I am quite aware that many potters are also collectors. Some potters also write in addition to creating ceramic art and collecting. British ceramic artist Edmund de Waal is one of the most distinguished of the potters/writers/collectors today. He has written several important books regarding ceramics, including “Bernard Leach” and “Twentieth Century Ceramics”. He has had many important exhibits and installations of his ceramic work, including the Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Britain. In the last few years he has assembled multiple ceramic vases of his in compositions that occupy large spaces in galleries and museums. As I continue this discussion about collecting, I would like to share with you a book of his that I am currently reading. The title of his latest book is “The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss”.
Here de Waal tells the story of his descendents, a fabulously wealthy Jewish family in the 19th century, with huge mansions in several major cities of Europe, great masterpiece paintings on the walls of these vast palaces, villas in the most plush mountain and sea resorts, and scores of servants to attend to their every need. Among the treasures collected by members of the family was a group of antique wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox. These objects were Japanese netsuke and they form the central spine of this book. Despite the devastation and chaos of World War I, Hitler and World II, this collection was handed down from generation to generation and finally to Edmund de Waal. While their world was being destroyed and many family members were tragically eliminated in the holocaust along with millions of other Jews in Europe, those 264 objects somehow survived intact.
In an article de Waal wrote in the Saturday Guardian 29.05.10, he explains more about his collection,
“I have 264 netsuke: street vendors, beggars and monks, rat catchers, dogs, lovers, a woman and an octopus, an elderly lady on an elderly horse, a witch trapped in a temple bell, a persimmon about to split, a hare with amber eyes. It is a very big collection of very small objects. I pick one up and turn it round in my fingers, weigh it in the palm of my hand. If it is wood, chestnut or elm, it is even lighter than the ivory. You see the patina more easily on these wooden ones; there is a faint shine on the spine of the brindled wolf and on the tumbling acrobats locked in their embrace. The ivory ones come in shades of cream, every colour, in fact but white. A few have inlaid eyes of amber or horn. Some of the older ones are slightly worn away: the haunch of the faun resting on leaves has lost its markings. There is a slight split, an almost imperceptible fault line on the cicada. Who dropped it? Where and when?”
This is truly a fine book by a great ceramic artist about his legendary family and that special collection whose responsibility for preservation and care he now assumes. Unlike de Waal, I do not come from a family of collectors. There was little or nothing of value to pass down. My grandfather on my father’s side was a shoe salesman, on my mother’s side her father was a bartender who became rather wealthy and owned several valuable properties in downtown Los Angeles that his sons lost during the Great Depression. I have two brothers and they do not collect anything but the usual household goods and appliances. So my obsession with collecting ceramics must be a unique trait that cannot be traced by genes or attitude back through my family ancestors. Indeed I may well be the first and last collector in my family. I know that someday this will be very bad news for all the potters now dependent upon me for their lavish lifestyle but that’s the way it is.
I want to offer you another quote about collecting from my book. This comes from my 22nd letter, November 24, 2003,
“Is there some relationship between my love of trees and pots? Both face the same challenge. In this very practical and pragmatic society, trees and pottery need to justify their existence and value to survive. Both are endangered species. I once tried to save a grove of Oak trees in my community by justifying their value; the lower temperatures by providing shade, the filtering and cleaning of air, reduced need for air conditioning, etc. I lost that struggle. The oak grove was destroyed. Pottery can pour beverages, hold food, receive liquids and hold flowers. So can plastic cups and plates from Wal-Mart. We must try to provide more convincing arguments. I love trees and pots for other reasons. I experience them. The sheer sensual beauty of a tree; the Jacaranda in my front garden where I sit on a bench in its soft shade, see and hear the movement of wind through the moving leaves, sway of branches, sunlight filtered through the tall trunk and branches. The creative form of the pot, elegant in its length and shape, cascades of colored glazes in subtle patterns, striking designs that represent natural or geometric origins. Why is that value not more convincing or conclusive in this society? What will happen to my trees and pottery after I am gone? Their destiny should not depend on my partisan or personal support, but their intrinsic significance to any worthy quality of existence.”
Like de Waal’s netsuke, some of my pottery has a very long and unknown history before I acquired them. How did that German Mettlach antique Griffin vase, quite beautiful with such detailed precision and vivid colors in the shape of the mythical animal, get that severe break at the base that was so clumsily repaired? I am sure that this visible repair was the only reason I won the rather low bid on ebay and obtained it. I had to pay a considerable shipping expense because I had purchased it from someone in Australia. How did that antique German vase get to Australia? Every object has a story to tell but most of them we will never know. I can see it right now from my desk in the pottery gallery, the neck of the vase also the neck of the griffin, his head at the very top with an open mouth and his wings in back, his paws clutching the side of the rounded belly in the front of the vase.
Or how about that British Royal Doulton biscuit jar with the silver plated lid and handle that dates from 1881-1892? I don’t think we use biscuit jars in Glendora anymore, if we ever did. I am not sure we eat that many biscuits anymore either, having several donut shops in the area. Times changes but these objects stand still – just like that Jacaranda tree I was talking about above. I am sure you don’t want this old man to lament the cruel changes that have occurred in his lifetime without his permission. Maybe that’s why I go into my pottery gallery so often and stay so long. Nothing changes except when I want it to – and then only the movement of a vase from one shelf to make room for yet another pot just purchased. That’s enough change for me right now. My pots and I are frozen in an unbreakable embrace, locked within my home and gallery, safe and secure in our timeless pursuit of a durable beauty. Surely, unlike de Waal’s family, no foreign army will invade me, no adversaries will seek to take my collection away from me. You see, we collectors have so much to worry about and such heavy responsibilities to protect and preserve those things we love and collect.
I want to provide you now with another excerpt from my book about collecting. This is from my 28th letter, dated June 7, 2004,
“What is not prerequisite for me is the technical knowledge involved in the construction of the piece. I do not need to know the firing temperature of the kiln or the chemical mixture of the glaze, nor have the skill to throw a pot to engage the finished artifact with great benefit. It is the aesthetic engagement that is new and unique on each occasion. Even approaching the same pot daily, it is never quite the same. I am never exactly in the same condition, what has happened to me just before and since the last time I encountered the pot. The pot changes with the light, reveals portions once shaded; seems to shine with greater intensity, modesty abandoned and brazen in its beauty; then, depending on the time of day, withdraws, once again sublime in its continuing mystery. Still the pot belongs to families of relationships greater than itself. This community of intent and appearance remains general, you still need to stop and look at the individual pot for an experience that cannot be predicted by known class, category, or type.”
How can I justify the acquisition of all that pottery over years without becoming an expert on how pottery is made? I wonder if potters really understand that I have an aesthetic interest in their pots, not a technical one? When I indicate I wish to purchase a pot, many potters in the past have tried to explain to me how they made it. I do attempt to remain polite, even nod my head, but these are things I simply do not wish to know. Does that ignorance of the essential knowledge of how a ceramic artifact is created limit me to a superficial level of understanding and appreciation? Do gourmets who love great cuisine have to know how it was prepared (or even able to prepare it themselves)? Does a connoisseur of really fine wines have to understand the complex procedures necessary for it to arrive in the wine goblet shortly before sipping? I want my experience with pottery to be a cultural event, not a lesson in the chemistry of the glaze or the process of hand and tool manipulation of clay on the potter’s wheel. Would my attitude annoy some potters? I hope not.
What do I mean in the quote above by “the pot belongs to families of relationships greater than itself?” This has to do with the complex issues that I have discussed in this blog and in my other writings over the years. They bring forth such issues as attempting to maintain a craft whose functional capacities as vessels have modern alternatives in materials such as plastic that threaten to replace them; a postmodern art market that seems to privilege the remnants of manufactured debris as assembled art rather than a hand-crafted artifact as object; and the onslaught of electronic means to design artifacts that do not require the direct manipulation of the human hand. All this takes place within dynamic cultures that are currently being shaped by the fluctuation in a globalized economy that values quantity over quality; in economies that prize the disposable product as the most dependable source of continued profit. All these contemporary issues are only the current manifestations of the long history of ceramics as a primary activity and legacy going back to the origins of human civilizations.
I assume that what I contribute to the discussion as formulated above is of value to potters. I have reason to be confident of that because over the years many potters have communicated their support and appreciation for my efforts. The placement and integration of ceramics as a significant contribution in the wider patterns of cultural and aesthetic meaning provide my chief interest and essential motivation. In a sense that is what collectors do in their actual behavior. I literally take ceramic objects and place and integrate them in my home in original compositions of forms and color. The arrangement of multiple objects within interior space requires a pattern of intention and design. I create and organize the rooms of my house with ceramic objects as the central resource. That is what a collector does.
I have more to say about these themes and will continue to explore them in the next blog…