Robert Ellison has been collecting since the 1970’s and he is known to every ceramics dealer far and wide. His taste may seem eclectic but primarily he is interested in organic stylization. He coined his own word to describe this interest, “orgamorphic.” This includes figurative work but presented with the push-pull of clay’s expressive abilities. His collection begins in the mid 19th century and continues into the 21st century.
This is the second exhibition of works he has gifted to the Metropolitan Museum (New York, February13-August 18, 2014). They are all French, from the dawn of the studio pottery movement in the late 19th century when this nation’s ceramists and potters lead the ceramics world both aesthetically and in glaze science.
In a review for The New York Times, Ken Johnson delivers a smart, perceptive overview of an assembly of these ceramics that is as fine a group of masterpieces as one will encounter:
“Beauty is routinely dismissed by today’s progressive thinkers. It’s not politically or ethically meaningful, they’ll say. But this is wrong. Beauty is political. Groups of people convene around vehement feelings for particular forms of it. What some find beautiful, others find repulsive and morally disgusting, and sometimes even worth going to war over. The taste for certain styles of beauty is as likely to be aligned with revolutionary as with reactionary convictions.
“This might sound like an overheated way to introduce a small exhibition of late-19th- and early-20th-century French ceramic domestic ware recently donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But ideologically fraught aesthetics are of the essence with the works in the show, Making Pottery Art: The Robert A. Ellison Jr. Collection of French Ceramics (ca. 1880-1910).
“Nearly all of the collection’s 40 works are in a traditional form, including vases, bowls and platters, but they represent a marvelous variety of styles and influences from classic Chinese to European folk traditions. What they share is a quality of candor, a love for processes, materials and the human touch.
“Inspired by Art Nouveau and the British Arts and Crafts movement, these artists were trying to do for the decorative arts what Post-Impressionists like van Gogh and Cézanne and Symbolists like Moreau and Redon were doing for painting around the same time: rescuing their medium from stuffy, fussy and vapid forms of bourgeois gentility. They wanted to remake ceramics into a sensually, emotionally and imaginatively vivid art form. Beauty would be a psychosocial wake-up call.”
Johnson perceptively locks onto the radical of the group, Paul Gauguin, assisted by the masterful potter Ernest Chaplet before the latter developed his passion for Asian glazed ceramics:
“For several reasons, the show’s most intriguing object is Vessel With Woman and Goat, an oddly lumpy and complicated stoneware bottle just under eight inches tall made by Paul Gauguin — yes, that Gauguin — in the late 1880s. Its pouchlike body is pushed in on three sides, one of which bears the enigmatic image of a peasant woman and a goat delicately rendered in low relief. Also, there are three thick, clumsy handles attached, and as if those were not enough, there are three square brackets, each holding a dangling clay ring. It would be hard to imagine a more inelegant piece of ceramic artistry, and yet it is riveting to behold. Gauguin evidently was briefly a French version of the eccentric American potter George Ohr.
“Probably, few people know about this chapter in Gauguin’s story. (I didn’t.) Between 1887 and 1891, he produced about a hundred clay pieces, 60 of which are known to have survived. He thought he could make money this way, and when he didn’t, he quit. Too bad; he could have been one of the great, freedom- fighting ceramists of modern times.”
To make a political point, French ceramics of this kind, as art, is light years ahead of the American pottery movement and it has yet not been given its full due nor its appropriate value. For the price of a banal Rookwood vase one buys a French treasure. But French ceramics have long had a flag bearer in the US, New York’s Jason Jacques Gallery, which is discussed in this issue.
The Metropolitan’s show and Ellison’s gift is a great step forward in sharing the wealth of this nation and era.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat, Bowl with Two Panthers, 1894-95. Photograph courtesy of the museum.
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