28 May 2015

STRAWBERRY THIEVES


I went to the open day at Nunhead cemetery a couple of weeks ago.  Nunhead is one of the Magnificent Seven, the grand 19th century London cemeteries built by private companies and patronised during the heyday of top-hatted, Victorian funerary monuments, now neglected, overgrown, and perfect for film sets.

There was nothing funereal about Nunhead on 16 May, a sunny day and good for family outings among the tombstones and ivy.  There was an array of stalls run by local societies (top left) and plenty of tea and cake. Typical of London, which in the election the previous week had shown itself to be one of the most left-wing parts of Britain, there were many radical campaigning groups in evidence and in the ruins of the old chapel I found a socialist choir, Strawberry Thieves (bottom left). On their red tee-shirts you may be able to see a motif from William Morris’s Strawberry Thief textile, illustrated at the top of this post.

Morris was a romantic socialist.  Although in his fighting years in the 1880s he declared himself a Marxist, socialism in those days tended to be vague and lifestyle. There were more big ideas and Merrie England entertainments than actual policies. When Morris was asked why he didn’t run Morris & Co. on socialist lines, he said it would be pointless before the Revolution. His utopia, in which marriage and crime were unknown, was called Nowhere.

Morris still has descendants on the left, energetic in their opposition to the Conservative government but outside the political mainstream. They call themselves things like Strawberry Thieves and the News from Nowhere Club, small lights in a bad, dark world

23 May 2015

POTTERY THROWERS OF STOKE-ON-TRENT

I bought a pottery wheel and several other items from an old potter who is retiring, and among them were these slate throwers’ ribs from Minton’s, the factory where he used to work.

Throwers, who form pots on a rapidly spinning wheel, use these ribs to impart shape and a smooth surface to them. In Stoke-on-Trent the thrower was mainly concerned with the inside shape, and the usual practice was to take the pot when it was firm enough to handle and to impart the outside shape on a lathe.

In Hanley Museum there's a picture of a thrower, George Myatt, at work at Lockett’s in 1932, with his wife as his assistant, and on the wall behind him there's a large collection of throwing ribs (below).


In the 1970s Myatt was interviewed by Dr Gordon W.Elliott, who asked him to explain what a rib was.

G.M. The rib is a piece of slate, school slates were always the best, made to represent the inside of the article. They were filed exactly to shape the inside of the article, and the thrower held the rib in his left hand and made it smooth inside. The thrower finished the inside of the article, and the turner shaped the outside. The rib made it that the inside was finished.

G.W.E. Did you make your own ribs?

G.M. Yes, we all made our own ribs because ribs are like pens. It's very rare that you can use another man's ribs, very rare.

G.W.E. Is this why so many were inscribed with the thrower's, or at least, maker's name?

G.M. Yes, you will find some of mine and some that I left at Wedgwood that have got my name on them.

G.W.E. Was this so that other people wouldn't take them? 

G.M. It was just that you liked to think that if you had a good rib you'd put your name on it. There was one glorious rib that I had at Lockett's. It was one of very few ribs that I could use straight away, and it had been made by a man name Jess Amison. On the back of it said "William so and so, born so and so, died so and so. He was a good and generous master."

G.W.E. So you actually used that rib for your throwing at Wedgwood's?

 G.M. I did and it's at Wedgwood's now. I wish I'd never left it there.

G.W.E. So what was the usual number of ribs for a thrower to have?

G.M. You had a rib for everything you made. I'd got hundreds. You'll find that at the back of that picture there's a wall of 'em. You'd got everything egg cups, vases, mortars, every mortal thing that you made, you had a rib for it.

G.W.E. Were the slate ribs preferred to ribs in pottery? I mention this because some that I have seen were actually made from fragments of plates.

G.M. That was before they had any kind of refined slate. They'd even make them from roofing tiles at one time. I had quite a few of those made of earthenware. Yes, quite a lot in the early 19th century were made of earthenware. They were plates that had been trimmed off and made perfect. You had to soak them before they could be used otherwise they stuck to the clay as it went round.


My Minton ribs date from the 1930s, the same date as George Myatt’s picture, and they give me a physical connection to the old throwers of Stoke-on-Trent. Two of them have the thrower's name on them: S. Lawley. One - the second from the left in my top picture - formed chocolate cups for Tiffany’s of New York. To me it looks like an outside profile, not an inside one - in my picture it's upside down in relation to the cup (left) so that you can see S. Lawley's name on it.

Minton’s were one of the old pottery firms that went through mergers before winding up and disappearing completely. They had a grand history and produced top-class work over a long period. After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, they recruited Louis Solon from Sevres, who was responsible for some of their finest work.

By the 1930s much pottery in Stoke-on-Trent was cast in moulds, but throwers were still employed. In this film from 1935 about the making of silver jubilee mugs, a thrower starts the process by forming a rough pot on the wheel. It's then dropped into a mould and shaped in a jolleying machine. In this case, the thrower doesn’t have to work precisely but he has to work at speed. He has a helper who forms the ball of clay for him and lifts the pot off the wheel; he centres the clay, opens it out, pulls it up and cuts it off, all in seven seconds. That’s 480 cups an hour - over 3,000 a day if he can keep it up that long.


Stoke-on-Trent throwers were faster and better than studio potters. As a child, I was fascinated by the BBC TV interval film of the potter’s wheel, which may have sparked my interest in pottery, but looking at it again recently I realised that the potter, George Aubertin of the Compton Potter's Art Guild, was actually a rather bad thrower. More recently, at the exhibition Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, I saw a film of Bernard Leach throwing and was surprised to see how slow he was, although a bit of a show off. Leach’s best pupil, Michael Cardew, also appears in this film to be slow and laboured.



The Stoke-on-Trent throwers and the studio potters had little to do with one another. In the 1970s George Myatt was completely unaware of studio pottery. His comment on the decline of his trade was, “Today I think there’s only about four or five throwers in England.” Actually, there were hundreds, but he could run rings round them all.

Paul Atterbury and Maureen Batkin, The Dictionary of Mintons, ACC Art Books, 1999
Gordon Elliott, Potters, Leek: Chernet Valley Books, 2004 
Fiona MacCarthy, Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, London: National Portrait Gallery, 2014

7 May 2015

BUT IS IT ART? BUT IS IT COPYRIGHT?

A small argument has broken out on Wikipedia about whether a photo of a soup bowl can be included. The bowl (left) was part of the St Ives Pottery’s range of standard wares, introduced in the 1940s by Bernard Leach and his son David to provide an income stream for the pottery. Making standard ware was how generations of potters learned their trade in the much-coveted Leach pottery apprenticeships.

Someone said that the photo was a breach of copyright and that it had to be removed from Wikipedia. Like all artists, I’m concerned to protect my intellectual property, but I don’t know much about copyright law, and the law as it applies here is complex.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (section 62) says that an artist has copyright in a work of "artistic craftsmanship".  Such work can't be copied and a photo of it taken without the artist’s consent is a breach of copyright. An exemption is made for works of artistic craftsmanship displayed in public places. But the pot in this this photo is in the photographer’s private collection, and, odd as it may seem, that means that section 62 doesn’t apply.

There's another exemption for "fair dealing" where copying is done for the purposes of private study, non-commercial research, criticism, review or comment on current events. Whether this covers Wikipedia or not is a question I leave to the copyright lawyers, but Wikipedia errs on the side of caution and removes anything doubtful.

A more interesting question, however, is whether the bowl is a work of artistic craftsmanship. These bowls were made in huge quantities – over the years thousands of identical bowls were produced. It's an example of mass production by hand in which the distinction between "craft" and "manufacture" becomes blurred. In the Wikipedia debate, someone said it was "limited repeat production by hand" rather than mass production, i.e. that mass production by hand makes it craft but that repeat production with the aid of power-driven machinery makes it mass production. That's a distinction without a difference. Almost nothing is made by hand without tools and there's no meaningful difference between tools and machines

Craft is a slippery concept and is virtually impossible to define. David Pye, the most trenchant writer on the subject, said that craft is sometimes defined in a way that makes it impossible to tell by looking whether a product is a work of a craftsman or not. The way it was defined was inconsistent and contradictory: items that were not works of craftsmanship said to be

  • Imprecise, or
  • Precise, or
  • Unskilful, or
  • Made to someone else’s design, or
  • Made by power-driven tools, or
  • Producing a series of perhaps more than six things of the same design, or
  • Not made by the same person from start to finish.

The law protects intellectual property in artistic crafts, but not in crafts as such - so not a thatched roof, for example. In artistic craftsmanship there has to be

  • A conscious intention to produce a work of art
  • A real artistic or aesthetic quality
  • A sufficient degree of craftsmanship and artistry (existing simultaneously)

Considering that Bernard Leach had such an ambivalent attitude to fine art and that he adhered to Yanagi Soetsu's ideology of the Unknown Craftsman, it’s arguable that there was no intention to produce a work of art in the making of a thousand identical soup bowls. This bowl, made by an Unknown Apprentice, is just a bowl and anyone can take a photo of it.

29 January 2015

POTTERY BY MARGARET HINE AND WILLIAM NEWLAND


In my last post I said that Muriel Rose, who helped to create the post-war canon of studio pottery, omitted William Newland and Margaret Hine, two busy and successful contemporaries. I've written about Newland and Hine here and mentioned them in several other posts and readers will know how much I like their work; so I was delighted to see several of their pieces in a private collection, and here as a taster are a few pictures.

Above is a delightful Daniel and the Lion in terracotta by Newland, from the 1950s, robust but full of fun, typical of his work and his cheerful approach to pottery. Below are two birds by Margaret Hine, also typical of her work in this period. Hine and Newland made a contemporary interpretation of faience or tin-glazed earthenware. They had seen it on holiday in Spain in the late 1940s and in a 1950 exhibition of Picasso's pottery. They borrowed Picasso's decorating methods, combining painting, sgraffito and wax resist to produce varied and complex effects. In due course I will update this post with more pictures.


The Hine pigeons are, in fact, not faience but stoneware decorated in the manner of faience. The one on the left has a black glaze over white glaze and the drawing scratched through. The birds look as if they were made in moulds but they were actually assembled from parts thrown on the wheel, which makes them all different.

Newland taught pottery in London at the Central School of Art and Design and the Institute of Education, and Hine at High Wycombe Art School. In their later careers they worked in a variety of methods and Hine made these little stoneware bowls (left) with a lovely chün glaze at High Wycombe. If you didn't know who made them, you might have guessed from their pigeon feet.

12 January 2015

RUSKIN AND THE CULT OF ROUGHNESS IN STUDIO POTTERY

John Ruskin. Workmen must be free to produce imperfect art.
Studio pottery was created partly by narratives that set out its history, listed its key figures and promoted its values. Bernard Leach, the father of British studio pottery, was its leading narrator, but his admirers also played an important part. Muriel Rose’s book Artist Potters in England (1954) was a short text but was highly influential, not least in its omissions. In fact, she omitted nearly every artist potter in England. She highlighted Leach, Shoji Hamada, Michael Cardew, Nora Braden, Katherine Pleydell Bouverie, William Staite Murray, Sam Haile, Henry Hammond, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper and her book created the canon of studio pottery. But she omitted all the figurative ceramists (like Charles and Nell Vyse, Stella Crofts and Gwendoline Parnell) and all those who excelled at decoration (like Bernard Moore, Alfred Powell and Louise Powell). The history of art pottery until about 1930 was, in fact, mainly the history of figurative and decorated pottery, and it was only from the 1930s that the stoneware of Leach and Staite Murray, based on form and the texture of high temperature feldspathic glazes, began to define British art pottery. In constructing her narrative, Rose chose only those who were seen to prefigure her chosen subject and simply disregarded everyone else. Although she wrote when decorated tin-glazed studio pottery was at its most popular, she ignored that as well, making no mention of those who did it best: William Newland, Margaret Hine, Nicholas Vergette and James Tower – those who created what Dora Billington called “The New Look in British Pottery”.

Wilfrid Norton, a forgotten ceramist.
As a result of this narrative, some accomplished ceramists have been forgotten in the world of studio pottery, for example Wilfrid Norton (1880-1973), who made figurative pieces imbued with the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. He exhibited widely, was rated by Leach, headed the pottery department at Camberwell School of art and his work sells steadily at auction; but I have not seen him mentioned in any narrative of 20th century art pottery.

By these omissions certain values were asserted. Pottery should be designed and made by the same person, or by a few people. It should be made in a workshop with little power-driven machinery. It should be formed on the potter’s wheel, preferably from clay dug and prepared hand. The studio of an educated, middle class potter should be run with an eye on the unsophisticated maker of flowerpots and his counterpart in Japan. Art pottery should comprise useful vessels, usually round and usually brown or grey. (Their usefulness was not finely calibrated and there were anachronisms like cider jars and oddities like wine goblets.) It should be rough and quickly made, often with a gritty base that would sit well on scrubbed pine but not on polished mahogany. The values were those of high minded simple living. The physical difficulties of this way of making were thought to make better potters as well as better pots.

A jug from the Leach Pottery: not on the polished table, please.
Oliver Watson described this sort of pottery as “the ethical pot”. Watson, who was head of Ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1979 to 2005, was one of the first to write objectively about studio pottery and to distance himself from its dogmas. His account of studio pottery, based on the V&A’s collection, is the most lucid and perceptive introduction to the subject. More recently, Jeffrey Jones, at the University of Cardiff, has written a longer text, which locates studio pottery in its artistic and intellectual context, referring to its dialogue with modernism. These critical narratives of studio pottery emerged as its practices became more varied and dextrous.

J.M.Keynes said that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” In this context we can say that practical craftsmen were slaves of John Ruskin. He propounded the virtues of roughness in "The Nature of Gothic". His ideas migrated to Japan and returned to England with Leach and Shoji Hamada in the 1920s. By the 1960s, every un-intellectual hippy potter embraced them without knowing it.

"The Nature of Gothic" was a chapter in The Stones of Venice in which Ruskin asserted that all Gothic architecture had more or less of savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity and redundancy. It was from Ruskin’s doctrine of savageness that came the aesthetic of roughness in pottery and its association with social criticism.

The term Gothic, said Ruskin, was first applied as a term of abuse to the architecture of northern Europe to denote its sternness and rudeness, but there was no shame in that. Let us watch the man of the North as he works, he says, as, “with rough strength and unhurried stroke, he smites an uncouth animation out of the rocks which he has torn from among the moss of the moorland, and heaves into the darkened air the pile of iron buttresses and rugged wall, instinct with work of an imagination as wild and wayward as the northern sea; creatures of ungainly shape and rigid limb, but full of wolfish life; fierce as the winds that beat, and changeful as the clouds that shade them.” Ruskin’s persuasiveness comes from majestic rhetoric rather than from evidence.

The savagery of this work was not merely the expression of landscape and climate but also indicated religious principle. (For Ruskin, everything, including cut glass and iron railings, was a matter of principle.) In Gothic we find the Christian recognition of the value of every soul but also of its limitations in its Fallen state. In the execution of Gothic ornament the uneducated man, with all his shortcomings, has been allowed to do the best he can, without subjection to the direction of a higher intellect. As the expression of a free man, the work, for all its roughness and imperfection, has value. The contemporary mind, on the other hand, desires perfection and accuracy in work and is surrounded by highly finished artifacts. This high finish is the product of servile labour, for a workman can achieve it only if he is told exactly what to do. If he is given freedom he will err. The desire for a high degree of accuracy degrades the operative into a machine, and the systematic degradation of the worker in modern industry has generated destructive revolt and an outcry against wealth and nobility. The revolt is not the result of men’s being commanded by others but of their being turned into machines by the factory system with its division of labour and its demand for high finish.

The remedy is healthy and ennobling labour, which is done according to these principles:
  1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.
  2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
  3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.
All work, except the manufacture of necessities, should be inventive, even work done by rough and uneducated men. We cannot expect an exact finish from uneducated men except under instruction, and that makes them slaves.When they are doing exact work, they cannot be inventive and when they are inventive they cannot do exact work. Society should accept their invention even if it is imperfect, and that means forgoing refinement.

This is an odd idea for which Ruskin produces no evidence. Observation suggests that the capacity to produce exact work is unrelated to education or inventiveness. Uninventive people may be perfectly happy to produce refined work and may be proud of it. In fact, much exact and highly-finished work was done by independent artisans.

"The Nature of Gothic" became, in effect, the manifesto of the Arts and Crafts movement. Ruskin was no socialist, but his ideas about the moral significance of art, his condemnation of industrial civilisation and his ideas of how goods should be produced helped to shape the romantic socialism of William Morris, Walter Crane, C.R.Ashbee and W.R.Lethaby. But, as David Pye observed in The Nature and Art of Workmanship, he exempted the manufacture of necessities from his principles of ennobling labour. No social policy or political economy can be based on his ideas.

Ruskin by way of Japan: Soetsu Yanagi, Bernard Leach, Rudy Autio, Peter Voulkos, and Shoji Hamada.



















Ruskin was read by Bernard Leach and his Japanese friends, notably by Soetsu Yanagi, the main begetter of Mingei, the Japanese folk craft movement. Yanagi had become concerned about the effects of industrialisation on Japanese life and tradition. It is said that Leach introduced him to Morris, from whom he found his way to Ruskin, although Ruskin had been read in Japan since the 1880s. Yanagi insisted on the originality of his ideas and the purely Japanese character of Mingei but he took much from Morris, including the ideas of the art of the common people, the value of ordinary household objects and the unknown craftsman, wedding them to wabi-sabi, the Zen-derived aesthetic of modesty, naturalness, roughness, impermanence, sadness and imperfection.

Mingei celebrated the commonplace, practical crafts of the people. Yanagi's valorisation of the ordinary excluded expensive things or those made in very small numbers, which distinguished him from Ruskin, who wrote of cathedrals and gold, from Morris and Co., who made decorated furniture and tapestries for the rich, and even from the early studio potters, who exhibited in art galleries at high prices. Yanagi's ideas about the sources of artistic inspiration and beauty are also subtly different from those of Morris and Ruskin: Morris and Ruskin valued the craftsman's potential for conscious creativity, whose exercise gave him happiness in his work, while Yanagi spoke of divine power as the source of beauty; a recent critic, Idekawa Naoki, described Yanagi's idea of the craftsman as that of a human machine creating beauty unconsciously through labour-intensive, repetitive work.

Leach returned to England in 1920 wanting to unite the best of East and west. He acknowledged his debt to Ruskin: “I thought of Ruskin as my father,” he wrote. The ideas of Mingei were highlighted in the influential conference on the crafts at Dartington Hall in 1952 at which Leach, Yanagi and Hamada were key speakers. From Ruskin’s ideas on savagery, refracted through the Arts and Crafts movement, Mingei and Bernard Leach's practice, came the cult of roughness in studio pottery.
Savage beauty: a Japanese tea bowl by Lisa Hammond
Among current work done under this rubric I would single out for special praise that of Lisa Hammond and Phil Rogers, which skilfully demonstrate wabi-sabi. But among lesser potters the cult of roughness can be used to justify incompetence and philistinism.

David Pye argues that neither refined work nor rough work – in his terminology, “regulated” and “free” – is better than the other. He warns against spurious craftsmanship, which, in recognising that mass production can more easily produce regulated products than hand-making, “will take to a sort of travesty of rough workmanship: rough for the sake of roughness instead of rough for the sake of speed.” Rough work is produced when it has to be done quickly, but the good workman is  always “trying to regulate the work in every way that care and dexterity will allow consistent with speed.” One might say that if the craftsman aims for perfection he can be sure that his work will be imperfect, but if he aims for imperfection it is likely to be bad.

Muriel Rose, Artist Potters in England
John Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic
David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship
Emmanuel Cooper, Bernard Leach
Yuko Kikuchi, "A Japanese William Morris: Yanagi Soetsu and Mingei Theory"

3 December 2014

VAT AND THE ARTIST


Some artist once said he preferred the company of businessmen because they liked to talk about art, whereas artists always talked about business. Not so in my experience. Artists are unbusinesslike, and many small gallery owners are artists at heart.

I'm in the unusual position of being VAT-registered (although my sales are below the compulsory VAT threshold) while most of my galleries are not. Some don't understand how they should charge me commission and charge it on the whole price paid by the customer, including VAT. But my price is the price net of VAT, which I simply collect on behalf of the tax man. If the gallery charges commission on the gross price, they are taking commission out of the VAT, which I have to replace when I pay HMRC.

Say I agree to pay a gallery 50% commission and it sells a piece of work for me at £100 +  £20 VAT. Commission should be £50, but some galleries charge me £60. As I have to pay the tax man £20, I have only £40 left instead of £50. I have agreed to pay 50% commission but I have been charged 60%.

VAT-registered galleries understand the system. If they're not VAT-registered they're often baffled. The situation is confused even more because galleries are sometimes unclear about the relationship between the artist, the gallery and the customer. When a gallery sells work for an artist, it is being sold by the artist to the customer, not by the gallery. The work remains the property of the artist until sold and the gallery is the artist's agent. The commission is an agency fee. This should be really be reflected in the paperwork: the customer should be invoiced by the artist in full and the gallery should invoice the artist for its fee. This hardly ever happens and in despair at explaining this, and for the sake of a quiet life, I just invoice the gallery for the money they are to remit to me after deducting commission.

So why bother with VAT at all? You may well ask. It's because when I built and equipped my studio, the VAT ran into thousands and registration allowed me to claim it back. Once registered you can't de-register without returning your refunds. So I continue trying to explain all this to my lovely gallery owners, who appreciate my ceramics and work so hard to bring them to the attention of the public.

(The picture is "The Tax Gatherers" by Marinus van Reymerswaele, in the National Gallery, London.)

27 November 2014

MEET ME AND SEE MY LATEST WORK



Here are a few pieces that came out of the kiln this morning.  They're going on sale this weekend at the Chilwickbury Christmas Market, St Albans, Hertfordshire. The market is put on by Christiane Kubrick at her house every year, and it's always a pleasure to have a stall there - actually, it was once a horse's stall - the market is in the Childwickbury stables, where very grand horses used to live a hundred years ago.

This is not your average Christmas market. Christiane creates a wonderful atmosphere. There are original art, ceramics and gifts on show, sold direct by the artists, and there's plenty of hot, fresh and healthy food. The relaxed and easy going attitude creates the perfect environment in which you can approach the artists and talk to them about their work. So do come along and meet me on Saturday or Sunday.

Admission is free and there's plenty of free parking. No need to book, just turn up, park, begin browsing and enjoy the day.

Opening hours
Saturday 29th November 10am-5pm
Sunday 30th November 10am-5pm

19 November 2014

PS TO CERAMIC EDUCATION IN BRITAIN

In my last post I said that in the mid-seventies there were 37 full-time courses in ceramics in Britain. Like everyone else I wondered what the closure of courses would mean for studio pottery.  Assume the annual intake of each course was ten, and that half the graduates became professional potters (a very generous assumption) and that 10 per cent stopped making every year. Over thirty years that would produce about 1,700 potters. But in 2004, the Crafts Council estimated there were about 6,700 professional potters in Britain (Making It in the 21st Century). Most must have learned informally outside art schools. The quality of their work was variable; some were very good, many were mediocre and some were no good at all; but in terms of numbers, the training of potters clearly does not depend entirely on art schools.

31 October 2014

CERAMIC EDUCATION IN BRITAIN

I've written before about the closure of the Harrow ceramics course, the BA Ceramics at the University of Westminster. Matthew Partington, of the University of the West of England, described the closure of ceramics courses a few years ago in an interesting paper "Can British ceramics education survive?"  He says that in 1980 there were 17 degree courses in Great Britain; in 2010 there were four.  The decline is actually steeper:  In 1976 there were 37 full-time courses in ceramics (not all degree courses), although ceramics is still taught on some 3D courses.

There are several reasons for the decline.  (This, I should say, is my gloss on Partington's argument, not exactly what he writes.)

Fewer schools teach it, because of financial pressure, pressure on the timetable, concerns about health and safety and lack of skilled teachers.  It's not necessary to do a foundation course before a student goes on to an art degree, so students can start art at university without any experience or knowledge of ceramics.

There were too many ceramics courses and it was impossible to fill the places.  They're expensive, and if they're not filled, they have to close in the end. Financial stringency in universities has ensured that.  Ceramics tutors were getting old and they weren't being replaced.  One exception is Cardiff, where ceramics is still thriving.

Ceramics is unfashionable.  It's about materials and technique and not about ideas or self-expression. As art has become more cerebral, ceramics has lagged behind, though not on post-graduate courses. Ceramics expanded in a hands-on, intuitive way and there's little critical discourse in the ceramic community. (It's surprising how insatiable is the appetite of the older generation of pottery enthusiasts for throwing demonstrations.) There aren’t enough role models for young artists who want more than that. They would rather do fine art, animation or film.  Ceramics once chimed in with alternative ideas; now it's realised that it has a big environmental footprint, it's not green any more.

The cost of a degree means that students have to think about whether it will fit them for employment. Ceramics won’t, so it's now too expensive for everyone – for the university and for the student.

Partington points out that experimental ceramists depended on teaching for a living and weren’t under too much pressure to sell their work.  Course closure means they may no longer have an income. However, some experimental ceramists depend on grants and sponsorship.  Since they don't make commodities, there was never any market for their work.

Without teaching, many ceramists won't be able to make a proper living.  Although there was an over-supply of courses, there is also an over-supply of ceramists, who make more pottery than people want to buy. If some ceramists stop making, it may be better for those that continue.

But there may be a zero sum.  The unfashionability of ceramics may mean that the market for it also shrinks. Anyone who sells ceramics direct to the public knows that most of their customers are over fifty.  They grew up with Cranks, the Design Council and hippy crafts. Will the generation that grew up with instant messaging, neo-liberalism and Ikea replace them?

26 October 2014

MALEVITCH: THE END AND THE BEGINNING OF PAINTING


Kazimir Malevitch's "Black Square" (1915) (above) was the end of representational painting. In 1916, the Dadaists' Zurich exhibition was the end of art.  After those momentous events, what art became was a family whose members bore some resemblance to one another, but in which distant relatives looked very different indeed.

And where did one go after the "Black Square"?  In the comprehensive Malevitch exhibition, which ends at Tate Modern today, Malevitch's career, before and after "Black Square", is traced and documented.  He put a great deal of energy into teaching in the 1920s, inspiring his students with his ideas about Suprematism, his art doctrine of which the black square became a symbol.  In the 1920s, as Stalin's power increased in Russia, avant garde art was marginalised and condemned.  Malevitch himself was imprisoned, accused of being a German spy.  Then, in the 1930s, he started to do representational painting again, including portraits of workers.  But this was not socialist realism.  There were elements of realism, Suprematism and Renaissance portraiture.  To some extent this development may have been part of the Return to Order which occurred in art throughout Europe after the First World War; in part it may have been the need of a painter to continue painting, and a feeling of the limits of pure, hard-edged abstraction.

One of Malevich's last paintings was a portrait of E.Yakolevna (below), into which a lifetime's experience is poured.  To me this was one of the most beautiful portraits in the exhibition, with traces of abstraction in the red, white and black stripes in the subject's collar.  In this period of his life, Malevitch signed his pictures with a black square.  At his funeral in 1935 the front of the hearse bore a black square and mourners carried banners with black squares.