JEWISH MUSEUM LONDON
10 November 2016 – 26 February 2017
Raymond Burton House
129-131 Albert Street
London NW1 7NB
Review by Dieneke Ferguson, 22 February 2017
Shaping Ceramics is a brilliant exhibition at the Jewish Museum London which explores how Jewish émigré ceramicists transformed the face of British studio ceramics by importing modernist ideas from Central Europe. It traces the influence of these pioneering ceramicists on a generation of British-born post-war ceramicists and in particular from Lucie Rie, Hans Coper and Ruth Duckworth.
Their ideas were very different to the Anglo-Oriental style of Bernard Leach, which had until that point dominated the field. Bernard Leach, the father of British Studio Pottery, pioneered the concept of the artist/potter. His work was characterised by its simple utilitarian style; their rough natural glazes and functional designs had a quiet beauty which posed a counterpoint to the fine art ceramics of previous generations. He was heavily influenced by Chinese, Korean, Japanese and medieval English forms.
Lucie Rie (1902-1995) fled Vienna, her native city in 1938. She studied at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule, a school of arts and crafts associated with the avant-garde Wiener Werkstätte. The primary goal of the Wiener Werkstatte was to bring good design and craft into all areas of life within the fields of ceramics, fashion, silver, furniture, and the graphic arts.
Lucy Rie built up a substantial following in her native city and at first unrecognised in England, she made ceramic buttons for the fashion industry to earn a living.
After the second world war her distinctive brightly coloured footed bowls and flared lip vases that often featured sgraffito work became icons of modern design. Her pots belonged to a distinctly contemporary world where pots took their place alongside other arts within a modern lifestyle. She taught at Camberwell College of Arts between 1960 and 1972.
Hans Coper (1920-1981), whose German-Jewish father committed suicide in 1936 to ease the plight of his family, had no previous experience in ceramics when he began working as an assistant for Lucie Rie. He became a leading figure in the British studio pottery movement in his own right. He used a limited number of forms and worked solely in monochrome, assembling his pots from pieces first thrown on the wheel. Although sculptural in nature, Coper’s works were typically thrown on a potter’s wheel and later altered by hand to create more abstract forms adding texture and colour. His pots would also take on recognizable forms.
Sculptor and potter Ruth Duckworth approached clay as a sculptural medium and changed the way people thought about the material and the use of ceramics outside of a functional capacity. Creating refined vessels, figurative sculptures, and installations she explored the capacity of the material to create works across a variety of scales including; small porcelain vessels, abstract stoneware wall panels and large site-specific installations. No matter the scale, her work was distinguished by her understanding of form, proportion, and space. A non-conformist at heart, she fought hard to gain international respect as a sculptor whose main medium was clay.
The work of these three potters was promoted by fellow German-Jewish refugee, Henry Rothschild (1913-2009), and their work sold at his London store: Primavera. The exhibition also looks at the important role that Rothschild played in their careers.
The second section of the exhibition turns to the work of ceramicists born or based in Britain which includes Edmund de Waal (b.1964).
The exhibition includes ‘Arcady’ in which eighteen thrown porcelain pots stacked in a steel case can be seen but not touched, reflecting de Waal’s interest in the history of collecting and displaying of porcelain.
The exhibition concludes with works by contemporary artists who explore their Jewish identity through their work. The most striking for me is Jenny Stolzenberg, whose father survived Buchenwald and Dachau.
Forgive and Do Not Forget, which drew on her father’s words, was the graduation piece for which she gained a first in ceramics from the University of Westminster in 2002.
Jenny was inspired by Primo Levi’s description of the Auschwitz ceremony “the changing of the shoes”, in which prisoners had seconds to grab from a pile of shoes, resulting in them having to endure wearing odd, ill-fitting shoes. In painstaking detail, she produced 70 pairs of mis-matched ceramic shoes. The effect was profoundly moving. Although the subject matter was so horrifying, Jenny wanted to honour the beauty of the lives destroyed. She said: “The deed was ugly, but the victims were not.” Museums and galleries all over the world requested the shoes, resulting in her replicating this installation many times over.
The exhibition also includes a potter’s studio in which demonstrations take place. This included Lesley Mc Shea who demonstrated the techniques that Lucie Rie used. Her exquisite stoneware pots can be bought here at the Hidden Art E-Shop.