The genesis of studio pottery - or art ceramics – as it is presently understood can be traced back to the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th century.
Broadly speaking, Art Nouveau was a reactionary movement, with artists who had felt confined by convention developing sufficient self-confidence to break free from the shackles of ‘academic art’ which had prevailed for some two centuries. Suddenly it was deemed appropriate for individuals to express themselves through their creativity, without having to observe the dictates which had been religiously adhered to for so long; an objet d’art could be appreciated for what it was, without having to be critically assessed for its suitability for a particular function – art for art’s sake was a wake up call which empowered creatives to push the boundaries and set their own standards.
Previously, these figurative boundaries had been manifested in physical form; vases and glassware had to be broadly symmetrical, decorative motifs on porcelain or silverware had to be contained within reserves or borders, sculptures had to reproduce classical tropes – everything was judged against how good a replica it was of something which had gone before, how it represented a formalised ideal or how appropriate it was for the purposes it was deemed to be intended for. Art Nouveau swept such conventions aside.
Potters and ceramicists, in particular, revelled in this new found freedom, as unlike the at least partly-mechanical methods required to process molten glass or malleable metal, the materials they used were ideally suited for what were quite literally hands-on production techniques.
It took a special sort of genius such Rene Lalique to impart any semblance of organic essence to something which could only be moulded or fashioned with the intervention of tools, but once unfettered from the requirement to accurately reproduce sets of identical models or patterns, potters had an immediate and innate ability to ‘do their own thing’ simply because their raw materials could be uniquely manipulated in their own hands.
And so art pottery flourished, with basic forms now at liberty to be almost infinitely variable. The advent of innovative techniques for colouration and glazing gave further scope for diversity, with names such as Felix Singer, Ricardia, Starck and Andersen being at the forefront of such advances, and in a few short decades what was considered to be a saleable commodity was as far removed from what had gone before as can be imagined; it is almost impossible to conceive, for instance, what the reaction might be from someone who commissioned any late 19th century Coalport wares were they to be confronted with some 1960’s German ‘Fat Lava’ equivalents!
It is clear that the art pottery movement provided an outlet for a great deal of pent-up creativity across Europe, and not just in isolated centres. A case can be made for the ceramicists of Britain perhaps being the first to indulge their newly-liberated passions to any significant commercial extent, with Linthorpe’s, Maw & Co and the Ruskin Pottery in the van, followed by Shaw & Copestake and more experimental ventures as mentioned above. By the 1950’s though there were similar ventures across Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Italy and especially Germany, many of which still are still thriving today.