Within Art Pottery Circles There Are Revolution Within Revolutions
Art pottery elder and 7th Kenzan Bernard Leach (1887–1979) passionately believed in "function before form".
What in the name of mud, does that platitude mean?
For an answer (not necessarily the right one), read on below .....
A clay artist of extraordinary repute, Leach very earnestly made 'Ethical pots' as was befitting to an Edwardian gentleman somewhat tired of the overly enthusiastic (if not barking mad) decoration adorning the Art Nouveau period.
This was the self-same gut reaction against the 'old fashioned' swirly style, that was to gradually translate into the simple lined, functional and angular Art Deco movement.
Call me a romantic, but Leaches resultant pots can be, to the uninitiated like me, somewhat dull and uninspiring (sorry for that sacrilege).
Although I absolutely love the plate shown above left with the horse, tree and fishes. I can, right here in this piece, see that here Leach predicted, if not invented, the post-modern naive illustrative look and feel (which I love to bits).
Today there is a body of artist potters with a different view who are pushing the boundaries in a fashion that would have professor Leach squirming.
A few of these mud-slingers get mentioned in the
'Clay and Art' and
'Contemporary clay Art' sections.
I have to say, despite my reservations, I really admire the integrity of Bernard Leach.
He felt that there should be a lack of 'ego' in pots.
For me, the Leach pitcher on the left takes that concept beyond the limits of my understanding.
It looks like a competition winner for the 'let's see if we can design the absolutely dullest pot ever conceived in the whole universe' competition.
Although of English extraction he was a clay artist born into the Far East (Hong Kong) culture of 1887 where he lived for the first 10 years of his life.
A trained etcher, he returned to Hong Kong to teach.
Meeting pottery master, Shigekichi Urano he sought to learn the secret teachings handed down within the lineage of Densho potters. He became the '7th Kenzan’ - an inherited title the master potter of that style was bestowed with.
I like the lineage of Leach's ideas.
Some contemporary art pottery masters tend to disagree somewhat with Bernard and say "to hell with function, here comes some form for its own sake".
To be truthful, the Leach plate shown above I find rather charming and folksy, but many of his creations leave me yawning into my cocoa.
The rather superb pot above is the work of Dutch contemporary art potter Olaf Stevens. His work is classy, classic and good looking, but, if you look closely enough, radical too.
Just about the most extreme opposite you can get to the philosophy of Leach is contemporary American art potter, Les Lawrence.
Lawrence says of his Art Pottery pieces: "They are vessels in subject but not functional. I think of them as sculpture, photography, and printmaking combined".
Also joining the revolution against Leaches ideas is German potter Rita Ternes. Her art pottery exists as an expression of creativity whose only function is to provoke contemplation.
Perhaps the most abstract of all the contemporary specialists in art pottery is British ceramist Peter Beard. He has been a fellow of the Craft Potters Association for over 30 years, and as such would have been a contemporary of Bernard Leach who died in 1979.
I can't imagine Peter and Bernard would have seen eye to eye if they had ever met, do you?
For all I know, they may have been best of friends, but certainly, their philosophies were at opposite ends.
Leach believed in function before form and 'ethical pots'. Peter believes in the trinity of process, material and concept.
So how was the gap bridged between the rather austere Mr Leach and the modern art potters?
You have to look back the the life and times of potters like Dora Billington (1890-1968) and her 'Bayswater Three' (William Newland, Nicholas Vergette and Margaret Hine). As head of the Royal College of Art in the 1920's, she designed for industry as well as being a studio potter, teacher and writer. Retiring from teaching in 1955 she left behind a strong tradition in opposition to Bernard Leach's philosophy.
-------- A funky pot by Lucie Rie c.1974 ---------
Leach scoffed at Billington's successful protégées describing them as 'Picassettes' (a reference to their influence by Picasso). Billington always remained respectful to the influential Leach, at least in public.
Other expressive 'fine art potters' working against the influence of Leach were other post-war potters such as William Staite Murray, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper.
In a 1953 article Billington includes Lucie Rie in her review of 'The Younger English Potters'. Several important young potters are also mentioned including Kenneth Clark, Eleanor Whittal, James Tower, and Steven Sykes.
Ok, so who are the contemporary art potters pushing the boundaries? Is there a difference between art potters and craft potters? As I said before, categorization is a dangerous process. Answers on a postcard to.... Well, at least let me know what you think on the contact form!
Today there is a body of artist potters who are pushing the boundaries, and a few of these mud-slingers get mentioned in the 'Clay and Art' and 'Contemporary Clay Art' sections.
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