What is: Ceramic Art?

Paul Greenhalgh

Ceramic is one of the most ubiquitous and ancient arts. Its purpose can be domestic, decorative, ritualistic or pure artistic expression, with form and function varying hugely across time and cultures.

Director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts Paul Greenhalgh invites us to connect with the emotional resonance of ceramic, exploring the beauty and mystery of an art that belongs everywhere and to all people.

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Ceramic is one of those art forms that once you’ve realised how wonderful it is, it can give endless joy.

It’s an ancient art which comes to us from the ground. An art form from mud.

You take a flat sheet of clay and you form it into something and then you fire it to make it effectively turn into stone and it becomes permanent at that stage. And you can also decorate it with colours, the colours being made from all kinds of chemicals, but we call them glazes because one of the underlying constituents is glass.

Ceramics holds things and contains things and protects things. So it has in some ways very deep emotional value. There is something about a pot that makes you think about human beings.

We tend to equate pots to the human body. And I would say that’s perhaps its most intense characteristic. And the very greatest ceramic artists are the ones who work that out and understood it and could make pots that made us think.

I’m sitting in front of two magnificent works by Magdalene Odundo who many people consider to be one of the greatest of all living ceramic artists in the world. More than anybody else, when you look at her pots you think about people.

Every culture you will find out more about that culture via its pots than you will via virtually every other medium until the modern age.

Ceramic has tremendously different functions from culture to culture. They went from making things that were of the beauties of their day right through to much darker religious often quite frightening ceremonies.

This beautiful pot was made by the Jōmon people and is known as a flame pot because of this fantastic decoration on top. It’s widely thought that they’re connected with death rites and with funerary arrangements.

The ancient Greeks loved to paint scenes of sports heroes, wars and so forth and the ancient Greek pots often serve virtually as newspapers.

It’s the one art that absolutely comes to play when you touch it, when you handle it. Holding, touching, and turning these things over become part of the whole thing. Ceramic is probably the only art where weight is part of its beauty. That when you pick it up and hold it and feel the sense of the clay it adds entirely to its aesthetic dimension. It’s part of its beauty. And holding ceramic is part of the magic of it.

There is something beautifully unified about so much the ceramic heritage. Two and a half thousand years of objects which talk to each other through time. A magnificent work of art by Pablo Picasso with the help of ceramic technicians, the Irish ceramic artist Michael Flynn and the ancient Greeks. And what do they have in common? That all three of them use images and symbols from the Western tradition from the time for the Greeks moving forward.

We tend to have side-lined ceramic as not being of the Art World with a capital A. Of not being about artistic expression as such. This is a complete mistake. And it is time to readjust ourselves, to reposition ceramic where it should be, which is it’s a poetic discourse based upon certain approaches to making objects just like any other art.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With thanks to

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia

 

Filmed on the occasion of Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 3 August – 15 December 2019

 

 

Archive

Getty Images

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

 

Music

Audio Network

Freesound

 

 

Artworks

Installation shots

Hans Coper

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

 

Oval cup form on cylindrical base

Hans Coper, 1972

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, UEA

 

Man making a earthen pot on a pottery wheel, Faridabad, Haryana, India

ImagesBazaar / Getty Images

 

Clay pots being fired

BBC Universal / Getty Images

 

An artist uses a paintbrush to apply green glaze to a ceramic urn

Discovery Access / Getty Images

 

Untitled

Magdalene Odundo, 1988

© Magdalene Odundo

Private Collection

 

Untitled

Magdalene Odundo, 1999

© Magdalene Odundo

Private Collection

 

Angled Piece

Magdalene Odundo, 1987

© Magdalene Odundo

Private Collection

 

Pair of Untitled Pots

Magdalene Odundo, 2013

© Magdalene Odundo

Private Collection

 

Untitled

Magdalene Odundo, 1994

© Magdalene Odundo

Private Collection

Courtesy of McClain Gallery

 

Untitled

Magdalene Odundo, 1994

© Magdalene Odundo

Private Collection

 

Untitled

Magdalene Odundo, 1988

© Magdalene Odundo

Private Collection

 

Seated Figure

300 BC – AD 400

Ecuador

Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, UEA 774

 

Dancing female tomb figures

Tang Dynasty, c. AD 618 -906

China

Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, UEA 407a-c

 

Portrait Head Bottle

Moche, 5th – 6th century

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

(CC0 1.0)

 

Seated Figure Bottle

Moche, 2nd – 5th century

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

(CC0 1.0)

 

Flame-style deep bowl

Middle Jōmon period, c. 2500–1500 BC

Japan

Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, UEA 1081

 

Terracotta amphora (jar)

Attributed to the manner of Lysippides Painter, c. 530 BC

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

(CC0 1.0)

 

Terracotta hydria: kalpis (water jar)

Attributed to the Villa Giulia Painter, c. 460–450 BC

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

(CC0 1.0)

 

Greek attic owl cup

Greece, c. 480 BC

Private Collection

 

Greek red figure krater form

Greece, c. 460-440 BCE

Private Collection

 

Wood Owl,

Pablo Picasso, 1969

Private Collection

 

Ship of Fools

Michael Flynn, 2010

Private Collection

 

Spade form

Hans Coper, 1973

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, UEA

 

Kigango

Magdalene Odundo, 2010

© Magdalene Odundo

Courtesy the artist and Anthony Slayter-Ralph

 

Kigango III

Magdalene Odundo, 2013

© Magdalene Odundo

Courtesy the artist and Anthony Slayter-Ralph

 

Kigango II

Magdalene Odundo, 2013

© Magdalene Odundo

Courtesy the artist and Anthony Slayter-Ralph

 

Freesound contributor:

fractalstudios

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things’, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 3 August – 15 December 2019

Thomas O. Mason, ‘Traditional ceramics‘, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Mark Cartwright, ‘Jomon Pottery’, Ancient History Encylopedia

Dr. Renee M. Gondek, ‘Greek Vase-Painting, an introduction’, February 14, 2017

Emma Crichhton-Miller, ‘A potted history of studio ceramics’, Apollo Magazine, 19 August 2017

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