Ceramic sculpture has a long history, even if recently a frequently inglorious one. Since the 1970s it seems to have been largely the preserve of would-be ceramicists who have never learned to throw a pot. In the past decade the contemporary art industry has latched on to ceramics as a new hunting ground, where a degree of technical sophistication underwrites work that is mostly vacuous but sells for very high prices.
This was an issue that arose in April this year at the international ceramics symposium Clay Gulgong in the Hunter Valley near Mudgee, at which I also presented a paper. It was clear there was a vast chasm separating real practitioners who made beautiful but modest work with skill, honesty and care, from a new class of international art starlets conjured out of nothingness by the power of the art market.
The same sort of disconnection exists in other arts, such as painting, but it is more dramatic in ceramics because the field has kept itself apart from the speculative economy that has come to dominate most other forms of artistic expression. Potters have remained a kind of counterculture, and the economics of the craft mean that few will grow wealthy.
But the market is trying to change all that, with an insidious campaign to present ceramics as a fossilised practice in need of rescuing; if only it would throw off its quaint alternative habits and join the bright new world of contemporary art, ceramics could become so much more fashionable. In reality, while there is indeed room for improvement, it lies in a different direction: for ceramics is an art form, as I argued in Gulgong, in which sublime work arises from the most humble devotion to practice.
But returning to ceramic sculpture, the greatest exponents of this form in modern Europe were the Della Robbia family in Renaissance Florence, who executed both tombs and sculptural reliefs, such as the Resurrection for the Sacristy door at the Duomo, in white glazed earthenware and delightful coloured roundels of saints in the Pazzi Chapel at the Basilica of Santa Croce and elsewhere.
Painted terracotta sculpture was also used in the Renaissance for hyperrealist portraits such as the well-known bust of Niccolo da Uzzano by Donatello (1430s), today in the Bargello in Florence. Although white plaster casts of this head are common in art schools, the original is in a deliberately striking polychromatic finish.
This same realist idiom could be used, later in the century, to bring religious figures vividly to life, as we see in Benedetto da Maiano’s painted terracotta bust of John the Baptist (c. 1480) in the National Gallery in Washington. The potential of terracotta for realism was dramatically exploited by Niccolo dell’Arca in the grief-stricken female figures he produced for Lamentation Over the Dead Christ in Bologna. The same subject was repeated several times in a realistic rather than overtly emotive vein by his contemporary Guido Mazzoni (notably at Sant’Anna dei Lombardi in Naples).
In the baroque period, terracotta was mostly Eighteenth-century porcelain sculpture National Gallery of Victoria. Until December. used to produce models for works to be executed in marble or bronze, but in the 18th century its potential for realism was rediscovered and natural terracotta was used for portraiture by the great sculptors Houdon and Pajou, although both employed marble as well. Pajou, incidentally, carved a marble bust of Captain Cook for a monument at the Chateau de Mereville, of which we have a studio copy at the National Museum of Australia.
It was also in the 18th century that the secret of producing high-fired, fully vitrified porcelain was finally discovered in Europe, after a couple of centuries of admiring Chinese porcelain and