The use of “Ceramics” rather than “Ceramics” in the title of this book indicates Paul Greenhalgh’s passionate belief that “ceramics is a thing in itself: a multi-headed yet singular entity, with a continuous intellectual discourse which he calls “the ceramic continuum”. He feels that it has been “actively denied its place as an artistic practice” and that “its exclusion from the canon of art history is directly linked to money, class and race”.
The book is a stupendous attempt to right that wrong. The ceramic, says Greenhalgh, has been seen as “too cheap” (although the sale of the Qianlong Vase in 2010 for £43 million may change that), is “available to vulgarity” and “its formation is linked to foreign cultures that undermine nationalist ideology.” While art historians are undoubtedly a dubious group, the accusation of nationalism seems curious, given that art history as a that discipline was itself brought into this country from abroad.
Although the author recognizes that ceramics is “deeply eclectic and plays with other arts”, the objective of this new history is to justify its singular place in civilization alongside painting, sculpture and art. architecture. He takes us from ancient Greece to the wildest shores of conceptual art, post-modernism and Californian funk; from the unmistakable elegance of Greek black-and-red-figure vases to a group of 20th-century Amsterdam potters who dipped their heads in a bucket of slip and sat together while it dried.
Greenhalgh identifies three types of objects — vase, tile and figurine — which have been used since prehistoric times and remain so, in one way or another, up to the present day. Four transformational influences in “the enormous ocean of objects that is Western ceramics” provide the book’s underlying structure. They are: classical antiquity, for its founding role in European civilisation; the Islamic world, whose development of tin glaze to provide a white ground in emulation of Chinese white clay “changed everything” by making brilliant color possible, and led to the magnificence of the Italian Renaissance and Hispano-Moorish pottery; China, which discovered and exported porcelain — a material “that emotionally traumatized the world”; and finally the Modern (‘a sense of the Modern in the way ceramics were made and consumed’), the beginnings of which he traces back to the end of the 17th century.
Greenhalgh describes the fluctuating status of pots and potters throughout history in relation to the technical development of ceramics as an industry and the emergence of the artist potter. Ceramics has been written about almost since the Bronze Age, apparently, but has not consistently been accorded great cultural status. Although pots are ‘the portable manifestation of Greek civilisation’, for example, it is not true that the Greeks valued pottery as art (they had no word for ‘art’) and 19th-century attempts to identify individual Greek potters by style are dismissed as “anachronistic wishful thinking”.
A hierarchy of art emerged with the growth of art schools and museums in the 19th century. Greenhalgh records the various attempts since then to elevate ceramics to the status of art, the rise of art pottery which has been countered by claims of “function” as its primary concern. Greenhalgh regards William Morris’ utopian dreams of a “vernacular” as “sentimental” (although he endorses Chardin’s “unaffected proletarian vision”).
The author’s overriding argument for the importance of ceramics is that it has been “more linked to communication and storytelling than virtually any art outside of literature and theater”. He insists on the almost uninterrupted narrative function of the pots, of which “purpose was communication,” and traces it convincingly from ancient Greece to Staffordshire figurines and the present day. His idea of the ceramic continuum is justified by this indestructible narrative thread and by the survival of ancient techniques alongside modern technology. Jingdezhen in China (the subject of an 1878 poem by Longfellow) is still going strong after 800 years, and distinguished contemporary potters from around the world travel there to work.
Greenhalgh is Director of the Sainsbury Center at the University of East Anglia and Professor of Art History and Museum Strategy at UEA. He was Assistant Custodian of Ceramics and Glass at the V&A and held positions in Canada and America. While acknowledging that ceramics are responsible for “some of the ugliest objects ever made”, his vast knowledge comes with an uninhibited passion for pots (“the first instinct with a good shiny red Roman pot is to… lick everywhere”). and a fierce antagonism towards the promoters of “class distinctions which erect an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists”. His book is full of surprises, provocative, piquant, sometimes humorous – and amazing value for £30.