Posts Tagged ‘Bernard leach’

Let It Be

September 8, 2019

“European ceramics were forever indebted to superior Chinese efforts, once exposed to those wonders.”

This nugget of received wisdom, initiated by a continent-wide, 200 year long porcelain recipe hunt, permeates the study of European ceramics from roughly the 16th century onward. That perspective even percolated down to the Fine Arts studio ceramics narrative after Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940) put celadon, tenmuku, and other Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) stonewares on unimpeachable pedestals; many of these glaze types remain to this day (in name at least) routine options in European and American studios.

But what drove the West’s China obsession during the centuries preceding Leach’s book were not Imperial Sung jewels, but hybridized, prosaic Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE) export porcelains. Few westerners even knew of those exquisite Imperial examples before the Middle Kingdom’s late 19th century implosion, just decades before Leach began his pottery career.

More to the point, export production was almost from the start led by aesthetic and functional dictates of the “devils of the western ocean.” These dictates stemmed from a highly refined Iberian, Mediterranean, and ultimately Islamic enameled earthenware tradition – which, incidently, also heavily influenced initial Chinese blue and white development. This earthenware tradition, plus a mature northern European understanding of high temperature materials and kilns, had already established ceramics as fine art worthy of Europe’s idle rich. China’s inspiration could not have been absorbed and acted upon without these pre-existing conditions.

Now consider post-China trade Europe, ie; the Industrial Revolution. Porcelain was by then widely produced throughout the continent. But the masters of the Industrial Revolution instead ran with earthenware clay and glaze materials combined with scientific analysis, increased machine power, and efficient transport of bulky supplies and fragile finished products (and a heavy dose of child labor, but that’s another story). Chinoiserie was certainly a popular decorative option, but one of many. The Industrial Revolution transformed earthenware into fine art and fine dining utensils available to nearly every level of society – a truly revolutionary development.

Interaction with China over the centuries has left an enormous and indelible mark on European and American ceramics. But leaving it at that is almost like writing a 300 page book on the history of Rock and Roll, 250 pages of which are about the Beatles. Yes, of course the Fab Four were musical geniuses who cast a long shadow.

But 250 pages? Really?

Readings:

A Potter’s Book. Bernard Leach. Transatlantic Arts/New York. 1940.
The White Road. Edmund DeWaal. Chatto and Windus/London. 2015.

How I Learned To Hate Everything

August 31, 2014

(an editorial thinly disguised as a book review)

A group of potters went to see a “Blue and White” ceramics exhibit at a major museum in a large city.  During the trip, one of the potters lamented how she was taught nothing in college about America’s pottery heritage. 

Most of the potters in the group, being of more or less the same generation, were taught that Asian porcelain was pottery’s culminating expression.  Anything outside that narrative – excepting modern pottery – was background (ie; easily dismissed).  Gaping educational holes were partially filled as individual interests randomly wandered.

Daniel Rhodes defined the ‘official’ narrative during my own college years.  Rhodes’ Clay and Glazes for the Potter, revised edition 1973, was our class bible.  (Boy, am I dating myself!)  Just as important as the book’s technical information were its pictures.  I poured over them and absorbed their implied lesson – see the rest, end with the best: Song Dynasty Chinese Imperial porcelain.  We were certainly offered a generic overview of the ceramic spectrum, but the ultimate lesson remained.

The Rhodes book had two images of early American pots; A sgraffito plate by Georg Hubener of Bucks County, PA, c.1790, and a mass-produced molded stoneware pitcher in the form of a waterfall or whatever by the American Pottery Company of Trenton, NJ, c.1840.  Without context or hint of other efforts, and compared to those oil spot and celadon glazes, I concluded, “no thanks.”

That “no thanks” attitude wasn’t so much like comparing apples to oranges as it was like believing apples for eating were “better” than apples for making cider, or for baking.  But why compare at all? 

Of course, Daniel Rhodes can’t be all to blame.  There were (are) plenty of books about all sorts of pottery types.  And yes, old Chinese porcelain deserves respect.  But we were poor college students.  The pictures in Rhodes’ book and the resulting chatter around the studio were our gateway (there was no internet back then).  The range of early American (and European) pottery expression hit me only after some intense overseas time induced reflection on my own background.

If we’re never taught that something has value we can easily assume it has no value;  “History is boring!”  “Who cares?”  “Been there, done that.”

When did you first see beyond these ridiculous notions?

Readings:

Clay and Glazes for the Potter, Revised edition.  Daniel Rhodes.  Chilton’s/Radnor, PA.  1973.

A Treatise on Superfluous Things

December 15, 2013

We owe it all to Wen Zhenheng.  Everything we were taught in college about old Chinese porcelain being the pinnacle of the ceramic art.  Maybe it’s even true.

But Wen didn’t direct his lesson to modern European and American art students.  Wen sought to enlighten his own late Ming Dynasty’s growing ‘middle class.’  His task was tricky.  Wealth from trade with European devils had trickled down to mid-level functionaries.  It was an era of uncomfortable accommodation between the newly well off and the long-time well bred.

Of course the newcomers had no idea what they were doing.  Like their European trading partners, they desired the cultured trappings associated with porcelain.  Unlike Europeans, they knew enough not to settle for gaudy export stuff.  But without access Imperial wares, what were they to do?

Wen’s early 17th century “Treatise on Superfluous Things” showed them the way.  This “Do’s and Don’ts” compilation claimed to be the definitive arbiter of taste for the gentlemanly art of porcelain collecting (amongst other gentlemanly artistic pursuits).

True gentlemen only collected the finest porcelain, according to Wen – ie; porcelain made no later than 200 years before his time (early Ming or before).  The ideal piece should be “as blue as the sky, as lustrous as a mirror, as thin as paper, and as resonant as a chime.”   Wen and his peers emphatically believed in China’s past cultural superiority.  Anyone who owned old porcelain could feel connected to those days of yore.

But just owning fine porcelain wasn’t enough.  One had to show it off in the right way at the right time.  Certain vases could only be shown on tables “in the Japanese style.”  Nothing else would do.   One must “avoid vases with rings, and never arrange them in pairs.”  If flowers were included, “any more than 2 stems and your room will end up looking like a tavern.”

Wen’s dictums were strict.  They had to be.  Then as now, ostentatious wealth bred, more often than it suppressed, vulgarity.  Wen sought to protect cultural ‘insiders’ – that is, anyone who bought his book.

Centuries later Dale Carnegie, Martha Stewart, and even Bernard Leach bought in, each in their own unique way.  Yes, we owe it all to Wen Zenheng.

Early Ming

Readings:

Vermeers Hat. The 17th Century and the Dawn of the Global World.  Timothy Brook.  Bloomsbury Press/New York.  2008.

 

The Bloody Duke of Alva

December 7, 2009

Bernard Leach…

…I suppose it was only a matter of time before his name popped up…

…Well, I first heard about Leach, and his famous book on pottery, in college.  Some say Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” almost singlehandedly reformed craft ceramics.  In it he certainly sought to establish a standard that would be eternal.  When I finally saw the tome – it was just a little red book – my first thought was of another little red book.  This one by Chairman Mao.  “That’s it?”

I mention Leach because his book created an impression (at least in my eager mind) of a ‘golden age’ of English pottery during the Middle Ages.  We’d certainly be less today if Leach hadn’t expounded his ideas, and I do enjoy Medieval English pottery.  But by and large, English pottery from 600 to 1400AD was still in a pretty crude state.  True, a few monastic potters late in the period tried to keep up with continental trends.  But in general, the forms were limited to the “potts and panns” (pots simply being more tall than wide, and pans the opposite) of the dairy economy.  Households ate off treen ware (wooden items).  Food storage was crude.  Food preparation was cruder – unless you could afford glass, silver, and a household staff…

Between 1566 and 1648, many things changed.  A group of Spanish provinces, known today as “The Netherlands,” revolted.  The Calvinist Reformation was involved, but harsh foreign rule, as is usually the case, propelled the Dutch Republicans to fight.  Spain sought to snuff out this peasant uprising.  The man hired to do the dirty work was the Duke of Alva.  With his “Blood Court” behind him, the Duke encouraged his troops to a level of depravity not seen again for several centuries.  And that’s saying something!  (ie: Issuing, and trying to carry out, a death warrant against every living soul in the provinces.)  Eventually the Dutch cause won out.  But not before waves of refugees poured into increasingly Puritan (thanks again to Calvin) England.

Those Dutch refugees brought with them their food ways.  They drank from individual cups instead of one big bowl passed from hand to hand, they ate off of ceramic plates, etc.  Dutch potters brought their skill and knowledge.  In a few short years, whole villages of “cuppers” would form.  English potters would be copying Delftware.  And English pottery would blossom…

It is said that great beauty can arise from adversity.  English pottery was certainly enriched by refugees from the wanton devastation of Dutch society.  But if Spain had left the Dutch in peace, the English would have eventually figured it all out by themselves.  That would have been much better.

Readings:
English Delftware. GF Garner.  Van Nostrand Co., Inc./New York.  1948.

The English Country Pottery, Its History and Techniques. Peter Brears.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

A Potter’s Book. Bernard Leach.  Transatlantic Arts, Inc./New York.  1976 (reprinted).

If These Pots Could Talk. Ivor Noel Hume.  Chipstone Press/Williamsburg.  2006.