‘A little bit of mud and a little bit of genius’: A history of modern ceramics in nine pieces
Christie’s first-ever dedicated sale of modern and contemporary ceramics — Un/Breakable, on 2 October — contains pieces that trace the medium’s evolution from a functional, decorative practice to a marker of 20th and 21st-century sculpture
Paul Gauguin was among the first modern artists to elevate
ceramics to the realm of high art. Recognising the immediacy
and vitality of clay, he strove to liberate ceramics from
the staid, domestic world of ornament and decoration to which
it had long been confined by Western tradition. Across the
20th century, as many artists came to similar conclusions
about the medium’s limitless potential, ceramics finally
gained currency as an artistic mode.
On 2 October, Christie’s presents Un/Breakable, its
first-ever curated sale celebrating the incredible diversity
and versatility of ceramics. Featuring work by both traditional
and experimental artists from the Impressionist and Modern
eras to the contemporary — including the likes of Lucio Fontana, Fernand Léger, Julian Schnabel and Grayson Perry — the sale encapsulates the history of ceramics as they evolved from a functional,
decorative practice to a marker of 20th and 21st-century
sculpture. Here we look at nine key pieces from the sale that reflect the development of the medium.
1. Paul Gauguin, Vase porte-bouquet ‘Atahualpa’
As the 19th century drew to a close, the great Post-Impressionist
Paul Gauguin found in ceramics a means to achieve his desire
for a primitive mode of expression — and for ever changed
our understanding of the medium.
Gauguin began to produce ceramics in 1886, having been introduced
Ernest Chaplet, one of the leading ceramicists of his
day. Gauguin arranged to make pottery in Chaplet’s Paris
studio, and to split the proceeds of any sales between them. While the
initial arrangement was that Gauguin would decorate the pieces
that Chaplet made, the artist fast developed a talent for
throwing his own pottery, quickly forging a unique and radical
aesthetic. He was inspired by a range of sources, from the
vogue for Japonism to pottery from Peru, where he had lived for part of his childhood.
Gauguin returned frequently to Chaplet’s studio over the coming the years, with his most experimental pieces created
following his return from Martinique in late 1887. (It was
around this time that he executed Vase porte-bouquet ‘Atahualpa’.)
Instead of throwing pieces on a potter’s wheel — the traditional
technique — Gauguin preferred to construct his ceramics by
hand using a method known as coil and slab construction.
This practice, he believed, was essential to a new, avant-garde
form of ceramics. He called for artists to ‘transform the
eternal Greek vase... replacing the potter at his wheel by
intelligent hands, which could impart the life of a figure
to a vase while remaining true to the character of the material.’
Consequently, Gauguin’s pieces have an anthropomorphic and
sculptural form, often with appendages attached, their functional
uses playfully subverted so that they become fantastical
‘God created man with a little mud,’ Gauguin wrote in 1889. ‘With a little bit of mud we can make metal, we can make
precious stones — with a little bit of mud and a little bit
2. George Ohr, Glazed Ceramic Vase
The self-styled ‘Mad Potter of Biloxi’ (who also described himself as the
‘Unequalled! Unrivalled! Undisputed greatest art potter on the Earth’),
George Edgar Ohr defied all convention. The diverse body
of work he produced in the late 1890s and early 1900s was
astonishingly ahead of its time.
His studio, a five-story
wooden ‘pagoda’ in Biloxi, Mississippi, overflowed with pots
in an array of wild, warped shapes and explosive colours
that stood in vivid contrast to the Victorian beiges of the
era. Glazed Ceramic Vase, with its exuberant biomorphic
shape and shimmering glaze, is a charming demonstration of
his pots’ unique character.
Although many contemporaries regarded Ohr as nothing more than
an eccentric tourist attraction, he predicted in a 1901 interview
that his time would come. ‘When I am gone, my work will be
praised, honoured, and cherished,’ he said. He was right.
Half a century after his death in 1918, an amazing cache
of 7,000 works was discovered in his son’s auto
Jasper Johns and
Andy Warhol began buying Ohr’s pots, later followed by
Steven Spielberg and Jack Nicholson. Examples of his ceramics
are now held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The Frank Gehry-designed
Ohr-O’Keefe Museum, a major centre dedicated to Ohr’s
work and to the cultural heritage of Mississippi, opened
3. Bernard Leach, Two Tile Panels
Bernard Leach is today acclaimed as the father of studio
ceramics, he began his career studying painting and etching
at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. At the time, pottery was not considered an
art form — potters were paid only to throw pots for others
Leach disagreed with this view, believing strongly that
the manipulating and forming of earthenware, stoneware or
porcelain was as important as its surface decoration. In
time, he became an evangelist for the medium.
Leach’s works combine influences from his time in Japan, where
he studied under
Ogata Kenzan VI; his knowledge of Korean and Chinese
ceramics; his appreciation of the English ceramic tradition;
and his fascination with medieval history. The tiles he produced
demonstrate the union of these different passions and his
great skill as a draughtsman.
4. Pablo Picasso, Grand vase aux femmes voilées
Conceived in 1950, Grand vase aux femmes voilées is
a remarkable example of
Pablo Picasso’s early development in the medium of ceramics.
Picasso first visited the Madoura workshop in Vallauris in
July 1946. The ancient associations of the village with ceramic
production appealed to Picasso and, fascinated by the unusual
combination of pictorial and sculptural possibilities the medium offered, he returned a year later with ideas
for the creation of a range of flat and three-dimensional
pieces. He soon began combining different techniques, and observing the transformation
of his creations in the kiln.
Ceramics is perhaps the medium in which Picasso most developed
his own interpretation of Classical imagery, with mythical
beings and goddesses becoming central in his designs. With
their thin garments and head garlands, each of the figures
in Grand vase aux femmes voilées is transformed
into a maenad-like creature, taking part in what could be
interpreted as a Bacchic ritual.
5. Dame Lucie Rie (1902-1995), Bowl
An Austrian émigré who came to London in 1938,
Lucie Rie had studied pottery at the Kunstgewerbeschule
in Vienna and was familiar with the works of the Vienna Secession.
During the war she made buttons and tableware for department stores such as Heal’s and Liberty in order to supplement
her income; she also taught at Camberwell College of Arts
from 1960 to 1972. By 1991 she had gained sufficient recognition
to be honoured as a Dame Commander of the British Empire.
What distinguished Rie was her ability to find endless variety
within a narrow range of forms and decorative techniques.
She opted to fire her works only once, and employed minimal
decorative motifs, although she was constantly experimenting
with glazes. Rather than dipping her works in glaze, she
used a brush for greater control, incising her works with
a pin or needle.
‘To make pottery is an adventure to me, every new work is a
new beginning,’ Dame Lucy once said. ‘There is nothing sensational
about it, only a silent grandeur and quietness.’
6. Fausto Melotti, I gessetti
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Italian sculptor
Fausto Melotti turned to ceramics, explaining, ‘I must
confess that the war has caused me great inner pain and sickness.
One cannot make abstract art, one cannot even think about
it when the soul is full not of desperation, but of figures
His series of teatrini — puppet theatres — which he developed at this time, served as the setting for his experiments
in figuration. Spare in decoration and with intimate settings,
Melotti’s teatrini present open-ended worlds in
which new narratives can unfold.
Executed in 1959, I gessetti is an early example of
these figurative terracotta works. Divided into two levels,
its architecture evokes
Piet Mondrian’s neo-plastic compositions. On each floor a softly modelled figure sits sideways, knees bent, lost
in thought. On the lower level Melotti has placed a small
table and covered it with the titular chalks that provide
the only colour in an otherwise monochromatic tableau.
7. Hans Coper, Hourglass Vessel
Hans Coper fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and when war was declared
he was interned in Lancashire in the north of England. He was subsequently sent to Canada, where he remained for two years, before serving in the Non-Combatant Corps of the British Army. From 1946 he worked with Lucie Rie,
making buttons, cups, saucers and salad bowls. Like Rie,
with whom he remained close friends throughout his life,
Coper went on to teach at the Camberwell School of Art; he
also taught at the Royal College of Art.
As an artist, Coper distinguished himself as a creator of new
forms. His pots, formed mainly of conjoined elements, are at once functional and highly sculptural. He much admired the
Alberto Giacometti and
Constantin Brancusi, and shared their fascination with
form, surface, outline and space.
To execute his pieces, Coper layered slip and then sanded,
scratched and stained, limiting his palette to neutral shades
of cream, manganese and burnt black. Like Rie he elected
to raw-glaze his works rather than firing them twice. Ultimately,
the physical shape of Coper’s creations became almost indistinguishable
from its glaze. Glazing was for him not about decorating
a surface, but about creating a whole.
8. Thomas Schütte, Ceramic Sketch
With his deft command of form, texture and finish,
Thomas Schütte uses ceramics as a way to confound expectations.
The production of smaller ceramics — in some cases as maquettes
for his large-scale bronze and aluminium works — is a key
part of Schütte’s process, allowing an expressive, three-dimensional
immediacy of creation. Integral to his exploration of sculptural
tradition is the plinth, which typically confers a certain
gravity upon the figure it supports.
In the above Ceramic Sketch from 1997-99, a dripping, geisha-like
figure kneels upon a raw-edged base, the top of which is
glazed and spattered. It is as if she has emerged from the Earth, foregrounding the material congruence between figure
and plinth. In this particular piece, the plinth also recalls
the raised tatami flooring in a traditional Japanese home.
9. Takuro Kuwata, Red Black-Slipped Gold Kairagi Shino Egg
Born in Hiroshima in 1981, Takuro Kuwata is fascinated by the concept of beauty
born from destruction. His practice offers a contemporary
view of postwar Japanese anxiety, exploring a correlation
between Japan’s recent natural and social disasters. The
natural world plays an active role, with bursting stones
and broken glazes acting as metaphors for erupting volcanoes
Reflecting the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi, which
focuses on the beauty of incompletion and imperfection, Kuwata
employs the traditional Japanese technique of kairagi to create imperfections in the glaze through shrinking and
cracking. The kairagi method introduces a degree
of uncertainty that enhances the dysfunctional, organic nature
of the object. In Red Black-Slipped Gold Kairagi Shino Egg, Kuwata
pushes this to its extreme so that the outer layer of the
sculpture appears to be slipping away from the colour beneath.