Published: September 11, 2012
One cannot easily ignore the triumphs and challenges that make the life of ceramist Frans Wildenhain (1905‱980) an alluring narrative. Wildenhain’s career, like his artwork, is dynamic and enduring. It is an interwoven story of decisive milestones: captivated apprentice, award-winning artist, ardent teacher, creative entrepreneur, distinguished craftsman.
With a career that spanned six decades, Wildenhain is largely known for his art pottery and ceramics, ranging from traditional studio examples to abstract and sculptural works, including vast murals and tiled mosaics. Considered an artist across media, Wildenhain also produced sculptures in bronze and two-dimensional art, including paintings and extensively illustrated sketchbooks.
A comprehensive view of Wildenhain’s career and midcentury work is featured in an exhibition at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) titled “Frans Wildenhain, 1950‷5: Creative and Commercial American Ceramics at Mid-Century.” The exhibition features 150 examples of Wildenhain’s ceramic pieces hosted at two on-campus RIT art galleries through October 2.
The account of Wildenhain’s artistic progress stems from a very modest upbringing in Leipzig, Germany, and professional life that commenced at age 14. But his story does not follow the expected sequence of a summer blockbuster or rags-to-riches tale †instead, it is a story as distinctive as nature’s commanding, sometimes rugged, grandeur. It even parallels the kind of earthiness expressed through Wildenhain’s very own artwork. And it is through his art, his craft, that he ultimately would encounter success.
Early on, a scholarship helped him become a student at one of the most influential craft, art and design schools ever established: the Bauhaus. Later, a Guggenheim Foundation award encouraged his interest in the production of several acclaimed ceramic murals. The life experiences of separation and loss, too, undeniably are part of the Wildenhain chronicle. But, it was his connection to the Bauhaus that became the foundation for a livelihood and even love.
Several years after World War I, Wildenhain became a pottery student at the Bauhaus, founded in 1919 by German architect Walter Gropius. In 1924, Wildenhain began his studies at the school in Weimar, Germany, but soon after transitioned to the Bauhaus pottery workshop in Dornburg. There the artist would excel at his craft under the paired guidance of Gerhard Marcks and Max Krehan, respectively the “Master of Form” and the “Master of Craft.”
It was through the Bauhaus’s “International Style” and Modernist tenets aired by many distinguished artist-lecturers, such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, that Wildenhain’s eye for the union of creative expression and craftsmanship emerged. A diligent apprentice, Wildenhain spent his days practicing to master the craft of handmade functional pottery. After years of attention and commitment, he became a master potter in 1929. What Wildenhain attained from his studies at the Bauhaus would remain as part of his entrepreneurial and educational perspectives later in life.
The Bauhaus was also where Wildenhain met his first wife, Marguerite Friedlaender, who later would be recognized as Master Potter Marguerite Wildenhain (1896‱985). She joined the Bauhaus during its first year in 1919, eventually becoming one of Wildenhain’s teachers. The pair wed in 1930. It was the year after Wildenhain gained his master potter status and had joined her as an instructor at Burg Giebichenstein, or the State School of Fine and Applied Arts in Halle-Saale. The time period was clearly defined by transition, but another major event was stirring.
World War I had denied young Wildenhain of a robust childhood with his father. Later, leading up to World War II, the acceleration of Nazi-controlled influence would deprive Marguerite, who was Jewish, of her job in Halle-Saale. In response, she moved to Holland. Sadly, wartime Europe, in the end, would force the couple into years of separation.
After departing from Halle-Saale, Frans and Marguerite for the rest of the 1930s made their living in the Netherlands, running a pottery studio named Het Kruikje or “Little Jug” in the settlement of Putten. While in Holland, they sold functional ceramics from their workshop, designed ceramics for manufacturers and entered their art into juried competitions. During that time, Frans won a prize at the International Exposition in Paris. It was in 1939.
Torn by conflict and an approaching Nazi invasion, the Wildenhains sought to emigrate to the United States. Only Marguerite, however, was afforded the opportunity. Frans was forced to stay behind and was called to fight. He either defected or was hidden by acquaintances in Holland, later citing in his notes that he had turned his weapon over to the Dutch underground. By then, it was 1945 and the war was almost over. Two years later, he joined Marguerite in California, where she had been residing and teaching.
Before Marguerite left for the United States, the Wildenhains were visited by a pair of art-focused entrepreneurs: Gordon Herr, an architect, and Jane Herr, a writer. The American couple asked the Wildenhains to join them at an artists’ colony they wanted to initiate north of San Francisco in the undeveloped splendor of north-central California. The community that the Herrs wanted to create eventually became Pond Farm, the noted artists’ cooperative. The invite by the Herrs left an indelible impression on the Wildenhains, particularly since the proposal was so similar to the ideals of the Bauhaus model.
As the war in Europe raged, Marguerite was able to safely arrive in New York. Shortly after making it to the United States, she journeyed to California where she taught ceramics at Pond Farm. By the time Frans rejoined her in 1947, Marguerite had already established herself as the pottery teacher at the artists’ colony. He, too, would become an instructor at Pond Farm, but during those years, the relationship between the pair strained. Frans perhaps felt a bit like an unknown compared to his acclaimed ceramist spouse, although he won an award in 1949 from the Los Angeles Exhibition of Arts, California State Fair.
But by chance during the war, Harold Brennan, an American GI, saw works by both of the Wildenhains at an exhibit in Chicago. Almost a decade later, Brennan was seeking professors for the newly formed School for American Craftsmen at RIT. Impressed by what he had previously viewed, Brennan offered both Wildenhains teaching positions at the school, but Marguerite declined. In 1950, Frans left Pond Farm without her for the new ceramics professor post in Rochester. The couple would divorce in 1952.
In 1950, Frans Wildenhain became a founding faculty member of the School for American Craftsmen †now School for American Crafts †at RIT. He was known for his commanding personality and demanding approach to education, and some students described him as having a formidable presence and stature, with large steady hands that easily could shape sturdy clay vessels. Archival images of Wildenhain tell the same tale.
Wildenhain industriously taught at RIT until his retirement in 1970. Just before his final year at the technology school, he traveled to Japan on a sizable excursion in which he was struck by the aesthetics and exquisiteness of his experience in Asia. During the journey, he also visited the celebrated Japanese potter Shoji Hamada. Upon his return to the United States, Wildenhain would harness the passions stirred while abroad and exude its influence through his artwork and craft.
Although Wildenhain won awards for his work prior to this period (1950‱970), it also was during the years at midcentury when he most notably excelled at his craft and gained artistic and professional success. In 1952, he was named Master Craftsman of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts. The following year, he won a Lillian Fairchild Award for sculpture, painting and ceramics. A decade later in 1963, Wildenhain, in unprecedented fashion, again was honored with a Fairchild award; the second time for a 208-foot ceramic mural installed at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md.
In the 1950s, Wildenhain became increasingly interested in the associations between ceramic walls and architecture, believing that artist and architect should collaborate early in the design process. He was awarded a 1958 Guggenheim Fellowship to study the matter. Eventually, the intrigue in murals became a regular part of his professional endeavors. In addition to the National Library of Medicine mural, Wildenhain’s most notable examples of wallscapes stand at Overlook Hospital, Summit, N.J.; Ingle Auditorium, RIT; and Sloan Fine Arts Center, Lock Haven University, Lock Haven, Penn.
While Wildenhain taught at RIT and focused on the production of large-scale murals, he also helped to launch an artists’ craft store in Rochester. Located on Troup Street, near where today’s Corn Hill Arts Festival is conducted, the pioneering midcentury venture was called Shop One. It was operated by Wildenhain, Tage Frid, John Prip and Ronald Pearson, all passionate craftsmen who had connections to RIT and the School for American Craftsmen. Neither the school nor RIT had any formal connection to Shop One, however.
The business was considered distinctive in mid-Twentieth Century America because it only sold crafts, which was virtually unique for the era. At the time, the only other retail shop that exclusively sold crafts was America House, located in New York City. Shop One, in essence, operated as an artists’ cooperative, in which RIT crafts faculty and even students were able to sell their crafts and related artistic wares to an assortment of patrons.
Although the business was not a money-making powerhouse, it set the foundation for many entrepreneurial craftsman and business-minded artists to come. Even today, a boutique on the RIT campus has the name Shop One Two; an unassociated venture, but evident throwback to its Rochester predecessor. In all, Wildenhain’s Shop One lasted more than 20 years, eventually closing in 1975, but still feeding into the fascinating story of Wildenhain’s creative abilities.
Frans Wildenhain died at the age of 74 in January 1980. Though his work became more challenging for him in his later years, Wildenhain continued to focus on his craft and exhibited at shows throughout the last decade of his life.
In 1975, Wildenhain conducted his final exhibition at RIT, the place where he had spent much of his ceramics career. It was the very same year he was recognized as Fellow of American Crafts Council, Collegium of Craftsmen. Only a year before his death, Wildenhain also was part of a sizable exhibition, “Paley/Castle/Wildenhain,” organized by the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery. Notably, by the end of Wildenhain’s career, he had participated in more than 200 group or solo exhibits.
Aside from shows, Wildenhain installed what was likely his last large-scale mural in the late 1970s at Lock Haven University (LHU), a state university situated along the Susquehanna River, northwest of Harrisburg. The mural is an 8-by-8-foot ceramic piece that abstractly depicts Lock Haven’s topography. During winter 2012, the mural was rediscovered during a joint search between staff from RIT and LHU. It was documented as a significant and intriguing revelation, and is noted by way of text and image in the Wildenhain exhibition catalog.
The Frans Wildenhain exhibition at RIT displays a wide breadth of ceramic pieces not previously displayed. Organized by RIT Professor Bruce Austin, it is on view at the Bevier Gallery and Dyer Arts Center, each located on the RIT campus. It is a thematic extension of a previous exhibition by Austin, “The Arts & Crafts Movement in Western New York, 1900‱920.”
The exhibition displays 150 examples of Wildenhain’s midcentury ceramics that have been out of the public’s view for decades. Rochester-area collector Robert Bradley Johnson donated to the RIT Archive Collections more than 330 Wildenhain ceramics, representing the entire span of the artist’s career.
An informative exhibit catalog, a hardbound, 256-page text that includes scholarly chapters on Wildenhain’s life, career and artwork, accompanies the exhibit. Frans Wildenhain, 195075: Creative and Commercial American Ceramics at Mid-Century, which sells for $50, also is available through the event’s website.
Throughout the month of September, a series of speakers, art pottery identification clinics and book signing events are taking place. For information, www.rit.edu/wild or contact exhibition organizer Bruce Austin at 585-475-2879.
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