiments took modernity into more homes  than did the rarified 'avant-garde' experiments of studio potters, whose works were sold, at high prices, in a few exclusive galleries, and are now showcased in museums to represent 20th century ceramics, as if nothing else significant had taken place.

In Praise of 'Materiality'

In addition to the spontaneous splashes and accidental running of glazes found on country ceramics, from all around the world: 

late 19th and early 20th century formal play with the materiality of glazes paved the way towards the rise of lava-type glazes; as these three examples from Japan and France testify:

The two vases on the right (c. 1920s-30s), made at La Charentaise pottery (Angoulême, France), show two variations in the gestural application of the glaze, in the manner of action painting, on an unglazed, rustic, stoneware body.

(add image and note on Chirens)

The glaze on the Japanese vase, on the left, was probably produced with a wax resistance process, which enabled the potter to isolate blobs of glaze in a way reminiscent of the 'snake' glazes developed by Leon Pointu (1879-1942), in France, and later by  Albert Kiessling (1909-1964) and Kirstin Unterstab in Germany.


The recent interest in German 'Fat Lava', from the late 60s and 70s, has brought to our attention ceramics which emphasise color and the materiality of glazes, and their capacity to transfigure form.

During the 1890s, in France, Dalpayrat had explored this materiality; echoing the play of colors begun by Impressionist painting twenty years before; taking it freely into ABSTRACTION, free from the constraints of FIGURATION.

During the 1950s, after a lull of several decades — when the earthy, muted earthy colors of stoneware glazes spread through the studio works of the School of Carriès in Puisaye and by the mass-produced works of Gréber, Méténier, Denbac, St Honoré and others — color came back with a vengeance, in Vallauris and Annecy; as part of a concerted effort to produce contemporary decorative ceramics for a mass market.


In retrospect, it is tempting to assume — on the basis of visual analogies alone — that 'Fat Lava', 'écume de mer' and 'émaux des glaciers' may, in some ways, owe something to the Japanese works of rural potteries, which inspired the revival of stoneware in Europe;  following their first showing at the Universal Exhibitions in London (1962), Paris (1867) and Vienna (1873). 
[Christine Shimizu, Le Grès Japonais, Paris, Massin, 2001:10-11]

In Germany, a new wave of interest in Japanese stoneware, stimulated by exhibitions and publications, inspired the work of studio potters like Gerhard Liebenthron, Rudi Stahl, Elke and Elmar Kubicek. These potters, however, combined this influence with their interest in traditional German stoneware from the Westerwald region.

Unlike 'Fat Lava', 'écume de mer' and, to a lesser extent 'émaux des glaciers', which were industrially produced (in small workshops or factories), this Japanese tea bowl (below), decorated with a thick 'lava'-like glaze, was made at a rural kiln, using traditional techniques and materials, in an unself-conscious way; as part of a local tradition:

'narumi-yaki aka-shino tutu-cha-wa' [red shino cylindrical teabow]
'Narumi-Yaki, 16th century. Narumi-Town, Nagoya-city, Aichi-Prefecture.*

By contrast the vase below*, made in the workshop ('Atelier') of Louis Giraud (1896-1985), in Vallauris, was produced during the 50s or early 60s, in a deliberate move to produce modern, experimental works for the general public:

Although avant-garde, the glaze bear some similarity with the submerged sea rocks and with the incrustations found on Roman amphoras retrieved from sunken ships; an effect that was replicated at the time, on ornaments sold as souvenirs.

Through his working life (from the 1920s to 1985) Giraud's work went through an impressive variety of styles: from earthenware vases decorated with unfired motifs of painted flowers (from around 1920; 'peinture au Ripollin') to art Déco sculptural forms*, lava glazes* on stoneware, 'forme libres'*, etc.

Hand-thrown vase in 'forme libre', decorated in a lava-type glaze. Probably produced by Alexander Kostanda in c. 1951


No evidence survives about the actual motivations which inspired these experiments with volcanic glazes, which also recall, in their minerality, the rugged surface of submerged rocks covered with mollusks incrustations. 

We know from testimonies that Charles Cartin Annecy, asked chemists to show him how to 'spoil' glazes; but we do not know why he took that unconventional approach (given his background as a scrap merchant). It may have been a non-conformist impulse to break away from the conventional, smooth glazes which had decorated European ceramics for centuries, and, thus, attract a new, younger public.

What caused the emergence of these 'lava' glazes, and their spread across France, Germany and beyond — on such a scale — remains to be (and may never be) elucidated; for these experiments were not the result of individual self-expression but, rather, the outcome of a collective pursuit of modernity by industrial means, working with the constraints of a commercial context.

The similarity between the blue 'Capri' glaze on Marei vases and the 'écume de mer' on some Vallauris vases (by Luc, Asbotte, Fady and others, still unidentified) suggests a strong degree of convergence. 
Fashion did play a part; as it had in the spread of 'Grès Flammés' between the two wars. Glaze manufacturers must also have played a part by supplying the same glazes in different countries, in response to fashion and demand, following the evolution of public taste.

In England lava glazes were tentatively produced by Sylvac and by Cinque Port, among others. Among studio potters, a pitted white stoneware glaze was extensively used by Lucie Rie from the 60s into the 80s and subsequently by Anna Musso

The name 'Capri' given by Marei to their earliest documented lava glazes and 'écume de mer', produced in Vallauris (but also used by Cart, in Annecy (as his use of a paper label testifies) or by the shops that sold his wares to the tourist trade), suggests a common reference to the sea.

In VALLAURIS, these experiments were part of a deliberate move to bring  modernity into the town made famous by its traditional 'terres vernissés'; which continued to be produced by firms like Aegitna, Calvas-Blanchon, Foucard-Jourdan, FPP and others, alongside contemporary works inspired by fine art.

It seems that 'écume de mer' came first (sometime during the 50s), followed by Le Cyclope's 'Émaux des Glaciers, émaux des Neiges' (late 50s, early 60s), before 'fat lava' was developed in Germany by Marei (1967-). 

As no chronology has, yet, been proposed for the emergence and spread of lava glazes in Germany, we are left to sample the different types that were produced (by companies like Marei, Fohr, Jopeko, Roth Keramik, Scheurich, Silberdistel, E.S. Keramik, and others; from the late 60s throughout the 70s) and compare their visual and physical  attributes— how they were applied and fired — as a basis for appraising their aesthetic impact.

Based on the date of 1959, suggested by Kevin James Graham [West & East German Pottery: Marks, Bases, Decors and Form Numbers Volume III] for a Fohr vase  numbered '411/20', it would be tempting to assume that Fat lava may have been produced in Germany as early as the late 50s. However, in the absence of documentary evidence, it seems more probable that the design of the shape predates its decoration with a lava glaze; for we do know that FORMS were used over long periods and decorated with different glazes to appeal to different sections of the market.
What seems firmly established, however, is that trade publicity documents currently being studied suggest that by 1967 fat lava was produced in Germany, by Marei, in the form of the blue and white 'Capri' glaze. 
A forthcoming book by Ralf Schuman and Volker Hornbostel should throw new lights about the emergence of lava glazes produced by Marei and other factories.

In an attempt to define the essence of 'Fat Lava', American collector and dealer Forrest D. Poston deplores that the term 'fat lava' is used undiscriminately to describe WGP. This practice is definitely not helpful, as it blurrs the specificity of lava glazes.
The problem with the revival (or 'invention') of 'Fat Lava' is that it generates a lot of enthusiasm, but is short on critical discussions. This undiscriminating enthusiasm has led to uncritical forms of 'fanism', which follow fashions and the fluctuations of e-bay prices, and are reluctant to engage with critical arguments.

The exhibition 'CERAMIC CONVERSATIONS' aims to encourage aesthetic discernment in our appreciation of glazes, based on a close engagement with and detailed appreciation of their materiality.

It is important, for instance, to remember that the works produced by a potter or a factory are not consistently good. Discrepancies seem to have been the rule; motivated by economic considerations: not only to cater for all (including unadventurous) taste — and thus extend sales (and economic survival) — and, in the process reduce manufacturing costs by simplifying and speeding up the manufacturing process.

This can be seen in the different types of lava glazes produced by Marei, E.S. Keramik, Fohr, Scheurich, Jopeko, Kreutz, Gerz, etc. The move from two firings towards one single firing (to reduce costs), proportionally reduced the rich materiality of the glazes; giving them a one-dimensionality (price of their  cheapness) which reduced the creative scope given to the glaziers, already limited by having to replicate glazes through whole batches to achieve consistency.


CERAMICS CONVERSATIONS stages imaginary conversations between ceramic objects (with minimum background information): to focus our attention on the  aesthetic materiality of the works, as can be apprehended by direct LOOKING, without letting arbitrary judgements of taste, or academic conventions, determine our perception.


Challenging the arbitrary discrimination between 'STUDIO' and so-called 'INDUSTRIAL' ceramics, the exhibition bring them together, in a series of visual dialogues; to invite comparisons, and — through closer looking — to engage with their respective visual and aesthetic qualities.

'CONVERSATIONS': Engaging with Ceramic Materiality.

The 'conversation' (below) stages an encounter between a hand-thrown stoneware vessel by Rudy Stahl (left) and a slipcast vase (known to collectors as vase 315, from its form number), designed for RUSCHA by Kurt Tschörner (form); with a glaze created by Gerda Heuckerothin c. 1954 . Click on the images for a larger picture:

The juxtaposition of a hand-thrown ‘studio’ pot with a slip cast one highlights their distinctive aesthetic materiality; demonstrating that ‘studio’ and ‘industrial’ modes of production can both generate 'good' works; if the idea and the design are good, and if the manufacturing processes and the technologies are used skilfully and appropriately: to  their full artistic potential.
It also contradicts Herbert Read's argument, formulated at the end of his book Art and Industry, that industrial production was no longer compatible with craft production, and had to evolve new models, away from craft. 
German manufacturers proved that building craft into industry produced some of the 'vitality' Read regarded as essential (Art and Industry, 2nd 1944, p. 160). 

Many did so by shifting their emphasis from form to glazes; for thick rich glazes had the capacity to transfigure the forms onto which they were applied; either by attenuating or by enhancing their machine-made perfection.

The introspective quality of Rudi Stahl's stoneware vase — inspired by the traditional undecorated stonewares from the Westerwälder region, and, perhaps also, by traditional Japanese stoneware — its earthy matt glaze and the concentric lines left by the hand, as it guided the clay on the potter’s wheel — contrast with the lighter, streamlined body of vase ‘315’, with its flowing/flamboyant handle, its striking red craquelé glaze, with black matt occlusions, which break the uniformity of its shiny surface.

Neither vase is demeaned by the 'confrontation', however. Both hold their own aesthetic ground.

Remark: This, of course, does not not mean that any 'industrial' pots is as good as any studio pot; but, rather, that there is no a priori justification to regard an industrial pot as inferior to a studio one, and to deny it aesthetic value, and exclude it from contemporary ceramic histories on that basis. 

Glancing at the numerous lifeless, mechanical St Ives studio clones and other hand-thrown ruralist pots produced in the UK can be as debilitating as looking at uninspired factory-produced pot boilers.

The example of Dalpayrat in France, during the last years of the 19th century, shows that the resources available to factories were essential to conduct complex (and costly) experiments with color glazes — beyond the means of any individual potter — and to produce enough items to make the process economically viable. The examples of the Royal Lancastrian and Ruskin potteries highlight this in the context of Britain (see section 2: The Battle for Colour in Britain).

Herbert Read's distinction between 'mechanic' and 'organic vitality' (Art and Industry, p. 72); the respective attributes, in his mind, of cast or moulded and thrown pots, and his suggestion that in order to compensate for the loss of 'organic vitality', cast or moulded pots should introduce 'the invention of an artist', implied the possibility of transcending the limitations he had noted in his earlier book 'English Pottery' (written with Bernard Rackham and published in 1924), where they had written:

'Forms capable of being multiplied without variation from a single original model cannot but have a much smaller interest than those in which each individual piece is the direct expression of the potter's instinct' (p.70), concluding 'Such vital quality in the finished work can never come from the passive settling of particles of clay on the inner side of a porous mould' (p.72).

This is self-evident, but the moulded or slipcast ceramics in the exhibition do not amount to the 'settling of particles of clay on the inner side of a porous mould' nor were they the product of uninspired factory hands. Furthermore they did not rely on their form alone, but more often than not on their glazes which entered in a visual dialogue with forms. Finally, no two pots cast from the same mould were ever identical. Glazing and firing ensured substantial variations between pieces.

In the case of vase 315 (above, right), the glaze enhances rather than masks the subtlety and dynamism of the form. 

Here, the process of slip casting is analogous to the process whereby, for centuries, bronze sculptures were made and editioned; without anyone objecting to the process.

The above juxtapposition, finally, enables us to witness and verify for ourselves how quality can be achieved in both hand-thrown and slip cast pieces, through their respective 'materialities'.


Thus, instead of appreciating 'studio' against/(at the expense of) 'industrial' works — according to an arbitrary and elitist ideological divide which keeps them apart (in museums and in ceramic histories) — we may more productively try and appreciate them both for their respective qualities. In the process, the field (and our appreciation) of 'art' ceramics will be extended and enriched.

[When answering this question, we should also bear in mind that judgements of taste are culturally-induced and external (incidental) to the objects we apply them to… — as are academic attempts to fix them, in museum displays and in official ceramic histories — and that each generation periodically has to revise them, according to the vagaries of taste…]

THE WORKS: Towards a Democratic Aesthetics…

All the works in the exhibition were made in non elitist ways for a wide public; not as isolated laboratory experiments, conducted in the seclusion of a studio: for art or for the artist's sake; to be sold to collectors, at high prices, in exclusive galleries.

Whether made in studios or factories, most of the works in the exhibition can be described as popular and commercial (not to be understood in any derogatory sense, but simply as 'made as a way of earning an honest living'; as Marianne de Trey chose to work for most of her life).

GERMANY: Strongly inspired by the ethos of the Bauhaus, some German potters and manufacturers aimed to make art a part of everyday life [see section 6: Germany], trying to harmonize artistic ambitions with economic viability.

VALLAURIS: In Vallauris [see section 4: Vallauris] the same democratic aspirations/ethos was shared by most potters (including studio Madoura, who editionned works by Picasso, alongside his one-off pieces) independently of the Bauhaus, in keeping with economic common sense, and capitalising on the regular flow of tourists.

Today, however, unscrupulous dealers have pushed prices up irrespective of whether limited editions or originals, or mass-produced items.

BRITAIN: In Britain where Bernard Leach had asserted the incompatibility between studio and industrial production, perpetuating the divide introduced by Morris and Ruskin, ceramic modernity never reached the avant-garde ambitions of the French and German ceramic industries.  


The popular works produced in VALLAURIS, ANNECY [see section 5: Annecy] and in the numerous studios, workshops and factories that sprung up in GERMANY during the post-war years, have, to this day, remained the concerns of a few maverick collectors.

One of the chief obstacles to the recognition of these works by museums is probably the fact that they were popular, mass-produced, inexpensive, and widely available to everyone; and, therefore, deemed not rare and less significant than rarified 'studio' ceramics, which, since the end of the 19th century in Europe, have been granted the status of 'Art'. 

Although some manufacturers ambitionned to produce 'art' ceramics by industrial means, their work and significance tends to be confined to the 'lower' orders of 'design'.

This prejudice culminates in the elitist evaluation, by collector and dealer Paul Rice, of the work of the Martin Brothers against those produced in 'factories': 'Their pots were the products of artists, not factory craftsmen' [British Studio Ceramics, 2002, p. 10].


Enthusiasm, unmarred by aesthetic discrimination or critical sense, among many collectors of West German ceramics — including 'Fat Lava' — may also have contributed, to the scepticism of historians of 20th century ceramics. For the scenography of the exhibitions they organize tend to emphasize the decorative value of the objects and their design quality; without discussing them in any detail, and without refering to their own aesthetic motivations nor to other works. Neither do they attempt to place them in a historical context. 
Finally, the tackiness of some of the objects undiscriminately collected and displayed (allowed to slip through the 'critical' net?) facilitates the task of its detractors. 
What differentiates these exhibitions and the collections they show, is essentially the level of discrimination in the works selected and the degree of slickness in their presentation: from straight-forward showcasing (the aim is to present as many pieces as possible, in an encyclopedic way) to more designery displays (the aim is to show the best items from a few manufacturers, and to make them look exclusive).

The good point about both approaches is that they showcase the works. The draw back, however, is that the display fail to situate the works in a wider historical, aesthetic and cultural context. They tend to encourage 'fanism' at the expense of critical appreciation. Unwittingly, they also promote a consumerist aesthetics.


'Ceramics Conversations' aims to complement the work of the first collectors of Fat Lava, pioneer collec tors who have drawn public attention to these works, and contribute a critical dimension.
Unlike the displays of these precursors, however, the exhibition sets the works in an 'wider' historical context, by presenting them alongside other contemporary works — mostly from Vallauris and Annecy (but from other countries and periods, as appropriate) — produced in the main (but not always, in the case of Dalpayrat, Dage and Pierrefonds) for a popular market. 

The exhibition brings together a selection of works, produced in studios, workshops and factories, to encourage a critical evaluation of their respective achievements and an expansion of the field of 20th century 'art' ceramics.

The exhibition raises questions of QUALITY, with reference to:

1. the respective ambitions of their makers (as may be inferred from the works) and 
2. to the actual artistic achievements of the works, as 'art', in a wider social and economic context.

The exhibition breaks new ground not just by presenting works which have, so far, eluded the attention of museums, in a prestigious ceramic gallery [the national archive of British studio ceramics], but by instigating a dialogue between studio and 'industrial' ceramics; to highlight their respective contributions, in the field of an 'expanded' ceramics field and history.
'Ceramics Conversations' takes the marginalization of color brought about by the studio pottery revival, in Britain — inspired by Bernard Leach, who argued that the best pots ever made were the humble rice bowls from Ancient China (Sung dynasty) and Korea (Yi dynasty) (TPC:17) — as its starting point and follows  the attempts made in VallaurisAnnecy and Germany to put it back on the ceramic agenda.

Although Leach's good intentions and his personal integrity as a (revivalist-ruralist) potter are not at issue, here; the closure he consciously implemented is; a closure which, as Mallet intimated [ section 2: The Battle for Color in Britain], set the course of British ceramics along an unecessarily narrow path.


The postcard below:

shows Roger Capron's shop in Vallauris, around 1963, where he sold, at affordable prices, decorative ceramics produced in his factory, to his own designs, by his staff, under the supervision of a 'chef d'atelier'..

This picture exposes the contradictions inherent in the current practice, by greedy (and opportunist) speculators who propose, at vastly inflated prices, these mass-produced vases, pitchers, bowls and bottles, as if they were 'rare', exclusive, Capron's studio 'works'; against all good sense, and against the spirit in which these objects were produced…
Even the auction rooms have followed suit!

Two current ads from ebay.

by over-valuing such works and persuading collectors to buy at those prices.

Besides putting ordinary works out of reach of ceramics enthusiasts, these practices tend to bye-pass or confuse issues of quality, and contribute, instead, to consolidate an arbitrary cult of celebrities, on the basis of mystification, instead of promoting aesthetic appreciation.

By artificially inflating the prices for these ordinary objects, these opportunist sellers and auction houses inadvertently work also against the original democratic ethos of the works and their makers; misrepresenting both their actual aesthetic value and their historical significance for the sake of profit.

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