Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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