Friday, 25 November 2016

A celebration of life

This exhibition shows how the face of British ceramics was transformed by refugees fleeing facism in Europe

Written by Victoria Brittain
An hour in the serene world of the exquisite bowls of Lucie Rie, with her artist colleagues plus Issey Miyake, and the David Attenborough of 35 years ago, is the perfect escape from today’s world of ugly populism and hatreds. Rie and her colleagues were refugees from that wave of horror which overwhelmed their lives in Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia with the rise of facism in the 1930s.

The group’s extraordinary craftsmanship and imagination would transform the british ceramic scene formerly dominated by an Anglo/Oriental style. But recognition did not come easily to the refugees and Rie lost her Vienna following when she fled in 1938. She initially made her living in London by making ceramic buttons for the fashion industry. Half a century later she met the Japanese designer Issey Miyake and he organised exhibitions for her in Japan, and launched a clothing line using her ceramic buttons from the 1940s. Glamorous 30-year-old fashion shoots show how perfectly their art works complemented each other’s.

The exhibition includes sculptural pots by Rie’s assistant, Hans Coper, who became, she tells David Attenborough in a BBC film from 1982, just ‘superior’. A generation of artists studied pottery with Lucie Rie at Camberwell School of Art, including Ray Silverman from London’s East End, who describes her meticulous criticism and the throwing away of pots she considered imperfect. He shows here the very first pot he made which was approved by Rie. He was 13 and a half when he made this perfect small bottle decorated with sgraffito. But as he says in the catalogue, he had caught Lucie’s perfectionist habits and simply gave it away to a friend. Fifty years later the friend brought it back to him asking for a new pot for the next 50 years.

A younger generation of ceramicists shown here were also marked by that 20th- century catastrophe. They include Janet Haig, who spent the second World War with her mother in a prison camp in Siberia and later discovered that the rest of her family were killed in the Holocaust, and Edmund de Waal, whose story of his grand Ephrussi family obliterated in that conflict was told in his book The Hare With Amber Eyes.

De Waal’s repeated white porcelain pieces and Haig’s deeply encrusted and corroded pots in sombre colour could hardly be in sharper visual contrast. But de Waal’s obsession with the value of ‘one person spending time’ and Haig’s poignant words about losing people come from the same deep appreciation of being alive: ‘these people have vanished but the pots with their deeply encrusted surfaces have become symbolic of the passing of time and those I’ve lost.’

Until 26 February 2017 at the Jewish Museum, Albert Street, London NW1: 020-7284 7384, 

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