Lut Laleman. Bowls. Photo by Claude Germain
A Visit to International Vallauris 2008
Article by Michael Stewart
Vallauris has hosted an international biennale dedicated to ceramics since 1966, though the town has been associated with pottery making since Roman times. It is probably best known for its role in Picasso’s ceramic productions. The presiding genius of the 20th century worked at the Modoura pottery with the influential French ceramist Suzanne Ramie and her husband Alain. Picasso produced an enormous range of ceramic forms decorated with motifs common to his two dimensional work, bullfights, naked figures, animals and birds. His presence helped revitalise the town during the austere post war period by attracting many young ceramists keen to work in the shadow of the master. The Museum Magnelli holds a comprehensive collection of Picasso’s work as well as pieces by subsequent generations of avant-garde makers and is the main venue for the Biennale. The exhibition’s aim is to demonstrate the excellence of ceramics produced throughout Europe by inviting artists to submit work that is then judged by a jury of experts. Pieces by the selected artists are exhibited and prizes awarded in different categories. The key feature of the exhibition is its division of exhibitors into two groups. Firstly those who make ware or containers and secondly those who create sculptural or more abstract architectural forms. I feel this acknowledgment of two evident groups is a great strength of the exhibition as so often the mention of ceramics prompts preconceptions about ‘pots’ as opposed to the dynamic range of outcomes offered through the manipulation of this endlessly versatile medium. This year the 30 artists representing 16 different countries have been selected from more than 400 submissions and their work amply demonstrates the infinite possibilities of the material which has been used for millennia to make both art objects and items of domestic utility. These two approaches to the material are sometimes a source of conflict as the unenlightened impose a hierarchy where art objects are judged as superior or intellectually more sophisticated to pieces made for daily use. This aesthetic narrow-mindedness within the discipline is all the more irritating given the time it has taken to break down some of the prejudices which exist over the ‘applied’ as opposed to the ‘fine’ arts. Of course, the opposite camp is comprised of those who dismiss any object not directly connected with function. I know from his contribution to the catalogue that Yves Peltier, the Commissioner for the Biennale, is both concerned and aware of the prejudice which exists in relation to the public’s perception of ceramics and also by the divisions created by ceramists themselves. He feels, as do I, that any narrowing of what is considered valid within the field is ultimately damaging.
Michael Geertsen. Yellow Wall Objects. 2008.
Photo by Soren Nielsen.
Continuing the trend which began with the last Biennale there was a pronounced increase among this year’s applicants in those using clay to create sculptural or architectural elements. This justifies the larger number of artists exhibiting in this category rather than in the one dealing with design items and containers. Interestingly the jury decided not to award a prize in the design area feeling that none of the submissions were of an exemplary standard. However in the container element they awarded a prize to Michael Geersten for his distinctive wall mounted and brightly coloured vessels. The pieces which particularly impressed me in this section were the shallow cylindrical porcelain dishes of the Belgian ceramist Lut Laleman. The exteriors had a simple horizontal ribbed quality while the inner surfaces of her pieces were decorated with a series of concentric circular patterns which alternated between light and dark. The elegant simplicity of this design was memorable. Alongside the 30 selected exhibitors of the Biennale, visitors also have the opportunity to see several smaller exhibitions focusing on the work of individual artists or groups. As well as this for each Biennale a guest country is chosen and invited to curate a pavilion which contains the best work of that country’s contemporary practitioners. This year the Swiss have the honour and their exhibit is housed in a building adjacent to the main museum site. One of the smaller exhibitions worthy of note was staged in a building which houses Picasso’s famous War and Peace Chapel. The interior of this ancient cavernous space was enlivened by the work of Richard Deacon. Deacon, a British sculptor, has pieces which were wall-mounted and free-standing. They were united by their organic form and sense of fluidity which contrasted effectively with the rough hewn surfaces of the room’s walls.
Rebecca Catterall. Cleave (black). 2007. Charlotte Nordin. Unknown Forest. 2007.
Another individual exhibition is dedicated to the recent work of Rebecca Catteral who was one of the selected artists in the Biennale of 2006. Her work is characterised by its geometric structures featuring girder like blocks and lattices. The pieces have a uniform surface quality and the perfection of their fabrication seems to deny the nature of the material from which they are made. While I was pleased to see a former exhibitor at the Biennale being encouraged to continue her connection with the town, I was disappointed at the absence of signage to enable you to find the exhibition and in the very limited awareness of the events in some galleries within the town, even those displaying Biennale posters.
The great value of this event is in its championing of diversity and desire to encourage the work of young and aspiring artists from all over Europe. Added recognition is given by the awarding of prizes in different categories.
The winner of the prize for work produced by a ceramist under the age of 35 was awarded to Charlotte Nordin from Sweden. She presented a large piece entitled Unknown Forest, a ceramic environment which was visually captivating and adventurous in its scale. As well as receiving a sum of money, her piece will be purchased for the permanent collection of the museum. Three other artists will also have their work purchased for the collection.
Kate Haywood. Red Curved Multiform. 2007.
These include the only British ceramist selected for the Biennale, Kate Haywood, a recent graduate of Camberwell School of Art. Haywood’s pieces are refreshingly innovative. Her manipulated and thrown forms explore the nature of the material they are made from and colour is used sensitively to accentuate these qualities. The other pieces to enter the collection are by Coline Rosoux, whose modelled forms depict animals in human attitudes and Steen Ipsen who produces large globular highly-glazed pieces which resemble molecular models. The purchases were made possible through the generosity of ‘the friends of the Château-Musée de Vallauris’ and the magazine Revue de la Céramique et du Verre.
Coline Rosoux. La Pipe. 2007. Steen Ipsen. Tied Up 2. 2007
The recurrent themes of Kitsch and the use of metallic lustres were all too common within this exhibition. Karim Ghelloussi’s piece executed using painted terracotta and silicone foam reflected both these qualities as well as a seeming lack of concern for craft. In contrast Idiots.nl, a collaboration between Afke Golsteijn and Floris Bakker produced a beautifully realised and thought provoking construct. This involved a combination of taxidermy and lustred-ceramic entitled Ophelia. The piece consisted of the front portion of a stuffed lioness which dissolves mid-torso into a series of metallic globules.
(IDIOTS.NL)Afke Golsteijn and Floris Bakker. Ophelia. 2005
My visit confirmed for me the stultifying influence the CPA has on British ceramic open exhibitions where we are so often greeted by the same names and familiar brown pots. Vallauris presents an alternative approach to the open show which encourages those who do not conform to the stereotypical image of ‘potter’ as they are not making vessels or containers.
Another aspect of the Vallauris exhibition on which they are to be congratulated and from which British organisers could learn is the high quality of the catalogue which is well designed, glossy and hard backed. This not only documents the exhibitors but acts as a platform for those who wish to investigate the work of particular individuals. The inclusion of mini curriculum vitae, statements of intent, email addresses and photos of the artists encourages a continuing dialogue between the makers and their public. The catalogue is available through booksellers and galleries and not just to those who attend the exhibition, which of course broadens its audience. It was a pleasure to once again visit the Biennale and I would like to congratulate Vallauris and the organisers for providing inspirational makers with a fitting venue for their work. I look forward to returning in 2010.
Michael C. Stewart is a painter and lecturer on Fine Art and Art History. He lives in the UK.