Inspired by the exhibition The Unexpected at the Stedelijk Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, Emma Shaw argues that ceramics are finding a new place in the art world.
The Unexpected was the first showing in the Netherlands of the Stedelijk Museum’s collection of artists’ work in clay (the exhibition has toured internationally), which it claims to be the only one of its kind in the world. The museum has been collecting artists’ work in clay since 1985 when it purchased Picasso’s Vase Femme from 1954. The collection includes some 150 works by 40 international artists, the oldest piece is from 1905 (Pierre-Auguste Renoir) and the most recent is by British sculptor Richard Deacon (2007).
The museum is located in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, a relatively small town which is also home to the EKWC (European Ceramics Work Centre) and boasts an established school of art and design (AKV, St Joost, which has a vast ceramics department) as well as the contemporary ceramic design company Cor Unum. This helps explain the museum’s interest in and commitment to ceramics and why Den Bosch deserves the title of City of Ceramics.
Divided into three main strands – the modernists, CoBrA artists and contemporary artists – the exhibition contains important works by established names such as Picasso, Miró, Jorn and Fontana. The modern collection is equally impressive with work by international artists from across the disciplines of painting, sculpture and performance including Rob Birza, Tony Cragg, Jan van den Dobbelsteen, Jeff Koons, Antoni Tapies and Bruce McLean. Perhaps more unexpectedly, but a very welcome addition nonetheless, it also includes works by Haim Steinbach, who uses ready-made or found objects.
Many of the works have been previously ignored in the histories of art. Indeed, the power of the collection lies in its ability to reaffirm clay’s position as a vital and legitimate medium within the visual arts, representing part of a wider trend to reclaim artists’ works in clay as seen, for example, in Tate Liverpool’s A Secret History of Clay in 2004. One criticism concerns the title The Unexpected. Although these works may be less well known, such a title only serves to reinforce the attitude that one does not expect serious artists to work in clay. It also, perhaps, reflects continuing anxieties over the value and status of clay. The old art versus craft debate, although declared long dead, still gasps a last few breaths.
A one-day symposium, with presentations from art critics, historians, collectors and artists from across Europe, explored the use of clay within the visual arts. I presented a paper that provided a British perspective. A key talking point concerned the perceived differences between works in clay by fine artists and works made by ceramic artists. The majority of works in The Unexpected were by fine artists. Important ceramic artists were excluded, as were women artists, with only one female artist being represented in the exhibition, a gender bias equally evident in A Secret History of Clay. In a discipline dominated by women there is a shocking lack of a female, let alone feminist presence. The museum’s collection, however, does contain works by female ceramic artists including Cindy Sherman, Lucie Rie and Betty Woodman but these were not in the exhibition. The omission of works from the ceramics canon, I suspect, was not because of their perceived lower status or the quality of their work, but more likely to be simply because these artists are not well known to the art world (or to the public) as they operate in the ceramics world.
The issue here is one of context. The majority of ceramic artists choose to stay within the craft world and marketplace, where they will be less well known to the art world. Some artists, such as Andrew Lord who is in the exhibition, successfully moved into the fine art arena. Context defines value and art continues to have a higher status than craft. Content is another key issue. To have the intention to make art is clearly not enough. Ultimately art is classified by the art world and in order to be seen as art it must use its language.
Historically, the economic and cultural hierarchies imposed by the art world undoubtedly marginalised the crafts. Fortunately, exhibitions such as The Unexpected suggest that prejudices against ceramics/clay are beginning to break down. Contemporary art practice has seen a renewed interest in the use of traditional craft materials and techniques (and particularly clay), which, to some extent, has displaced craft from its traditional ground. This has forced craft practices to reassess their own position within the visual arts, which has resulted in different approaches and new ways of working. Traditional attitudes are being overturned and ceramic histories are being rewritten. I suspect it will not be long before we see more works by ceramic artists appearing alongside artists’ works in clay. Ceramic artists need to ensure they make work which is both relevant and of sufficient quality to be included.