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Ceramic Art in the Twentieth Century
by Arnold Rowntree

The influence of Oriental ideals on modern ceramics

For you have forsaken your people, the house of Jacob, because they are filled with the ways of the east Isaiah 2:6

Before the twentieth century in Europe, pottery was either large scale industrial or, if practiced by an individual, it was a peasant's trade. In the pottery factories there were designers, but outside the main factories there were no studio potters. Some artists near the turn of the century attempted to offer special pieces of pottery in the same way that they presented paintings, but these were generally misunderstood by the public.

Around the turn of the century, an Englishman named Bernard Leach traveled to Japan and worked for several years with the Japanese master potter Shoji Hamada. Leach absorbed Hamada's world view along with his technique, returned to England and established a pottery at St. Ives. Leach made beautiful pottery in the Japanese style and tradition which was welcomed by the market. Leach had many admirers, and he apprenticed Michael Cardew and others. Leach is very famous, at least among potters, not only for his style but also for his way of working. He gave birth to the studio pottery movement where an artist makes beautiful pots and earns a living making a range of domestic ware in the same style.

The Japanese aesthetic as expressed in their ceramic art can indeed be very beautiful. Every artist or scientist whether Christian or non-Christian is working in God's world, discovering and reinterpreting His creation. However, the fact that an eastern aesthetic achieved cultural dominance in the west points to the spiritual bankruptcy of the post-Christian west. The same pattern is repeated in the other arts as well as in other areas of life. For example, the impressionist painters drew inspiration from Japanese prints at a time when the art establishment was stuffy and formalized. The New Age movement is a manifestation of the same search for a lost faith. When a culture is dry and dead, people will go looking elsewhere for roots, symbols and a new way to express meaning, purpose and values.

Of course, not all contemporary ceramics are Japanese clones; for some potters, the major influences are not oriental. But I think all of them have at least some influence from Bernard Leach, since he was the first studio potter, and we are in a way descendants of his. Two men who have resisted the Leach bandwagon are Alan Caiger-Smith and Peter Voulkos. Alan Caiger-Smith is an Englishman who began potting in London in the fifties when Leach's influence was at its height. However, Caiger-Smith looked to European maiolica for inspiration, and he began making tin glazed earthenware while most potters were doing stoneware with earthy browns and greens. Maiolica is usually a white glaze over a terracotta body with coloured brush decoration. It is important to remember that Caiger-Smith worked as an individual in a studio (later a small workshop) in the same way that Leach worked, and making the same kind of items - mugs, jugs, bowls, vases, etc. Caiger-Smith is well known for a beautiful and unique style of brushwork; his work is very beautiful functional ware. Rather than maximizing the Oriental, he is consciously looking to western traditions.

Peter Voulkos is an old man now (like Caiger-Smith) who was a making pottery that looked like most other potters in the fifties. As time went on, Voulkos made more pottery that was 'anti-art'. As the most shocking practitioner in the world he became famous, and his work is valued as representing nihilism in ceramics. At workshops he would demonstrate with a bottle of whiskey in one hand while he slashed lumps of clay with knives and punched them with his fists. Again, Voulkos is working as a studio potter, but he is less concerned with eastern influences than with the alienation and death-wish of modern art.

How then should a Christian potter work? We are heirs of what has gone before, we are influenced by potters who have lived and worked before us. The creative process is one where elements of other people's work are absorbed and reinterpreted; so our task is to look at what has been done and then work to the glory of God. Our main sources of inspiration ought to be from traditions that have a greater deposit of biblical Christianity.

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum