Spring 2016: Art History- Early through Contemporary European Ceramics

(All images from ART 865 slideshows by Linda Ganstrom, unless otherwise noted.)

From the earliest beginnings of art, before the ideas of ‘concept’ and ‘intention’, mankind has made efforts to narrate and value the human experience. From the earliest cave paintings, as best we can surmise, artists, as we have come to call them, have documented and named our activities from the mundane to the profound, using whatever was at hand to do so. As early as 400,000 BCE, humans began depicting themselves, consciously recognizing our image and existence in small stone sculptures.


The purpose of these small figures is lost to time, but many theories abound, from playthings for children to fertility rituals and worship. As skills developed, new details and investment in form occurred, and the aesthetic sophistication of each piece notes a step forward in humanity’s search to document and express the significance of their lives. This advancement is easily seen when comparing the Woman from Willendorf, a well-known limestone figure, to the aforementioned stone effigies.

Woman from Willendorf, c 22,000 BCE:


These steps leap forward with the discovery of clay and its ability to be formed and made permanent in fire. While Europe has no broadly documented history with clay until approximately 8,000 BCE, these figurines do occasionally show up, dating back to 26,000 BCE, as this figure from the Czech Republic indicates.


As has been noted by many historians, the paintings in the caves at Lascaux could be interpreted as narratives for the daily lives of the hunters and gatherers who populated the area at the time.

Lascaux, 15,000 BCE:


Beginning about 4,000 BCE, early ceramics began to bridge the gap between representation and function, paving the way for more modern European ceramics.

Pit-comb ware, 4,000 BCE:


Over time, as function became more important, form also became more intricate, and the more intricate it became, the more valued it was, as its fragility dictated a more sedentary lifestyle, and often that sedentary lifestyle came as a result of personal wealth.

Here, we make a leap to the 1500s the work of the Palissy school. The advent of porcelain, and Bernard Palissy’s efforts toward replicating the purity and color of said materials, as well as his regard for the natural world, creates a window into a section of the culture at the time. With royal patronage, the Palissy school created a wide range of semi-functional to decorative works, representing the natural world and humanity’s connection to it.


As with Palissy’s obession with porcelain and his fortunate royal patronage (until his death in prison for expressing errant religious views), so was Sevres porcelain work of the 17- and 1800s, championed by the aristocracy. With the patronage of King Louis XV, French Sevres ware became an indicator of wealth and culture. Figurines were again in fashion, though instead of depicting or revering the figure in a ritual sense, the Sevres forms depicted narratives from popular performances, indirectly giving voice to the culture of the time.

The Grape Eaters, 1700s CE:


The Sevres work was primarily a commodity of the wealthy, and the factories struggled to remain solvent, while still producing intricate and functional work.


Under Napoleon’s reign, and under the new direction of Alexandre Brongniart, Sevres production became more available to a broader audience.


Now, how one might relate the delicacy and grand flourishes of the Sevres-type ware to the earliest figurative pieces like those from the Czech Republic may seem like a stretch. However, if each of these expressions is taken as a representation of what is of value to each of these cultures, the connections make sense. We create and revere what identifies us, whether it be a small ritual figurine, or a gilded vase. These things mark each of us, whether maker or owner, as a part of that piece of history, filed in time against what is important to us as a culture.

This holds true moving forward into more modern times. Relics of the naturalism of Palissy and the grandiose delicacy of the Sevres eras show up again and again in contemporary ceramic art. While we can look back and see these connections as intentional on the part of the artist in many ways, how will this be interpreted in future centuries? When these documented connections are lost, the roots are still there, winding through history and tying this whole grand timeline together.

Jennifer Allen, celebrating the natural world:


Chris Boger, the figure:


And Kristen Kieffer, the delicate beauty of functional ware:


May we all bear our connections to the past, and our efforts to document and narrate what is important to us, and therefor bookmark our place in history, with such attention and passion as those who came before.

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