Right now the art world is caught between two powerful cross-currents that are utterly contradictory. One the one hand there are artists seeking to explore what we’d describe as virtual realities through digital art, now often secured using NFTs (non-fungible tokens) which have received a lot of media attention (See the interview with the digital artist Beeple).
At the opposite end of the spectrum there’s another subset of artists, now in large numbers across the world, who are turning to processes derived from craft, or a kind of art that is deliberately crude. They are also reaching a huge audience. In painting we are witnessing the powerful emergence of figurative work that is almost naïve in style, in which colour features prominently. In sculpture we are observing the rise of ceramics; a technique that is essentially manual and also fragile.
Until 6 February the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris is staging a large-scale exhibition, “Les Flammes”, comprising 350 artworks on the practice and history of ceramics. The pieces featured are not subject to a hierarchy or ordered chronologically in the creative labyrinth presented by the curator Anne Dressen.
Art of resistance
She believes that “ceramics is an art of resistance,” adding that “ceramics often remains marginalized in art due to its association with the decorative, amateurism or the functional”. Nowadays these categories are being revised, and useful things can enter into the category of art as well as craft.
Anne Dressen points out that it was in the late 19th century that artists like Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) began to show an interest in ceramics. From 1886 he collaborated with a ceramicist, Ernest Chaplet, and worked with stoneware to create fantastical forms. As demonstrated in the exhibition “Gauguin l’alchimiste” at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2017, he incorporates the fires of hell and the firing of the kiln into his pieces. These pieces are, however, extremely rare at auction.
The Italian artist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), a superstar of the contemporary art market, was a great exponent of ceramics. In one of his manifestos he wrote: “We are also convinced that we will continue to paint and to sculpt with the materials of the past”. From the mid-1940s he ascribed to an idea of the future expressed through his concept of “spatialism”. He was interested in the whole universe, in the conquest of space. Today it is clearly his “Concetto spaziale”, in the form of monochrome canvases that have been slashed or perforated, that are his most famous works. In 2015 one of these pieces, egg-shaped, yellow and speckled with holes, dating from 1964, sold for the record price of 27.1 million euros. Compare that to the most expensive ceramic work sold by the same artist, dating from 1948, which was auctioned for 2 million euros in 2018.
Price have skyrocketed
And yet according to Michele Casamonti, founder of the Tornabuoni gallery specializing in the Italian avant-garde, “the market has changed its perspective on Fontana’s ceramics. Since 2014 prices have skyrocketed. Ceramics with an average price of 80,000 euros in 2014 now trade for between 200,000 and 300,000 euros. This is due in part to the 2014 retrospective at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris which showcased the technique and has set a precedent among other institutions.
Beast eating novelty
Frédéric Bonnet, who will open a gallery in Marseille next March, Nendo, dedicated exclusively to ceramics, offers this analysis: “the art world is a beast that feeds on novelty. Ceramics is the new phase. In this field it is customary to list lower prices than in painting. So a canvas by a young artist who has barely put on three exhibitions currently sells for 30,000 euros, whereas 15,000 euros for a ceramic work is already a lot.”
One of the young French artists who is currently very high-profile, Jean-Marie Appriou (born in 1986) (he is with Eva Presenhuber, Clearing and Perrotin in Asia, among others) has practiced it extensively since he started out. “We often talk about the therapeutic benefits of ceramics for sick people or children, and it’s true. There’s something magical that happens in the kiln with the changes in size and colour. This stage also necessitates a process of letting go, which is fascinating.”
The artist of Syrian origin who lives in Paris, Simone Fattal (born in 1942), is exhibited as part of “Les Flammes”. Her work references the history of sculpture, particularly archaeology. She explains in the interview”Clay is a dynamic living entity. It’s a living being”. Represented, among others, by Galerie Tanit in Beirut and Munich and Balice-Hertling in Paris, her pieces are on sale for between 10,000 and 40,000 euros. Her work has been acquired by the national museum in Doha, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Johan Creten (born in 1963) also features in “Les Flammes”. His presence is all the more justified given that he has been involved in the field since very early on. “At the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent in the 1980s ceramics was completely neglected. It was seen as a taboo material, moist, dirty, which kept a record of all gestures,” asserts the visual artist, a little provocatively.
Torsos with petals
His best known pieces are torsos swathed in flowers, large sculptures covered with petals, giving them an untouchable aspect. “It’s a way of addressing the subject of incomprehension between men and women.” They are on sale for between 25,000 and 120,000 euros. For reference, Johan Creten’s bronzes are presented by his galleries, Emmanuel Perrotin and Almine Rech, for between 80,000 and 350,000 euros.
The American artist Theaster Gates (born in 1973) is one of the most prominent creators on the contemporary scene (See here the report about his show at Palais de Tokyo). This performer, musician and activist who is very involved in the black community in Chicago had a revelation while visiting the ceramics masters in Japan.
“Clay made me and is forever the root of my artistic interest” (1). This autumn he exhibited this work, which is simultaneously spectacular and raw in appearance, with the title “A Clay Sermon” at the Whitechapel, the Victoria & Albert Museum and White Cube gallery in London. The large-format pieces are presented by his gallery, White Cube, from 140,000 euros. At auction, however, a piece in porcelain from 2010 from an older series was auctioned for 31,000 euros on 18 November 2021.
Edmund de Waal
Lastly, the porcelain works by a British artist and writer, Edmund de Waal (born in 1964), are on display until 15 May at the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris (See here the report about his exhibition). These are linked to the history and collections of his European Jewish family: “Porcelain is a way of entering into conversation with a brighter world which has always been important to me,” revealed the artist on the occasion of one of his exhibitions at Gagosian gallery who represents him. He conceives installations of objects with a minimalist aesthetic, frequently decorated with gold leaf. A large-scale installation from 2017 composed of porcelain pieces was sold in April 2021 for the record price at auction of 209,000 euros, but we also currently find smaller scale objects for between 10,000 and 20,000 euros.
Les flammes, l’âge de la céramique. Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris. https://www.mam.paris.fr/fr/expositions/exposition-les-flammes
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