Archive for the Ceramics Category

Venetian Red Bookshelf: A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

Posted in Book Review, Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

A. S. Byatt‘s The Children’s Book is a complex tapestry of a book. It begins in 1895 and ends during the Great War. It is woven through with sensuous descriptions of textiles, pottery glazes, art, clothing and sexual longing, as well as musings on what it is to be an artist or a writer.

As usual, Byatt’s writing is erudite, some would say to a fault. The Children’s Book is unrepentantly intellectual, filled with long, complex digressions on art and nature—and it basks, unashamedly, in the life of ideas. In The Children’s Book, Byatt mines all of her interests—history and natural history, the visual arts, literature, fairy tales, the decorative arts—and weaves them together in an epic tale of two generations of several artistic families (including nearly 20 children) who live in the Kentish countryside.

Victoria & Albert

How could I not love a book that begins in the South Kensington Museum, (later the Victoria & Albert), and immediately engages us with lush descriptions of the forms, ornamentation and glazes of gorgeous decorative objects? The main characters live in a house decorated in the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement, with furniture and wallpaper by William Morris and his cohorts. Their lives are, at first glance, idyllic—Midsummer parties on vast lawns, with theater and puppet shows, open conversation about sexuality, talk about the suffragette movement, the Fabian Society and Socialist idealism. But there’s a dark undercurrent that quickly becomes apparent—a web of adultery, selfishness and secrecy.

William Morris

Byatt is particularly good at illuminating the irony in the disparity between her characters’ professed beliefs and the way they live their lives—whether in the social, sexual or artistic realm. Byatt also doesn’t shy away from showing us the destructive effect that parents’ misguided creativity can have on their children. Most ominously, the carnage of the coming war looms unseen, and many of the children we meet in the opening chapters will be casualties of that war. We feel tragically helpless, even as we worry about the ill effects of  their haphazard upbringing, we suspect these children will not live far into adulthood.

1895 was the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian age, when the cult of childhood began. It was the heyday of children’s literature—J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and E Nesbit were writing their masterpieces. In fact, Byatt’s heroine, Olive Wellwood, who lives with her husband Humphry and their seven children in a country cottage called Todefright—a beloved children’s writer of dark, somewhat Germanic versions of English fairy stories—is largely inspired by E Nesbit. Olive says:

Well, I sometimes feel, stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning of energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but is really — is really what holds it all together.

Other characters suggest hybrids of H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence—and writers Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde have cameos. It is also a conflicted age. As Byatt writes, “people talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex,” at the same time showing “a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.”

This novel has a multi-stranded narrative, touches on many complex issues and has an enormous cast of characters. Among the interesting characters are Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, and Benedict Fludd, a tempestuous and visionary potter (based largely on Eric Gill), who is also a monstrous, sexual predator. (Byatt’s choice of names, such as Cain and Fludd, seem somewhat biblical.) The book is filled with artists and political idealists. Midway through the book, many of the characters, in various combinations, attend the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and there are riveting descriptions of the exposition and its exhibits—including the work of Klimt, Rodin and Lalique.

Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900

The action often grinds to a halt while Byatt lectures us about pottery glazes, the history of puppet theater or discourses on social issues. Each character’s clothing is lovingly detailed, works of art are described, fairy stories told, historical facts abound. Many find this surfeit of digression an irritant in Byatt’s work, and think the book overstuffed with ideas and descriptions. I can’t really dispute Byatt’s verbosity and her tendency to lecture. Nevertheless, Byatt’s descriptive abilities border on the sublime, and I relish a novelist who thinks—no, knows— that art is important, and who invents characters, for all their serious flaws, who are engaged with the moral struggle to define (or evade) their responsibilities, assess their gifts and search for (or resist) some kind of enlightenment through creativity.

If you decide to read the book, I recommend you slow down and enjoy the ride, including the numerous side-trips and detours. It may, as some critics argue, be too much, but in my opinion, most contemporary novels offer way too little—so I’ll vote  for an excess of ideas, beautifully described, any day. If you’ve read The Children’s Book, please share your thoughts with Venetian Red.

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Venetian Red in Rome: The “Restitution Room”

Posted in Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Travel with tags , , , , on June 9, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.

By LIZ HAGER

Label in the “Restitution Room” at the Villa Giulia.

At the end of a long hallway in a wing of the Villa Giulia (Museo Nazionale Etrusco), sandwiched in between the Etruscan armament and jewelry displays, is a room brimming with Etruscan-era pieces repatriated from American museums. The large Euphronious’ s Krater from the Met is there, as are dozens of pieces from the Getty and objects from institutions like The Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Princeton University’s Art Museum.

Euphronios’s Krater, Etruscan, 6th century BC
(Museo Nazionale Etrusco, Rome)

Except for the subtle note on the art work labels, there is nothing that advertises this space as a “Restitution Room.”  And yet, it’s pretty obvious that it was planned specifically to send a message (or two). Otherwise, it seems to me, MNE curators would have integrated each piece within its respective type in other sections of the museum.  Suffice it to say, there is no organizing principle that binds these pieces together, save for their shared identity as recovered pieces.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I visited the “Restitution Room” only  days after a new case had been filed in the Italian courts, this time against antiquities curator J. Michael Padgett of the Princeton University Art Museum. Readers will remember the recent trial in Rome of Getty director Marian True, who was charged with consorting with shady dealers to buy looted antiquities. Though five years old, the case has not yet been resolved. Nevertheless, Ms. True’s career has been completely tanked.


Curator Marian True (©New York Times)

I still can’t decide exactly what Italian officials are trying to convey through the organization of this room.  Is it a manifestation of Italian pride—a symbol that the government has been victorious over powerful American museums? Does it visually signify ultra-diligence on the part of the Italian government in protecting its people’s venerable culture? Or is it simply a well-aimed shot over the bow of the antiquities market, warning all of the folly of trading in illegally procured objects.

Whatever the true message of the “Restitution Room,” it certainly co-opted my thoughts long after I had left the Villa Giulia.

Wider Connections

“Museums into the Fray: The Marian True Trial”
Vernon Silver—The Lost Chalice: The Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece
Sharon Waxman—Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Ceramics, Film & Video, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography with tags , , , , , , on December 21, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. Dark Day Picks highlights current exhibitions, new installations, books, and art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Cantor Arts Center (Stanford University)—From Their Studios. This exhibition highlights the work of 13 professors, including Enrique Chagoya, Robert Dawson, and Jan Krawitz. Through January 10, 2010.

SFO Airport, International Terminal (North 20 Cases)— Scenes from Myths and Daily Life: Ancient Mediterranean Pottery (from the collection of Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology). If you must be at SFO Airport during the holiday madness, a visit to this fine selection of always-exquisite black-figure vases from BCE Greece and her colonies might calm your nerves.

SF MOMA, Caffe Museo—Andrea Voinot. Voinot works productively in the swath between representation and abstraction. Through January 19, 2010.


Winifred Gill and the Omega Workshops

Posted in Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Embroidery, Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Furniture, Rugs, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Winifred Gill, Sketch of dancers, 1916
Pencil, ink and watercolor on paper
The Bodleian Library, Oxford

Winifred Gill (1891-1981) was one of the unsung heroines of the Omega Workshops. The task of  creating patterns or translating existing designs to be used on textiles, furniture and home furnishings fell largely to the women of the Omega Workshops—Gill, Jesse Etchells and Nina Hamnett among others. Artist Vanessa Bell also helped to produce some of the embroidery and other needlework, but because she was also one of the directors, not as much of the handwork fell to her.

Roger Fry at the Omega Workshops, c.1913

Duncan Grant, design for embroidered firescreen, c.1912
Embroidered by Lady Ottoline Morrell
Collection of Bryan Ferry

It is largely through Gill’s letters and taped recordings from the 1960s, that we know as much as we do about the day-to-day activities at the Omega—their production methods, anecdotes about specific projects and the personalities of the participants. (Gill’s archive was donated in 2009 to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, by her niece, Dr. Margaret Bennett.) Winifred Gill not only had artistic talent, she was intelligent and energetic, with a practical side that enabled her to also manage the business and handle sales.

The Omega Workshops Showroom, 1913

The Omega Workshops, started in 1913 by Roger Fry, was a modernist incarnation of the earlier Arts & Crafts movement that was the legacy of William Morris. Fry was an art critic and painter who wanted to move the British public past the traditions of Edwardian design. He embraced the contemporary European modernist movements—Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism and the Futurists—while also cultivating a bit of a Japanese aesthetic, especially through the use of painted screens. The Omega Workshops’ expressive, colorful, bold and abstract designs were the forerunners of the British artist/designer movement that followed mid-century. In 1925, Paul Nash wrote:

The modern movement in textile design began with the establishment of the Omega Workshops.

Paul Nash, Cherry Orchard, 1930
Block-printed silk crêpe-de-chine, Cresta Silks Ltd.

Roger Fry had some experience in interior design prior to founding the Omega Workshops. Among other things, he had built and furnished his home at Durbins, painted a mural at his mother’s home in Cheyne Walk, and decorated the home of his friend, Hubert Crackenthorpe. His co-directors, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were also very actively engaged in the decorative arts, both for themselves and friends, including their home at Charleston.

Photograph of the drawing room at Charleston in the 1930s

Duncan Grant, Interior with the Artist’s Daughter, c. 1935-36
Oil on canvas
Collection of Dick Chapman and Ben Duncan

Fry chose to open the Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square, London—then rather a shabby neighborhood—in a regular house, rather than a shop, in order to better integrate the work within a domestic setting. When the workshop ended in 1919, Fry wrote:

I have lost $2000 and five years of gratuitous hand work: I cannot waste more on a country that regards the attempt to create as a kind of Bolshevism.

Over the years, in addition to Fry, Bell and Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Paul Nash, Frederick Etchells and others contributed to the designs. Their clients included George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, E.M. Forster and Gertrude Stein—as well as Virginia Woolf, Lady Ottoline Morrell and others of the Bloomsbury set. Winifred Gill indicates in her letters that there was a lot of collaboration—Grant, Bell and others contributed designs which were stored away and later reworked into patterns for specific products by Gill, Hamnett and many of the other unheralded young women who did so much of the work.

Nina Hamnett and Winifred Gill in Omega fabrics
from The Illustrated London Herald, 1915
The British Library

Roger Fry, Portrait of Nina Hamnett, c. 1917
Oil on canvas
Courtauld Institute Galleries, London

Roger Fry, Winifred Gill by the Pool at Durbins, 1912
Private Collection

Part of Fry’s motivation in establishing the workshop was to find a way for young artists to make a living. At the time, Fry was accused of choosing the name Omega because the current usage of the word was “the last word,” meaning that he thought the workshop’s products were the last word in decorative art. But Winifred Gill wrote that Fry chose it because:

He was looking for something, some trademark, that had a name of its own that everybody knew. I think it was very effective because everyone could say Omega and remember it.

Omega also had a ready-made, recognizable symbol, Ω, and all the work of the Omega, produced anonymously, was marked with the Greek letter (and occasionally incorporated into designs.)

Roger Fry, Design for Cadena rug, 1914

Young artists would drop by the Omega, seeking employment, but often Fry politely turned them down—he liked to scout out artists for himself at art schools and exhibitions—and even artists who came highly recommended had to show a portfolio before being taken on. Gill wrote that some of the young artists, like Wyndham Lewis, broke with the Omega because they resented the anonymity of the work—they wanted to claim credit and recognition for their designs.

Omega Workshops, painted lamp bases, 1913

I seem to remember a long time painting the legs of tables. It had come as a surprise to me that black and white size paint would produce blue. When Venetian red was added, a warm mulberry colour resulted which I always connect with Vanessa. She was very fond of it, and we used it a good deal for background on our furniture. Trays too we painted. O yes, and endless candlesticks. When I remember Nina Hamnett at work it is always a candlestick she has in her hand.
Letter from Winifred Gill to Duncan Grant, 1966

Winifred Gill was invited by Roger Fry to join the workshop in 1913. Like Fry, she came from a Quaker family in Surrey, and was, at the time, working as an assistant to Fry’s sister Joan at her philanthropic foundation, as well as attending art classes at the Slade. Gill’s attraction to the Omega was not only for the artistic aspect and because she lauded the attempt to provide support for young artists, but because she also deeply believed in Fry’s pacifist social agenda. Gill played an essential role in running the workshop and beginning in 1915 she served as the workshop’s business manager. During her time at the Omega, Gill made woodcuts, paintings, designs for toys and household objects. In 1919, Gill designed some artificial flowers with Vanessa Bell on commission, to be used as part of a theater set.

Roger Fry, Still Life with Omega Flowers, 1919
Oil on canvas
Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg

Gill also designed marionettes with articulated joints which portrayed dancers and musicians. The marionettes were used in a 1917 production of War and Peace: A Dramatic Fantasia a pacifist play written by Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson which was attended by W.B. Yeats, Arnold Bennett, G.B. Shaw and Lytton Strachey.

Winifred Gill with her clown puppet Joey, c.1920
The Bodleian, Oxford

The Omega Workshops came to an end in 1919, defeated by the effects of the war, the unreadiness of the British public to embrace new ideas and internal disagreements. However, thought it lasted only six years, the influence of the Omega carries on to the present day.

1946, Miller’s Galleries in Lewes held an exhibition of Omega Workshops products, displayed in a similar fashion to the arrangements at Fitzroy Square. At the time Winifred Gill wrote to Vanessa Bell about the possibility of an Omega room as a permanent fixture at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Vanessa Bell replied:

I hope it may happen for I thought the things at Miller’s in Lewes looked very good, especially the pottery…How long ago all that time seems—it was very strange having it revived for a while…

Painted version of Omega mark used on ceramics

Dark Day Picks: SF Open Studios Weekend 4

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Ceramics, Female Artists, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , on October 26, 2009 by Liz Hager

Over the four weekends in October we’re highlighting San Francisco Open Studios, the largest program of its kind in the country. Artists invite viewers into their studios to see the work outside of the gallery system. SF Open Studios takes place during successive weekends in October, different neighborhoods on different weekends.

Weekend 4: October 31 & November 1
Neighborhood: Hunter’s Point Shipyard

Paula Clark—Anti-physics
Paula Clark, Bldg. 101, #1312

Susan Friedman, Bldg. 101, #1517

Dolores R Gray—I Wanted to Dance with Josephine

Dolores R. Gray, Bldg. 101, #1302

Julie Nelson, Bldg. 116, Studio A

Sawyer Rose, Bldg. 110, #205

Jane Woolverton, Bldg. 101, #1408

Maggie Malloy—Origins and Tools

Maggie Malloy, Bldg. 116, #7


Dark Day Picks: SF Open Studios Weekend 1

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Ceramics, Liz Hager, Mixed Media, Painting, Photography with tags , , , , , on October 5, 2009 by Liz Hager

Over the four weekends in October  we’re highlighting San Francisco Open Studios, the largest program of its kind in the country. Artists invite viewers into their studios to see the work outside of the gallery system.

Weekend 1: October 10 & 11
Neighborhoods: Bernal Heights, Castro, Duboce, Eureka Valley, Glen Park, Mission, Noe Valley, Portola

Silvia Poloto, 442 Shotwell.

Rebekah Goldstein, 69A Richland Ave.

Victor Cartagena, Project Artaud (499 Alabama St.)

Audrey Heller, 501 Dolores Street.

Jane Grimm, Ruby’s Clay Studio (552A Noe Street at 18th St.)

Wider Connections

Art Span

Venetian Red Notebook: Baked Earth, a Gallery of Decorative Tile

Posted in Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles with tags , on July 31, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Dutch tileDelft tile, Holland, 16th Century

The Egyptians invented tile over 6000 years ago. Tile, made from baked clay, has been used for centuries on walls, entryways, floors, roofs and gardens. It has been used  to enhance every type of architecture, from modest domestic interiors to palaces and cathedrals. At its simplest, tile provides protection from heat and water—or can, through its pattern and design, reveal the history of ornamentation, dress or customs of a specific time and place. Painted tiles can also provide a narrative of events like this harbor scene below.

Azulejos tileAzulejos from the National Tile Museum of Lisbon

The surface of tile, cool and durable, can take many forms. Glazes—double-glaze, crackle, metallic—provide a depth of color that remains unchanged for centuries. Tile can be smooth or rough, raised or engraved.

Meredith TIle, sampleMeredith Tile, glaze sample

Tiffany tileTiffany & Co. favrile glass tile with iridescent glaze

Tiles can be a white, simply glazed in saturated color, or have elaborate complex patterns. Each tile design can be self-contained, or serve as an element in a larger, overall pattern. In some cases, as in the New York subway, the London tube or the Paris Metro, tiles can spell out directions, tell us where we are going, when to get off the train—and also bring art into a public space.

Astor PlaceNew York subway, Astor Place

Bleecker StreetNew York subway, Bleecker Street

Columbus CircleNew York subway, Columbus Circle

Gants HillLondon underground, Gants Hill

Hotel de VilleParis metro, Hotel de Ville

In other uses, patterns in tile may relay secret messages or contain symbolic representations. In the Topkapi Palace, this Iznik-style tile adapted Chinese motifs to create stylized flowers, since representations of living things were not allowed.

Iznik-style tileTopkapi Palace, Turkey, 15th century

The Arts & Crafts movement in England yielded a lot of beautiful tile work.

William MorrisWilliam Morris & Co. tile, 1861-1880
Birmingham Museum

Peacock tileWilliam de Morgan, Peacock House, London

Here’s a sampler of reproduction 1920-1930s California tile by Malibu Ceramic Works.

Malibu Ceramic Works

When patterned tiles are joined together, the effect is dazzling, as shown in these black and white illustrations. These are from Dover’s 376 Decorative Allover Patterns from Historic Tilework and Textiles.

Tile pattern

Tile pattern

Tile pattern

Tiles can be used to define spaces, large or small. So many effects are possible—laid side by side they can provide vast areas of clean, uncluttered space, densely packed ornamental design or depict legends, myths and historical events. This scene below is from the National Tile Museum in Lisbon.

Azulejo—Tile Museum, Lisbon

To read more about tiles, VR recommends: Tile by Jill Herbers, Photographs by Roy Wright, Artisan, New York.

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