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Just Opened: New Exhibition on French Ceramics in LA

Love French ceramics from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries? Then you need to check out the exhibition that opened last Saturday, October 6, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Entitled “Daily Pleasures: French Ceramics from the MaryLou Boone Collection,” it features over 130 examples of faïance, soft-paste porcelain, and hard-paste porcelain used in French daily life.

I found out about this exhibition months ago and wrote about it when comparing French ceramics past and present. For example, the curves of French country pottery pitchers mirror those of antique ewers which traditionally held water for washing in the morning. Other French ceramics in the exhibition include tablewares, tea accouterments, toiletry items, and even pieces used in times of sickness. The sugar bowl and spoon featured on LACMA’s blog is charming, with soft pink accents and a curiously slotted spoon.

Covered Sugar Bowl, 1780, Lunéville, France; and Sugar Spoon, 1775, Lunéville Petit Feu Faïence Manufactory, Lunéville, France; gifts of MaryLou Boone, photos © Susan Einstein

“This exhibition reveals and celebrates both the artistry that exists in the service of the utilitarian and the ability of this discriminating collector to bring together remarkable examples of that artistry,” said Elizabeth Williams, assistant curator of decorative arts and design at LACMA, in a recent press release.

Wine Bottle Cooler (Seau à demi-bouteille). Chantilly Porcelain Manufactory, Chantilly, France, c. 1730-1735. Soft-paste porcelain with glaze and enamel, The MaryLou Boone Collection. photos © Susan Einstein

I couldn’t agree more, especially looking at examples of handmade French pottery today, from French platters to the elegant curves of a French ceramic serving bowl. I was amused to see a French ceramic wine bottle holder circa 1730-1735 as a featured piece on the LACMA website. The Asian influence is obvious, as is the practicality of having something to keep wine cool. Unlike the porcelain jars for pomade, a wine bottle holder is a practical ceramic piece people still use today.

Many of these pieces look like they came from Asia because they were imitations of pieces from Japan and China that only the very rich could afford. Today’s French ceramics embrace colors, shapes, and textures of a timeless (yet contemporary) French aesthetic. French country pottery is a pleasure not only to see, but also to use, though the delicate artistic touches on Sylvie Durez‘s birds or the edging of Poterie Ravel’s French platters invoke the early examples of this tradition the LACMA exhibition highlights.

“Daily Pleasures” runs until March 31, 2013, so if I make it down to L.A. before it’s over, I’ll definitely check it out. Have you seen this exhibition or know of others that focus on French ceramics in your area? Leave a comment below and let us know!

“Daily Pleasures” images courtesy of LACMA.

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A Look at French Ceramics, Past and Present

Think you know French ceramics? Many people picture porcelain when they think about French ceramics, such as the famous Sèvres porcelain. Louis XV became the owner of this producer in 1759 and it was a major maker of French porcelain throughout the eighteenth century (according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Most of these early porcelains were imitations of pieces from Japan and China that only the very rich could afford, though there was plenty of French innovation once the new processes got traction. Because of a lack of essential materials to make a clay body that was the same as the Asian pieces, all of the French ceramics made before 1770 were soft paste porcelain, not hard paste. (For those that are wondering, soft paste porcelain requires a higher fire temperature and is much harder to form than the more plastic and malleable hard paste porcelain, which contains minerals like kaolin and quartz.)

Technical talk aside, these old French ceramics are certainly beautiful to see. If you’re in the LA area, an upcoming exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art will feature examples of porcelain from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France that have a whole range of style and function. What’s particularly interesting about this collection is that it also features faience, which is simply another name for tin-oxide glazed pottery… also known as majolica.

Flash forward to today where faience/majolica is still going strong in French ceramics. Sturdy, rustic, yet also refined, this ceramic tradition continues to grow with modern sensibilities while staying true to its roots.

Just look at the curves of the pitchers by Richard Esteban and Poterie Ravel. Simple and elegant, their rich glazes are enticing for hands and eyes alike. Compare a faience ewer circa 1700 (like the photo above) to Richard’s barn red milk pitcher – they have the same clean lines and visual appeal with tall, stately spouts.

Poterie Ravel’s fancy pitcher, stunning in mustard yellow or creamy ivory, also reflects shapes and function from the past that fits in with today’s aesthetics for French ceramics.

Then there are French ceramics like those by Patrice Voelkel and Sylvie Durez. Patrice does so much with colors like white or blue, creating pieces that are deceptively simple. His large serving dish has a delicate rim that exposes the black local clay of Provence, while the white irregular glaze gives it real character. Sylvie goes a completely different direction, treating her bowls, serving platters, and pitchers as canvases for playful animals, dreamy women, or pastel landscapes with a surreal feel.

No matter your style, the variety of French ceramics being made today are sure to be just as sought after in hundreds of years as those that were made in the 1700s. So which French ceramics suit you best?

French faience ewer image courtesy of Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art.

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The Allure of the Majolica Plate

Originality is an important quality when it comes to all ceramics. But with the wide variety of majolica plates out there, I’m always looking for something that’s fresh and new. Not to say that I discount tradition – just look at examples of Italian ceramics from Umbria or Faenza Italian ceramics. (Faenza, by the way, is where we get the term faience for majolica ceramics.) These rich ceramic centers in Italy are hugely important historically as well as stylistically.

Underlining the importance of Faezna in the larger world of Italian ceramics is the city’s International Museum of Ceramics. I visited a few years ago and got a firsthand look at the majolica plates in their collection, which date from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Exquisite details are on these pieces that have been found through excavations and other acquisitions, dating to the 1400s. Obviously the allure of the majolica plate is nothing new.

But beyond its rich history, what draws people to majolica plates? Of course there’s the obvious explanation of function: plates are great for eating and serving meals. But majolica raises the bar on other functional plates. Let’s look at a few different examples to see how:

  • Design. The large flat surface of a plate is like a canvas. Majolica plates range from being a solid, simple landscape to detailed, complex works of art. Repeating motifs are common but plates became more complicated with scenes in the istoriato tradition. Introduced in the 16th century, this style literally means “with a story in it” and marked the transition of majolica plates from purely functional to decorative pieces. The harlequin plates are a great example of this tradition – the lifelike figures are uniquely Tuscan and so playful! I love the scene of the serenade with its story in progress (above right).
  • Shape. Majolica plates are often round because it’s an easy shape to make on a potter’s wheel. This serves to make other shapes all the more striking, like squares or rectangles. I love serving food on these obscure shapes, but they work equally well as colorful wall hangings. A personal favorite is the square plate with lemons; the lemons are so inviting, their blue background so rustic, and the pattern around the edge adds a light and whimsical feeling. Curious to know which Italian town is most famous for lemons and ceramics? So am I since it seems so many make the claim.
  • Unexpected Details. Going hand in hand with these other qualities of majolica plates is adding a little extra, like a foot. Footed platters literally elevate their contents, making them perfect for fruit or dessert, whether as a centerpiece or a gorgeous accent on your kitchen counter. As I mentioned in a recent post, Ceramiche Bartoloni’s Foglia e Frutta Footed Platter with Angel is a great example of this, as is Tuscia d’Arte’s Footed Platter with Tuscan Fruits. There’s always fruit in this bowl-like plate, even when it’s empty, creating a great mix of form and function.