Liberty, affinity: Five divas in Paris
19 Paul Fort, Paris
24 May - 15 June
Reviewed by Cynthia Rose
The first sunny day of spring is not a moment one expects even hearty art lovers to head indoors. It’s even more unlikely on the Saturday of a holiday weekend. Yet the right combination of curatorial expertise and artistic celebrity is irresistible. Thus, even on a perfect afternoon, museum directors, fans and critics could be found trooping indoors at 19 Paul Fort in the 14th arrondisement. Their goal: a view of the show Liberty, affinity plus the chance to chat with its stars.
This celebration of five British ceramists (Elizabeth Fritsch, Alison Britton, Janice Tchalenko, Jacqui Poncelet and Carol McNicoll) is the work of art entrepreneur Hélène Aziza. A Parisienne with a long history of loving ceramics, she encountered one of the makers at a dinner in London. Aziza was astonished to learn the women who transformed studio pottery during the ’70s had never shown as a group. ‘Of course, each one of them produces different work, but what a history; what a story! I felt it should be emphasised, since they brought their craft to the same level as painting or sculpture’.
Two years ago, Aziza turned her multi-story home into a modern salon which hosts music, gallery shows and other special events. With abundant space – and an equal determination – she decided to correct the ‘curatorial error’. Meeting and wooing five busy artists might seem a thankless task. But confronted with her fierce respect for their work and its standing, all the women eventually agreed. Tchalenko, on the heels of a solo show at the Scottish Gallery, was the first to be convinced. ‘I said, “Okay, I’ll drag Carol in to talk”. Then, once the three of us started chatting, we understood. Our work has been mixed together in different ways, in group shows and so on. But there’s never been anything that said explicitly, “This was a group that changed things”.’
Among the curators and gallerists who have now seen it, several Britons expressed surprise at finding such a show in Paris. Their French counterparts, however, have been fascinated. Even for a country with such a rich ceramic history, knowledge of post-war British craft is spotty here.
At 19 Paul Fort, the quintet’s work fills two floors. It is displayed in a mélange suggesting conversation – specifically, an artistic exchange which has endured over three decades. Both grouped together and posed discretely, these historic pieces evoke parallel searches for presence and resonance. The passing years, of course, have brought an increased synthesis of conceptual and sculptural considerations in ceramics. So, in 2012, the first-time viewer sees less a group breaking away than five makers willing to ask the most basic questions. Alison Britton described their governing spirit in ’82: ‘I would say that this group is concerned with the outer limits of function, where function or an idea of possible function, is crucial, but is just one ingredient in the final presence of an object, and is not its only motivation.’
For all five, pattern remains an essential provocation. Says Poncelet (who, after ’86, moved on to painting, public art and architecture): ‘pattern is part of everyday visual reality, so it has a lot to do with attitudes to the object. What I’ve learned with time is that pattern isn’t reasonable. But where it is unsettling, it opens up space for the imagination. To me, denying that is denying one’s humanity.’
What McNicoll calls ‘our shared anti-minimalism’ receives a punning salute in the the show’s very title. At what would become a seminal moment for ceramics, these makers shared one overriding affinity. Each discarded loyalty to prevailing standards (such as the importance of the wheel’s ‘ethical pot’ and aspirations based on an Eastern heritage), to freely choose her own inspirations. While understanding tradition, all five chose to embrace the culture around them. Each of these makers took new liberties, found new freedoms and, in her individual appropriations of pattern, created something that became as ‘English’ as is the Liberty brand.
Together, their work surmounted then-pervasive notions, redefining elegance and reclaiming ornament. Together, they gave forms in clay a wider and more adventurous future. Without them, British ceramics now would be less worldly and less lively.