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I always wondered what it might have meant to be a ceramist, at a time with limited technological development, no access to information through the internet—and so, laying the road afresh. There are stalwarts that one admires, like the Leach, Hamada and slipware of Michael Cardew. Lucie Rie and her friend Hans Cooper, a potter, led the way to create pots that moved beyond the function, that were expressive.
Aptly titled retrospective show, Lucie Rie: The Adventure of Pottery, recently opened at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, UK. Author and ceramist Edmund de Waal writes in the catalogue essay, “Even in old age, the potter Lucie Rie, slight, immaculate in white, could be dauntingly rude. I wanted to write ‘direct’, but realised that this doesn’t capture her ability to speak in a way stripped back from social niceties. Years later I realised that it was a habit, shared by other Viennese émigrés, of getting to the point. She answers a writer’s request, 'I do not want to be in your book. I like to make pots—but I do not like to talk about them. I would answer your questions today but they would be wrong tomorrow'. She tells students at Camberwell College that their work is hopeless and to try teapots 'for discipline. There was a divide between émigrés, those who never mentioned Vienna, and those who couldn’t stop, artists who explain their lives and those who are silent. She fell into the latter category with some force.” This does set the tone for the personality Rie was.
STIR speaks with Eliza Spindel, Assistant Curator at Kettle’s Yard, about the ongoing exhibit of Lucie Rie's ceramic works.
Rahul Kumar: Lucie Rie developed a unique style—both in terms of her forms and glazes. What were her biggest influences for the rugged and pitted surfaces?
Eliza Spindel: Lucie Rie began exploring pitted and textured surfaces in her early career while working in Vienna. Unlike her contemporaries, who were mostly making decorative and figurative ceramics, Rie was interested in the material and physical properties of clay and glazes. This can be linked to the modernist interest in ‘truth to materials’. She experimented with layering slips and glazes to achieve interesting surface effects.
Rie returned to using pitted and volcanic glazes from 1960s onwards. She was influenced by textures and surfaces seen in the natural world, and described her glazes using words like ‘volcanic’, ‘explosive’, ‘orange peel’ and ‘seaweed’. Despite living and working in the city, Rie enjoyed spending time in nature, and these influences can be seen in her work in a variety of ways.
Rahul: Please talk about the evolution of her style, from early days to her iconic forms.
Eliza: Rie’s earliest work, made in the 1920s in Vienna, followed contemporary fashions for decorative, ornamental ceramics. She made pots with elaborate fluted shapes decorated with colourful glazes. However, she soon developed her own style, and in the 1930s became known for making simple vessels decorated with muted colours and unusual surface textures.
Arriving in London in 1938, Rie found that her work was out of step with prevailing trends in British studio pottery. Her style briefly shifted towards that of Bernard Leach, who advocated a more rustic approach, making pots with thicker walls and visible throwing rings. However, after the war, Rie rediscovered some of the modernist elegance of her early work, making refined bowls, vases and tableware in a monochromatic palette.
From the late 1950s, Rie’s style expanded to include new forms and glazes, including more organic shapes and textured surfaces. Her later work includes vivid colours and metallic glazes, giving a sense of exuberance and opulence.
Rahul: In the context of art movements, Rie studied when modernism was taking birth. How would you place her practice across the spectrum of art and craft?
Eliza: Lucie Rie studied in Vienna at the Kunstgewerbeschule, the School of Arts and Crafts, from 1922 to 1926. The school was closely associated with the radical Wiener Werkstätte, and Rie received encouragement from the celebrated architect and designer, Josef Hoffman. These artists and designers advocated the idea of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, or ‘total work of art’, where every element of an interior, from architecture to objects and furnishings, contributes to a unified whole. This had a lasting impact on Rie’s approach.
Rie did not refer to herself as an artist or a craftswoman, simply saying, ‘I am a potter’. In this sense, she distanced herself from debates about the division or hierarchy between art and craft. However, many would argue that her work is worthy of the same appreciation and critical attention as a work of ‘fine art’.
Rahul: Many of her contemporaries followed the baroque style of excess – exaggerations and undulations. In this context, how does Rie’s minimal style position?
Eliza: Rie began her career in the 1920s, when Viennese modernism was reaching its final years. She was taught by Michael Powolny, a ceramic artist who specialised in playful ceramic figurines and decorative pieces. Lucie Rie initially absorbed some of these influences, but soon distanced herself, making vessels with simple silhouettes and plain glazes. A 1936 tea service on display in the exhibition demonstrates her interest in minimal, refined designs. Her work was more closely aligned with architecture and design than that of other potters working in Vienna at the time.
Rahul: How was this exhibition conceived, and how were the works on display selected?
Eliza: The exhibition showcases work made throughout Rie’s six decade career. Arranged chronologically, the earliest work is from c. 1926, when Rie was beginning her career in Vienna, and the latest piece is from 1990, when Rie was 88-years-old. The exhibition includes more than 100 pieces, borrowed from institutions and private collections in the UK and beyond. The works were selected to demonstrate the extraordinary breadth and creativity of Rie’s work throughout her life, as well as her technical mastery and skill. The exhibition’s title, The Adventure of Pottery, is drawn from a credo written by Rie in the early 1950s, in which she says, ‘to make pottery is an adventure to me, every new work is a new beginning’.
‘Lucie Rie: The Adventure of Pottery’ is on view till June 25, 2023 at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, UK.
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