20th century european modernist ceramics: Appearance, ideology, production, Function and status Essay


Modernist European ceramics categorize a broad range of works that appeared in Europe in the 20th Century, yet from the perspective of the most influential English potters, the words ‘modernist’ and ‘European’ connote differently from what can be immediately discerned from the words ‘modern’ and ‘European’.

In essence, the most influential English craftspeople that appeared in the 20th Century have produced ceramic artifacts as statements against the modern realities of industrialization (Luddock, 1995) and urbanization (De Waal, 2005, p.42). This is effectively a journey back to old traditions in craftsmanship by educated intellectuals who are aptly labeled as artists-craftsmen, escaping from the pressures of the contemporary world (De Waal, 2005, p. 41). Such modern world pressures are artistically described as degrading the purity of the ties that bind life and work, and environment and self (De Waal, 2005, p. 41). This anti-modern, anti-industrialization statement has eventually transformed the primitive production of the ceramic artifact into a lifestyle by its makers.

More so, the English perceive ‘European’ as referring to the countries that make up the main European continent (Partington, n.d., p.2). The English have a unique culture and society that is distinct from the Germans and French and English potters emphasize such differences. This is because the United Kingdom is geographically separated by the English Channel from the European mainland.

In this essay, I will explore the many contrasts of modernist European ceramics in the United Kingdom as represented by the works and philosophies of Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, Leach’s most prominent student (Cooper, 2004, p. 2). Our hypothesis is that: 20th Century English ceramics, which are classified as modernist, are distinctively English. This is due to the social and cultural contexts in which these are produced and are in fact anti-modern. This stems from the English potters’ abhorrence of mass-production, machineries, and urbanization in favor of production by hand, traditional (primitive) tools of pottery-making and a romanticized move towards life in the country-side or rural area. Ironically, this very same anti-modern sentiment serves as an ideological reaction against the new economy of industrialization that classifies the works of Leach and Cardew as modernist (Luddock, 1995).

In addition, since the United Kingdom is still technically part of Europe, the works of the teacher, Leach, and the student, Cardew, can also be categorized as European although many of these works draw influences from the Orient (Cooper, 2004, p. 2). The British conquest of Asia can be attributed to these oriental influences. For instance, the very fact that tea is the national drink of the United Kingdom and that it has been discovered and imported from Asia says a lot in the production of ceramic tea pots (Cooper, 2004, p. 3). This is in sharp contrast to beer in Germanic countries like Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, and grape wine in Romance countries like France, Italy and Spain. Obviously, these European countries have no oriental influences in the making of the containers of their national drinks because these drinks, and the raw materials from which these drinks are made, are distinctively continental.

Appearance and Ideology: What is Modernist Ceramics?


In Figure 1, an example of a ‘Modernist’ ceramic is shown to differentiate it from a ‘Modern’ one. The work presented as ‘modernist’ is made by a certain Kazimir Malevich in 1923 while the work labeled as ‘modern’ has been made by Paul Schreckengost in 1938. The major observable difference between the two works is that the modernist ceramic is angular and has many straight lines. Meanwhile, the modern ceramic is curvaceous. Of course, this visual definition is only limited to the two artifacts as shown in the figure. However, this visual contrast says a lot when the comments of key English potters are taken into consideration as to what is European versus what is English.

Figure 1. Sample Artifacts – Modernist and Modern (Bauhaus Ceramics, 1950, p. unknown)





For instance, in his description of English roads, gardens and mazes, UK potter, William Newland notes that these are soft, curving, and/or serpentine (National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts [NEVAC], 1994). Meanwhile, Newland describes French gardens and mazes as geometric and cubistic (NEVAC, 1994). Partington (n.d., p. 4) further notes Newland’s perceptions on the differences between English and Europeans: the Germans and French are structured, organized and hard while the English are natural and soft. Here then is evidence that curves are attributed as English while geometrical or angular shapes are classified as European by the English.

Partington (n.d., p. 4) offers another reinforcing example on the dichotomy of England and continental Europe: England is natural while Europe is ordered. As another fitting elaboration, Partington (n.d., p. 4) discusses the point of view of Sydney Tustin, a potter who has worked with Michael Cardew at the Winchcombe Pottery for over 50 years. From the segments of an interview, Tustin narrates how he prefers Cardew’s English pots compared to the ones Cardew made when he set up a pottery at the Gold Coast, presently known as Ghana, then in Nigeria sometime in 1942 (Cooper, 2004, p. 2). Basically, Tustin did not like Cardew’s pots that have been made in Africa since these appeared ‘continental’ as evidenced by the straight lines that broke the curves of a tea pot’s belly. In short, Cardew’s English pots had curves while those that he made in Africa were angular, which Tustin described as ‘continental’ (Partington, n.d., p. 4) and therefore, European.

As such, the characteristics and appearance of English modernist ceramics differ considerably from European modernist ceramics. Drawing from the examples previously described, the possibility that French modernist ceramics will have observable differences with German modernist ceramics, and both, against English modernist ceramics (Harrison, 1981) should not be discounted. Hence, European modernist ceramics can only be broadly defined or categorized based on the ideological reactions of their makers and not on their exact appearance. To do so would be at the risk of failing to consider other modernist ceramics that may have different origins. As such, the definition of modernist ceramics that is offered here is rather amusing in the sense that: only those 20th Century English works that have vocal makers or those whose makers get published a lot can be classified as modernist since those potters whose ideological reactions cannot be known cannot, in effect, be categorized as modernist. In the case of modernist ceramics in the UK, the non-literary artwork is determined by its literature rather than by its aesthetic appearance.

Production: Resistance to Change, in Perspective

Cooper’s (2004) biographical sketch of Leach will now be used to introduce the aspect of production. Bernard Leach is perhaps the most celebrated English studio potter of the 20th Century since the Second World War. Leach has studied in Japan and set up his own pottery in the United Kingdom in the 1920s. After the publication of Leach’s ‘A Potter’s Book’ showcasing his work and ideas, Leach has greatly influenced many potters in Europe, America, India, Australia and New Zealand. His book has been published in many countries and has been translated in various languages. Leach has romanticized the country potter and handmade pottery production on a small scale. He has aimed for producing reasonably priced handmade pots that can be used daily, combining the aesthetic qualities of the artist and the artisan.

It is no accident that Leach’s career flourished when industrialization rapidly emerged and evolved in the United Kingdom. Numerous craftsmen have been replaced by a sole machine operator and machinery that produced goods of the same quality and consistent standard, yet with larger volumes that a team of craftsmen can only hope to produce in their lifetimes. This industrial pressure on certain segments of British society has been compounded by Henry Ford’s mass-production techniques and the revolutionary concept of the one-style, one-color car, the Model T, in the United States. Henceforth, factory-made products have become anonymous due to the mass production principles of keeping production costs low by producing the same goods, with consistent qualities and a solitary style. This has become a boring, dehumanizing routine to most factory workers and a clamor for specialized goods from consumers with discriminating tastes has began to spread.

Escaping the pressures of industrialization and the hustle and bustle of the city, Leach has veered away from city life into the English countryside of St. Ives in 1920 (Cooper 2004, p 2). He has produced, on a limited scale, handmade pottery that has catered to consumers with discriminating tastes who essentially wanted to escape the anonymity of factory-made goods (Cooper 2004, p 2). However, although Leach has aimed to offer his works at reasonable prices, he has failed to provide strong competition to the easy availability and affordability of factory-made goods (Cooper 2004, p 2).

From a different perspective, if Leach has been born during the peak period of industrialization or perhaps in the information age, he would have had realized that a new breed of artists-craftsmen is evolving in the area of ceramic production. In the new economy, one type of craftsperson may have been displaced, which will naturally react to such displacement, however, it is also important to consider that another type of craftsperson will have had emerged. For instance, Bennet (2005, pp. 103-4) notes that craftsmanship is not limited to manual labor but can also include mental craftsmanship. As such, a ceramic designer working for a factory can be classified as a mental craftsperson. This is best exemplified by Cooper (2004, p. 3) noting Janice Tchalenko’s work with industry in the mass production of colorful pots. Moreover, the use of ceramics as a household container for food, liquid, and other objects, or simply as an elegant ornament, has also expanded into other uses such as in the assembly of aircraft and manufacture of electronics components. Hence, a materials engineer working in the aircraft industry can also be classified as a new breed of artist-craftsperson bringing the usefulness of pottery beyond the realms of the home into aerospace. In the new economy, craftsmanship is really not limited to those who work on objects by hand but can also include those who use engine-driven machinery or electronic devices to create works of art and marvels of science— with numerous functions and applications never before imagined by the likes of Leach (Bennet, 2005, p. 106).

Thus, preference or prejudice for a certain production technique in the creation of art does not necessarily exclude other works produced in a different way as non-art or non-craft. That preference or prejudice simply represents the source of fulfillment of its maker. For instance, English potter Ray Finch used to work at a paper mill before working for Michael Cardew (Partington, n.d., p. 2). His displacement from the factory does not really mean that he is less skilled or inferior to the machine or the machine operator. From an industrial point of view, people like him are simply too expensive in the production of goods that tried to reach to a wider range of consumers. Yet in the eyes of Finch, his factory job represents a dead end (Partington, n.d., p. 2). This may be because Finch cannot objectify the goods that he has produced (Bennet, 2004, p. 104) since the machine has been mainly responsible for the papers’ production. In this regard, the machine has essentially taken away Finch’s major source of fulfillment while Finch cannot provide value on his own that would equal the economic value that the machine provides. Hence, objects of beauty (be it paper or ceramics) that have proliferated do not necessarily degenerate art. These have just become too available and affordable for the appreciation of a greater number of people. In the new economy, such art objects can include music, film, electronic arts and works of literature that have found new and cheaper media, from which these could be distributed or sold. In this case, the craft is no longer tangible and no longer requires the great attention to the material of production. Rather, 21st Century artworks now require greater attention to the mental workmanship in producing the craft. There are no tangible objects to speak of and if there are tangible objects, these are simply packaging material, not the artwork itself.

Function: Idealizations and Realities

Michael Cardew’s concept of use for his pots is containment rather than decorative or ornamental. This is the reason why Cooper (2004) observes that Cardew has tried to price his pieces accordingly, often at great expense to himself. Hence, when a patron has bought Cardew’s pieces for display or ornament, Cardew’s ideals seem to have been violated. Of course, the decorative function of his works provides no debate to their significance. A beautiful object cleanses the soul and provides great joy that an ordinary piece cannot provide. This elevated feeling, as a result of seeing or touching the pleasing object, can be function by itself (Cooper, 2004, p. 1).

In the case of Bernard Leach, however, he recognizes that aesthetics can be a significant function (De Waal, 2005, p. 41-2). Leach has priced his works appropriately, observes Cooper (2004), often probing the higher price ranges that patrons will pay for. However, Leach still has idealized that most of his works can be used for their intended purpose; that is, as tableware more than as decorative pieces for display or museum pieces placed side by side with paintings and sculpture.

English modernist ceramics can also serve functions beyond essentialism or aestheticism. These can provide psychological escape, not only to their makers (Cooper, 2004, p. 2), but to patrons as well. The sensitizing caress that essentially configures handmade pottery provides a leisurely, therapeutic routine that soothes the nerves, especially when such pottery is made in a rural setting. This provides a harmonizing oneness with the environment as the hands shape a lump of earth into an object that will later on be transformed into a thing of beauty. With the combined benefits of work and leisure, pottery has become a fulfilling occupation in the 20th Century and well into the 21st Century.

Ceramic patrons likewise feel the same psychological release. The quiet reflection that accompanies the appreciation or admiration of a beautiful work of art frees the weary soul of the new economy worker or industrialist from the pressures and concerns of the hectic workplace. Moreover, the great expense that is usually entailed in the acquisition of such artifact provides the same relief as shopping binges that depressed housewives use to calm themselves from the boredom of the home or even as a tool for getting back at a cheating or difficult husband.

Certain persons also have an emotional need for completion and accumulation, including pride of ownership. This way, modernist ceramics, or any artifact for that matter, can have a more positive psychological benefit instead of plain emotional escape: that of emotional fulfillment. It is basically human nature to fulfill a need to complete something either through work or acquisition. A group of collectors can see an appreciation of their investments as the group’s collective demand for ceramic artifacts that have been produced in a small scale rise. As in the case of old deteriorating paintings, the masterpiece becomes even more valuable as imitations proliferate whether these are better in material quality than the original. The same can also apply to rare ceramic pieces. As to the pride of ownership, we will next discuss the status and popularity of English modernist ceramics.

Status: Prestige and Popularity

Prestige is essentially defined by ability notes Bennet (2005, p. 112). An object that has been made with the use of excellent skill, whether manual or mental, can provide prestige to its maker. But can prestige be transferred through prestige products? Referring to the work of Otis Dudley Duncan, Bennet observes that when compared with professionals like doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers, businessmen and politicians are less admired by people surveyed in America and in other countries. This is beside the fact that business people and politicians earn more and have more power compared to these professionals. Moreover, skilled electricians and carpenters enjoy higher prestige. How do successful people cope with such lack of prestige? The answer is, successful business people, like the Medicis since medieval times, have become patrons of the arts.

Corollary to the explanation above, Leach and Cardew have tried to appeal to patrons of modest means so that most of their pieces can be used for their intended purpose. However, since handmade objects have become more expensive than their machine-made counterparts, the popularity of Leach’s and Cardew’s tableware can be viewed in the aspect of admiration rather than ownership. Books showcasing the work of the two artists-craftsmen will have naturally reached a wider readership or a more expansive visual appeal. Yet the scarcity of their ceramic works, due to the nature of their small scale operation, will have pushed prices up. Hence, Leach and Cardew artifacts will have popularity in terms of admiration but will achieve difficulty in popularity through ownership. Moreover, as more wealth is created in the new economy, the population of low-prestige business people will have increased, thereby pushing the demand for prestige products up to meet the said demand. This is usually the case when the physical material is the artwork itself. Yet of course, 21st Century artifacts like movies will essentially have value in the mental realm rather than the material in which these are distributed for popular ownership. In this regard, an expensively produced artwork, like the Lord of the Rings movie, can be popularly owned through a cheap medium of distribution such as the compact disc. Pots cannot achieve the same thing without totally disregarding their intended purpose.

Summary and Conclusion

Modernist ceramics in the United Kingdom appear to be a label for a retreat to the ways of old, denouncing the instability and pressures caused by the new way of doing things. This appears to be a British affinity for traditions and a sharp contrast to the root word from which the term ‘modernist’ has been derived. Moreover, ceramic production from a small studio and it being hand-made are idealized over that of a factory without regard to the aesthetic superiority of technological advances. Sometimes, and now more often, machine-made can have aesthetic superiority over handmade. Meanwhile, educated potters seem to prefer the label of ‘artist’ rather than ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan.’ Of course, the distinctions between the two are many. For instance, one can be more textually vocal and eloquent than the other; yet in the case of Bernard Leach, he seems to have eloquently aimed for the fusion of both the artisan and the artist.

Despite their eloquence, however, Leach and Cardew seem confused on the primary function of their handmade works: Are these pieces for use (as containers of food, liquid, and other objects) rather than for display only? With this consideration, both artist-craftsmen have failed to consider the huge costs of producing ceramic pieces by hand, which essentially limit the quantity of patrons who can be exposed to their works due to the simple reason of affordability. Although the two made an effort to make their works affordable, sometimes at great costs to themselves, most especially in the case of Cardew; their ceramic pieces have failed to provide strong competition to the cheaper factory pieces (Cooper, 2004, p 2.).

Thus, art is simply an expression and is never limited by a relative time word such as the word ‘modernist.’ A beautiful art piece can transcend time and definite time words like ‘20th Century’ can be more appropriate when fine-tuned by the words ‘anti-mass production’. Moreover, beautiful ceramics can also be mass produced by machines, but it is specifically the designer that determines the aesthetic qualities of these works. Fundamentally speaking, an artist’s mental skill will still have its unique imprint on a machine-produced art piece. This is an instance when the machine replicates the artist’s design, either on a small-scale or large-scale. After all, an artist, English or European, essentially uses his/her hand and mind in the design of such machine-produced art piece be it ceramic or electronic.

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