Molding Art, Breaking Boundaries
The Artists that Transformed How We Look at Ceramics

Photo: AI generated

In honor of the current exhibition at the Galerie de Buci, ECHO DE VENISE, by NINA KHEMCHYAN, who works primarily with ceramics, we are exploring the history and present of this intriguing medium. Ceramics, once seen primarily as a craft, have been transformed into a significant medium for artistic expression by modern and contemporary artists. This article delves into the contributions of Bernard Leach, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Lucie Rie, Jun Kaneko and Nina Khemchyan, each of whom has redefined, in their own way, the boundaries of ceramic art.
Ceramics have often been overlooked as an art form. Whether this long-standing prejudice is due to the material’s often rough appearance, to its status as a humble medium, or simply to the sheer numerical difference between ceramicists and other more conventional artists, such as painters or sculptors, this often undervalued art form blurs the lines between fine and utilitarian art. It was greatly thanks to the interest in ceramics of one of the 20th century’s most prolific artists, Pablo Picasso, that the discipline achieved notoriety, but there were many figures before him that already pushed towards this heightened recognition.

Bernard Leach:
The father of british pottery
Bernard Leach, often hailed as the father of British studio pottery, played a pivotal role in the development and elevation of ceramics as a respected art form in the 20th century. Born in 1887, Leach's journey into pottery began in Japan, where he studied traditional Japanese pottery techniques under the guidance of master potters. This experience deeply influenced his approach to ceramics, blending Eastern philosophies of craftsmanship and aesthetics with Western traditions. Upon returning to England, Leach co-founded the Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall, in 1920, which became a hub for artistic experimentation and collaboration. His philosophy emphasized the integration of functionality with artistic expression, advocating for handmade pottery that reflected both utility and beauty. Leach's ceramic creations are characterized by their simple yet elegant forms, earthy glazes, and meticulous craftsmanship, often drawing inspiration from nature and rural life. Beyond his artistic practice, Leach authored influential books such as "A Potter's Book," which not only documented pottery techniques but also promoted the philosophy of pottery as a contemplative and spiritual pursuit. Through his writings, teachings, and artistic endeavors, Bernard Leach significantly contributed to the revival of studio pottery worldwide, inspiring generations of ceramic artists to embrace pottery as a means of personal expression and cultural heritage preservation. His legacy continues to resonate in the field of ceramics, where his principles of craftsmanship, aesthetics, and the unity of art and life remain foundational to contemporary studio pottery practices.

Bernard Leach in his studio

Pablo Picasso:
Reinventing ceramics
Pablo Picasso, renowned for his pioneering work in painting, also revolutionized the use of ceramics and elevated its status as an art form, starting in the late 1940s and bringing with him an unparalleled spirit of innovation that would forever alter the medium's perception in the broader art world. His journey into ceramics began with a serendipitous visit to the Madoura Pottery studio in Vallauris, France, where he was instantly captivated by the tactile and transformative nature of clay. Picasso approached ceramics with the same avant-garde zeal that characterized his work in other mediums, treating each piece as a canvas for his boundless creativity. He transformed traditional pottery forms into dynamic works of art, emblazoned with themes such as bullfights, human faces, and animalistic creatures that bore his distinct stylistic fingerprints, including bold lines and cubist elements. His depictions of bullfights captured the drama and intensity of the spectacle, while his human faces ranged from serene to grotesque, each piece infused with a unique character. Picasso's fascination with animals led to whimsical and sometimes surreal representations of owls, goats, and mythological creatures, imbuing his ceramics with a sense of playful imagination. Picasso's ceramic creations, which numbered in the thousands, transcended their utilitarian origins, becoming vibrant vessels of artistic expression. By integrating fine art techniques with craft traditions, he challenged the established hierarchy that placed ceramics below painting and sculpture. His work in ceramics not only expanded his own artistic repertoire but also elevated the medium, compelling critics and collectors alike to reconsider its value and significance.

Picasso's ceramic studio

Joan Miró:
Surrealism in Clay
Joan Miró, a seminal figure in the Surrealist movement, profoundly transformed the field of ceramics by infusing it with his imaginative and avant-garde vision. Beginning in the 1940s, Miró's exploration of ceramics was greatly enhanced by his collaboration with master ceramist Josep Llorens Artigas. Together, they created a series of vibrant and whimsical ceramic sculptures and murals that showcased Miró's unique artistic language. His ceramic works are distinguished by their dream-like qualities, characterized by bright, primary colors, organic and abstract forms, and fantastical creatures that evoke a sense of playfulness and wonder. These pieces reflect Miró's deep connection to nature and the subconscious, translating his surrealist ethos into three-dimensional forms. One of the most notable examples of his ceramic art is the mural "The Wall of the Moon and the Wall of the Sun," located at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris. This monumental work exemplifies Miró's ability to blend ceramics with large-scale public art, using vibrant tiles to create a mesmerizing, otherworldly landscape. By integrating ceramics into his broader artistic practice, Miró demonstrated the medium's potential for conveying complex and profound themes, traditionally reserved for painting and sculpture. His innovative use of ceramics helped elevate the medium from a functional craft to a respected form of fine art, showing that ceramics could serve as a powerful vehicle for artistic expression. Miró's contributions not only enriched his own oeuvre but also paved the way for future artists to explore and expand the creative possibilities of ceramics, solidifying its place in the contemporary art world.

Joan Miró, Mural of the Moon, 1958
Photo: UNESCO/D. Roger

Lucie Rie:
A Utilitarian Modernist
Lucie Rie, an Austrian-born British potter, played a pivotal role in the development of modern ceramics, particularly within the studio pottery movement of the 20th century. Her career began in Vienna, where she was influenced by the Modernist principles of the Wiener Werkstätte, but it was in London, after fleeing the Nazis in 1938, that she truly revolutionized the craft. Rie's ceramics are celebrated for their elegant, minimalist forms and experimental glazes, which often feature subtle, earthy tones or bright, lively colors. She was known for her precise throwing techniques and innovative glazing methods, which included the use of volcanic and ash glazes that resulted in unique, textured surfaces. Her approach to ceramics was both artistic and functional, creating pieces that were as visually striking as they were practical. Rie’s work, characterized by its refined aesthetics and impeccable craftsmanship, stood in contrast to the more rustic style prevalent in British studio pottery at the time. This modernist approach not only distinguished her work but also influenced a generation of potters who sought to blend form and function with contemporary design sensibilities. Throughout her career, Rie maintained a commitment to exploring the possibilities of clay and glaze, pushing the boundaries of the medium while maintaining a clear, personal style. Her contributions to ceramics were widely recognized, earning her numerous accolades, including being appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1991. Lucie Rie's legacy is marked by her profound impact on the evolution of studio pottery, inspiring countless artists to pursue ceramics as a form of modernist artistic expression. Her work continues to be celebrated in museums and collections worldwide, solidifying her status as one of the most influential ceramic artists of the 20th century.

Lucie Rie in her studio

Jun Kaneko:
Bridging Cultures, Scaling New Heights
Jun Kaneko, a Japanese-born American artist, has played a pivotal role in advancing contemporary ceramics, renowned for his innovative approach that bridges Eastern and Western artistic traditions. Kaneko's monumental ceramic sculptures, often referred to as "Dangos" (Japanese for "dumplings"), are celebrated for their imposing scale, bold patterns, and vibrant glazes. His meticulous glazing process, which involves multiple layers and firings, results in richly textured surfaces that captivate viewers with their depth and complexity. Kaneko's work is not confined to traditional ceramic forms; he extends his practice to large-scale public installations, transforming urban spaces with his distinctive ceramic pieces. His public art projects, such as those in Omaha, Nebraska, and at the Millennium Park in Chicago, demonstrate ceramics' potential for monumental and environmental art, bringing the medium into the public sphere and challenging the conventional boundaries of ceramics as purely functional or decorative. Kaneko's dedication to pushing technical and artistic boundaries has solidified his reputation as a leading figure in the field. He has also contributed significantly to the educational landscape of ceramics, founding the Kaneko-UNO Creative Center in Omaha, which fosters interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation. Through his extensive body of work and commitment to education, Jun Kaneko has not only expanded the possibilities of what ceramics can achieve but also inspired a new generation of artists to explore and embrace the medium's potential for large-scale and public art, ensuring its ongoing evolution and relevance in the contemporary art world.

Jun Kaneko with selection of works

Nina Khemchyan:
Golden Gleams
Nina Khemchyan, a Paris-based French artist of Armenian origin, has made significant contributions to contemporary ceramics through her distinctive sculptural approach. For the past 27 years, she has collaborated closely with Galerie de Buci, showcasing her intricate ceramic spheres adorned with incisions, drawings, and embellishments of gold and pigments. Her work is celebrated for its fusion of traditional craftsmanship with conceptual depth. To her genre scenes, which evoke a form of Baudelairean plenitude, where all is "luxury, calm and pleasure", is added a decorative dimension that explores geometry, a primitive, almost parietal "cutting" of the support. The movement of the intertwining hairs follows a rhythm that is that of the sphere at the moment when the artist imagines this happy deployment, often tinged with humor and mischief that refers to the personality of the artist herself. exploring themes of memory, identity, and cultural heritage. Khemchyan's artistry extends beyond individual pieces to encompass site-specific installations that engage with architectural spaces, inviting viewers to contemplate the interplay between materiality and narrative. She is representing her country of origin at the 60th Venice Biennale, which underscores her international acclaim and the resonance of her work in the global art community, her pieces being part of numerous private collections. In her current exhibition at the Galerie de Buci, ECHO DE VENISE, Nina showcases the inspirations that she finds in the Floating City, creating a collection full of light, like the reflections of Murano chandeliers in the mirrors of Grand Canal palaces. In tones of sky, azure and navy blue, with gold and ochre touches, these sculptures make us dream of faraway journeys. The artist invites us to meditate at the water's edge, to relive our love affairs and take us back to our fondest memories.

Nina Khemchyan with a selection of works
Photo: Curtesy of the Galerie de Buci

The evolution of ceramics from a utilitarian craft to a respected art form owes much to the pioneering spirits discussed in this article. From Bernard Leach's foundational role in establishing British studio pottery to Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró's groundbreaking explorations that infused ceramics with avant-garde creativity, each artist has left an indelible mark on the medium. Lucie Rie's modernist approach and Jun Kaneko's monumental sculptures have further expanded the possibilities of ceramics, demonstrating its potential for both intimate expression and public engagement. Nina Khemchyan's innovative use of traditional techniques with contemporary themes underscores ceramics' ongoing relevance and versatility. Together, these artists have not only elevated ceramics to the realm of fine art but also challenged perceptions, inspiring future generations to explore the rich possibilities of clay as a medium for profound artistic expression. Come to the Galerie de Buci to experience Nina’s exhibition ECHO DE VENISE, and see by yourself how ceramics can indeed constitute truly intriguing, beautiful and original art pieces.

View of the exhibition ECHO DE VENISE by Nina Khemchyan at the Galerie de Buci

Photo: Curtesy of the Galerie de Buci

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