Published: October 3, 2017
By Kate Eagen Johnson
NEW HAVEN, CONN. – As certain ancient philosophies honor the elements of earth, water, fire, air and void, so in its own way does “‘Things of Beauty Growing’: British Studio Pottery,” an iconoclastic exhibition gracing the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) through December 3. The imaginative survey features nearly 150 kiln-fired clay vessels or vessel-inspired works dating from the late Nineteenth Century to the present. After closing in New Haven, the exhibition will travel across the Atlantic to the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge.
From its beginnings, the studio pottery movement typically involved potters laboring by themselves or in small groups to craft wares by hand or by wheel. They adopted an artisanal way of working in reaction to industrial modes of manufacture and products. This movement blending Eastern and Western traditions reached great heights in Britain, with pioneering figures Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, among others, creating objects of high artistic and technical achievement while also generously sharing their knowledge with students. As exemplified by Leach, the “father of British studio pottery,” early proponents looked to centuries-old ceramics for inspiration, with Chinese pottery and porcelain from the Ming, Tang and Song dynasties holding a special place in their collective hearts.
While Asian methods and aesthetic sensibilities remained a touchstone, studio potters’ stylistic influences and techniques broadened as the Twentieth Century progressed. Part of studio pottery’s enduring appeal lay in the fact that it was viewed as more affordable, and more suitable for domestic settings, than paintings or sculpture.
The innovative exhibition was produced by co-curators Glenn Adamson, senior scholar at the YCBA; Martina Droth, deputy director of research and curator of sculpture, YCBA; and Simon Olding, director of the Crafts Study Centre and professor of modern craft at the University for the Creative Arts, UK. Its title comes from studio potter Michael Cardew’s Zen-like rumination, “If you are lucky, and you live long enough, and if you trust your materials and you trust your instincts, you will see things of beauty growing up in front of you, without you having anything to do with it.” Adamson told how the poetic phrase reflects the curatorial team’s “high regard for Cardew and his work, which he approached ethically and aesthetically” as well as the intent of the show. He followed that the exhibition is about “aesthetics and unfolding organic development,” explaining that while Cardew was referring to “one pot on a wheel,” the phrase can also be used to “imply the long development of the medium over a course of a century. There is a double meaning.”
For Droth, the exhibition signifies the breakdown of old art-historical hierarchies, including those between art and craft and between fine and decorative arts. She stressed that “YCBA was founded as a fine arts museum and so putting this exhibition front and center is an important gesture.”
She also told how the exhibition contributes to YCBA’s “retelling of the story of British art as an international story” with many immigrant artists and cultural stimuli from beyond the British Isles in play. Adamson concurred, pointing to international influences he considers obvious, like those from China and Japan, and to the less obvious, such as Viennese Modernism in the case of Lucie Rie, and African techniques and styles inherent in the work of Michael Cardew, Ladi Kwali and Magdalene Odundo.
Beguilingly, the unconventional exhibition is not structured around artists’ biographies and school-and-shop lineages as is most often the case in ceramic study. Adamson outlined the co-curators’ atypical methodology in the accompanying catalog’s introduction, “Our aim … has been to bring out a history of ceramic forms – to focus not on a canon of makers, but on a canon of vessels. This has meant that many potters who might normally be included in a ‘best of’ list have been left out. We also have excluded figural sculpture, architectural ceramics and abstract ceramic sculpture when it is unmoored from the vessel form entirely…. What we have gained through our selectiveness, however, is a narrative that highlights specific positions, staked out around and through the forms used in studio pottery at particular moments.”
For both the exhibition and catalog, the co-curators have created defined categories titled Moon Jar, Vase, Bowl, Charger, Set, Vessel, Pot and Monument – forms they believe strike harmonious thematic rings with specific eras. Droth stated that she and her colleagues have exploited “shape and form to tell the chronology. There is a strong visual logic to the exhibition. It is object focused.”
In conversation, Droth sketched out some of the thematic spaces. The Eastern influences important to the potters of the 1920s and 1930s, who “came back to the studio from the factory floor,” are explored in the Vase and Bowl areas. The interconnected spheres of industry, commerce and craft during the Mid-Twentieth Century are addressed in the Set section, where factory-produced beverage services are paired with bespoke versions by Bernard Leach, Ruth Duckworth and Lucie Rie. In the 1960s and 1970s, potters’ work became more sculptural and painterly, changing again in the 2000s with a return to more classic forms as seen in the art of Edmund de Waal and Magdalene Odundo. Droth contrasted Julian Stair’s jars and other monumental pieces at the end of the exhibition with the many “intimate, personal, small-scale objects designed to be held” seen prior.
Fierce curatorial resolve is clear. With the aim of mounting an exhibition that works “visually and physically,” Adamson related that the curatorial team emphasized visual coherence and limited wall text to short explanatory panels. Terming the desired effect as “palpable,” he elucidated, “We want visitors to feel with their body and eyes as well as with their brains. … Visitors should be able to experience the exhibition without reading a single word. It is about the physicality of the material.” Adamson added that there is an “informed historical catalog to back that up. Visitors can take it home and read it.”
The main body of the exhibition is bookended by assemblages, each assertive and attention-grabbing in its own manner. Dominating the museum’s entrance court is Clare Twomey’s “Made in China,” an installation making its debut in the United States. The conceptual piece consists of 80 5-foot-tall porcelain urns cast in several pieces by potters in Jingdezhen. In this ceramic sea, 79 of the urns are ornamented by gilt decals applied in China while one has 18K gold decoration applied by hand at the Royal Crown Derby pottery, Stoke-on-Trent. Visitors are encouraged to search for the Royal Crown Derby vessel and to contemplate the fact that its decoration alone cost more than the other urns in total. Through this installation, Twomey comments on the relative value of labor East versus the West and the nature of global trade and economics, among other issues.
The exhibition proper commences with a constellation of pots inspired by the Moon Jar, a near talismanic piece of Eighteenth Century Korean porcelain that Bernard Leach owned and lent to kindred spirit Lucie Rie. As part of this project, contemporary artists were invited to fabricate pieces in response to this icon, now in the collection of the British Museum and making an appearance in the exhibition. Droth observed that participating artists Akiko Hirai, Adam Buick, Gareth Mason and Nao Matsunaga “have referred to a historical vocabulary but make it work for a new era.”
The potters themselves emerge at the end of this exhibition where exemplary objects have been dialed up and individual biographies have been dialed down. A codalike photomural contains portraits of many artists represented in the exhibition. Most images were taken by Ben Boswell and show potters at work in their studios.
As one would expect, the opulent, nearly 500-page catalog for this university art museum exhibition is highly academic with essays primarily addressing aspects of art and craft theory and ceramics presentation history. Edited by Adamson, Droth and Olding, it contains contributions by Adamson and Olding along with Alison Britton, Kimberley Chandler, Edward S. Cooke Jr, Penelope Curtis, Tanya Harrod, Imogen Hart, Sequoia Miller and Julian Stair. YCBA and Fitzwilliam Museum published the volume in association with Yale University Press.
Likely of greatest interest to collectors will be “Pottery and Purpose,” a transcribed conversation between Adamson and John Driscoll, PhD, of New York’s Driscoll Babcock Galleries. Driscoll is primarily known as an expert in Nineteenth Century American painting, notably for the lead role he has played in the John Frederick Kensett catalogue raisonné project. However, since college days, he has also been assembling a premier personal collection of British studio pottery. In “Pottery and Purpose,” Driscoll reveals his collecting strategy and experiences.
Adamson applauded Driscoll’s early, sage choice of British studio pottery as an area where a young academic with limited discretionary funds could reasonably set out to assemble a world-class collection. He underscored how Driscoll kept his art identities separate, applying a strict ethical rigor to his collecting so that there would be no conflict of interest. Pertinent to the exhibition, Adamson praised the supportive and open spirit of this “model collector,” stating that Driscoll made his ceramics very available and shared his knowledge yet “never imposed his own shape on the exhibition. He was an intellectual partner who was interested in seeing what we would do with his pieces.”
In the high-concept yet visceral “Things of Beauty Growing,” some pieces adhere to a textbook definition of the genre, while others seem to push against studio pottery’s basic tenets. Perhaps this is no surprise since the parameters of British studio pottery have continued to expand and, as the co-curators point out, this arena has always been marked by debate. What is indisputable is the curatorial team’s unwillingness to declare this vibrant, longstanding art movement concluded.
The Yale Center for British Art is at 1080 Chapel Street. For more information, 877-274-8278 or www.britishart.yale.edu.
Kate Eagen Johnson is an expert in American decorative arts and an independent museum consultant, historian, lecturer and author.
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