Review by Tanya Harrod
Twentieth Century Ceramics

Edmund de Waal. Twentieth Century Ceramics. London: Thames and Hudson, 2003. 224 pp., 101 bw and 77 color illus., bibliography, index. $14.95 (softbound).

Twentieth Century Ceramics is a welcome addition to the Thames and Hudson World of Art series. Tamara Préaud and Serge Gauthier’s Ceramics of the Twentieth Century (Céramique du XXe siècle, 1982) was previously the only international study available.[1] Its tripartite plan—“Factories,” “Artists,” and “Potters”—was workmanlike but dull and its global scope limited to Europe and the United States. In contrast, Twentieth Century Ceramics treats industrially designed ceramics, forays into clay by fine artists, and the intense but isolated world of studio pottery as interrelated themes in each chapter. The author is a leading potter, which would lead one to assume that ceramics made “in studio” would form the focus of the book. The text, however, appears to reflect a shift in de Waal’s own sensibility; during the past ten years he has turned from the production of functional wares to ambitious installation pieces and museum interventions. As a result, Twentieth Century Ceramics, unusually for a survey book, reads both as an introduction to a material and its disciplines and as a polemic.

In a strongly argued introduction de Waal identifies modern ceramics as a “territory that is both complex and much fought over” (p. 7). For example, the teamwork involved in much ceramics practice challenges the primacy of artistic authorship and intentionality. Then again, the relationship between sculpture and ceramics has remained consistently problematic. In the early twentieth century clay seemed the pliable servant of academic sculpture, but by the 1960s the loyalty of ceramists to a single material appeared to lack conceptual agility. The studio potter impressively braids science, technology, and formal artistry, but it is the “outsiders”—painters, sculptors, and architects—who dominate this book. Their work is important, in de Waal’s view, precisely because they retain an “element of play” and stand for “a liberation from expectation or technical knowledge” (p. 9).

If de Waal’s sympathies lie with innovative “outsiders,” he nevertheless writes acutely, and at times tenderly, about ceramics across a broad spectrum. Familiar iconic pots are given sharply detailed, fresh analyses. For instance, in his opening chapter, Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s Scarab Vase of 1910 is framed as a testimony to the extravagant consumption of time—a point reinforced by its rarely cited subtitle, The Apotheosis of the Toiler. A discussion of the enchantment of technology (to use the anthropologist Alfred Gell’s suggestive phrase[2]) offered by the French potter Taxile Doat is set against the discovery of the faux naiveté of Japanese tea wares and the sensuality of art nouveau industrial ceramics. The defiant expressionism of Paul Gauguin’s hand-built stoneware is rightly seen as a riposte to the bland sophistication of Sèvres and to the orientalist certainties of French studio potters like Auguste Delaherche.

De Waal gives us an alternative history of art even if on occasion his passionate advocacy of ceramics as a high calling seems exaggerated. A turn toward the applied arts can alleviate loneliness or economic embarrassment. Gauguin certainly saw ceramics as a way of generating funds. Ambroise Vollard sent his stable of artists to work with the potter André Methey in 1907 partly to create a salable body of work. The project was, however, a financial failure and the critics mostly overlooked the resulting pots. The large group of fauve ceramics included in Roger Fry’s first post-impressionist exhibition of 1910 received no critical attention whatsoever.

Even if ceramics have often been ignored or excluded from the narratives of modern art, de Waal rightly emphasizes the surprising number of lost or neglected imaginative texts that interrogate ceramics—in terms of design or fine art or as a species of authentic vernacular. Both Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos wrote enthusiastically about ceramics around 1910, and de Waal alludes tantalizingly to Gauguin’s reviews of ceramics exhibitions, to Lucio Fontana’s reflections on Picasso’s ceramics, to the poet John Ashbery’s writings on funk ceramics, and to a wealth of untranslated literature that debates Japanese ceramics. He quotes plenty of texts as well: Paul Rudolf Henning’s Ton–Ein Anruf (pp. 39–40), the 1928 article “What Do We Want from a Plate?” (p. 63) from the Soviet Young Communist League newspaper, and the thoughts of the poet Paul Valéry, the critic Herbert Read, the painter-critic Patrick Heron, and the Japanese writer Shuzo Takiguchi.

All four of the elegantly structured chapters covering the years 1900–1920, 1920–1945, 1945–1965, and 1965–2000 move adventurously across continents and make sense of a plethora of differing tactics. It is perhaps significant that illustrations of industrial ceramics almost disappear from this narrative after World War II, aside from an image of a series of vase designs by Ettore Sottsass and of a tea set by Gertrud Vasegaard designed for the Danish firm Bing and Grondahl, which seems a pity. Current industrial tableware is strikingly uniform, but one of the pleasures of peace included bold and playful factory-made ceramics for everyday use. 

This is not to say that de Waal ignores playfulness; it emerges as the leitmotif of his two final chapters. Wrongs are righted. The humorless dismissal of School of Paris ceramics by New York art critics in the 1950s once passed for intellectual rigor but now seems merely unsophisticated, as do the philistine chuckles that greeted Jim Melchert’s performance piece Changes in 1972. Twentieth Century Ceramics ends, as it begins, on a combative note. After a respectful discussion of the self-contained minimalist vessels of Martin Smith, Wouter Dam, and Martin Bodilsen Kaldahl, de Waal turns to “more exacting strategies” (p. 187) in the form of gallery installations and unsettling interventions in museums that play with the atmospherics and taxonomies of museum display. A section is devoted to the framing of ceramics as still life, a strategy adopted most memorably in the early work of Andrew Lord and carried forward with insolent confidence by the Danish ceramist Michael Geertsen and with limpid calm by the Australian Gwyn Hanssen Pigott.

What becomes clear is that the contemporary work most enthusiastically valorized by de Waal at the close of Twentieth Century Ceramics relates closely to his own concerns. This approach may seem troubling. As de Waal is well aware, however, most ceramic surveys of contemporary work offer little more than bland commentary and a depressingly familiar array of iconic pots. De Waal’s active engagement with the field explains why his is such an energetic and engaging book.

Tanya Harrod
Royal College of Art, London

Ceramics in America 2005

  • [1]

    Tamara Préaud and Serge Gauthier, Ceramics of the Twentieth Century (New York: Rizzoli International, 1982).

  • [2]

    “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” in Alfred Gell, The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams (London: Athlone Press, 1999), pp. 159–86.