Ceramics is more than cookie jars, dusty Grecian urns at the Met and birthday party art projects. At the turn of the last century, the function of fine art and crafts became increasingly indistinguishable from the form and ceramics went from average household items to dazzling blends of modernist sculpture and functional house ware. The Johnson’s new exhibition Reawakenings: Modern and Contemporary Ceramics from the Shatzman Collection showcases a delightful collection of 20th century ceramics from the collection of Eunice and Herbert Shatzman’49, the fifth show of the family’s vast collection.
Just about every culture has a tradition of pottery. Although not considered a standard medium for fine sculpture, clay is actually one of the most expressive 3D mediums available. The soft and fine texture is endlessly malleable, and its ability to adhere to a wide range of paints and glazes allow artists to decorate them with just about any painted pattern or texture combinations. Although the basic shape of ceramic pots is somewhat restrictive, 20th century artists have experimented with endless stylistic variations. Following the inter-disciplinary Arts and Crafts movement in early 20th century, pottery began to appear in various prestigious art academies such as Camberwell in London and Bauhaus in Weimar. Artists advocated the famous modernist motto “form follows function,” creating simple, efficient, clean yet beautiful designs that valued “truth to its materials.” In the second half of the 20th century, artists liberated form from the restrictions of function while staying true to elegance and the integrity of the materials, blending influences from other branches of post-modern art to create shapes that are imaginative and refreshing without redundancy.
The Arts and Crafts movement’s goal of introducing the presence and appreciation of visual beauty is vividly represented in this small but intricate collection. Most of the pieces here were created during the second half of the century, but the earlier works are beautiful and representative of the Bauhaus sentiment. Charles Vyse’s 1937 Gourd-form vase is a good example of a piece with a plain organic form marked by clean lines that interact in an interesting and elegant manner. The contour resembles a half-bloomed flower, and the earthy tone and natural texture is accented interestingly by the artificial, orderly lines. At the same time, the vase is ergonomically designed with a large opening and steady balance.
As the century progresses, motifs from other art movements began to influence form as well as surface decorations. German artist Else Harney’s “Vessel,” ca. 1986, is a rotund teardrop fired with beige lines that resemble the natural patterns and gradation of onionskins, as well as bubbles on the bottom. The whimsical shape fades into space as the eye moves up from the bottom, interacting with the space around it as well as giving this still, tranquil object a playful sense of movement. The natural color and shape suggest representation, but the obvious abstraction in the shape and form create an interesting atmosphere of ambiguity.
Inke Lerch-Brodersen’s vase from 1985 shows a very classical urn whose bottom edges have been flattened out. The familiar founded base of the Grecian vases has been bluntly replaced with a subtle but noticeable angle, giving the form just enough edge to surprise the viewer while staying true to its artistic roots. The decorations on the surface clearly recall Picasso and Braque’s synthetic cubism patterns from the beginning of the century, only executed in a colder, more concrete-like shade of black and white instead of brown and black, and the sketch-like quality of the Cubists’ works is smoothened to a very geometric, planned execution that makes the surface appear jagged rather than rounded, just like Op Art, the 60’s hallmark style that plays visual tricks on human perception.
The most dramatic and dazzling piece in the collection has to be Pietro Melandri’s 1993 “Raku-fired Vessel,” a rounded stoneware that’s only four inches tall and five and a half inches in diameter and shaped like a simple angel food’s cake. The form is unusual but tame compared to it’s surface design and mixed materials. The marble white vessel is seared with gray cracked veins that peacefully and evenly spread over the entire exterior. Then, two bands of gold burn across the white and gray diagonally, glistening fiercely under the curator’s clever choice of lighting, taking the name “fired Vessel” to a whole new level.
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Original Author: Lucy Li