“Instead, the things ... seep deliberately into one’s attention. They start vaguely, as little more than silhouettes, a vibration of one low colour against another. Gradually they ‘develop’ on the eye, and
one begins to grasp their internal relationships: how articulate the subtle sequence of tones may be,
in a form that once looked flat and brown; how many colours may be contained, as dusty hints and pearly afterimages of themselves, in what seemed to be a sequence of grey patches. If the straight side of a bottle seems to waver, it does so only to remind us how mutable and hard to fix the act of seeing really is. And if the shapes look simple, their simplicity is extremely deceptive; one recognises in it the distillation of an intensely pure sensibility, under whose gaze the size ... the silence of the motif and the inwardness of the vision are as one.”1
If not for the omission of six words in the passage above it might be assumed this article was one of the many recent tributes to the work of the late Australian potter Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, who passed away in London in July this year at the age of 78.
The missing words are ‘in his paintings’ and ‘of the painting’ and the 1981 essay by Robert Hughes is about the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, an artist who profoundly influenced Hanssen Pigott’s work and to whom history may apply a similar judgement of being a petit-maître, an artist who “... although (they) said it very well, had only one thing to say”.2
These assessments will be made and contested over time, but it is true to say that the reputation of Gwyn Hanssen Pigott as Australia’s most significant, internationally recognised ceramicist, is predicated on a body of work that took one idea and, balancing a sound knowledge of her craft with an acute sensibility, parlayed that work into a career that I doubt she could ever have foreseen.
In contrast to the rather hagiographic tributes being written about her life in ceramics, Gwyn’s progress did not always chart a smooth and steady rise. Nonetheless, her beginnings in ceramics are not so far removed from where they ended, especially when one takes into account the myriad digressions that have characterised the field over the last sixty years.
Several factors influenced her early career. As a student of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne she had ready access to the Kent Collection of Chinese ceramics at the National Gallery of Victoria, which at the time was the only readily accessible holding of historically significant Asian ceramics in the country. In an unusual but prescient move, Joseph Burke, then Head of Art History at the university, allowed her to research contemporary Australian pottery for her thesis. The Melbourne potter Harold Hughan introduced her to Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book, and so Leach’s persuasive arguments for the virtues of hand-made pottery, with its apotheosis in the ‘Sung standard’, could be immediately reinforced – ‘proved’ almost – by simply viewing the objects laid out before her in the gallery.
With Hanssen Pigott’s vision of ceramics having been realised (almost before it was formed) by the timeless beauty of classical Chinese wares, she quickly navigated the sea of rambunctious and gaudy earthenware that dominated Australian ceramics until “a very young nineteen-year-old in a dirndl skirt”3 arrived at the Sturt craft workshops in New South Wales where she met the potter Ivan McMeekin. There would be no turning back.
For Ivan McMeekin, who spent time in China before studying in England with Leach and Michael Cardew, the ‘Sung standard’ was accepted without question. When McMeekin returned to Australia from England to set up the ceramics workshop at Sturt, he sought to reproduce as closely as possible the classic wares of China, despite being separated from that originating culture by vast stretches of time and distance, and perhaps even of need. But McMeekin was tenacious and utterly convinced of his path and where he single-mindedly led, his young student followed. She took pressure off McMeekin by assuming responsibility for some of the teaching at Sturt, helpfully translating from the French the letters of the seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary Pere D’Entrocolles concerning Chinese porcelain manufacture, while digging for clay amongst the gum trees of the Southern Highlands in New South Wales.
When, with McMeekin’s blessing, she went to England in the late 1950s, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott set about furthering her education in ceramics at a time when Bernard Leach was the dominant figure and when his early apprentices were now leaders in their own right. Despite her commitment to this rather conservative approach to studio pottery, she also brushed up against a gentle version of modernism in London, where potters like Lucie Rie and Hans Coper had brought a ‘Continental’ sensibility to the field.
Gwyn Hanssen, as she was then, began to make a name for herself in London. Contemporary commentators remarked on her work as being “... completely acceptable ... a potter’s potter ...” 4 whose work “... more or less summarises the Leach-Cardew-Davis-Finch field ... akin to the work of the Mackenzie’s in the USA and McMeekin in Australia”.5 Pottery that belonged to the tradition of “Workshop potters versus art school potters. Useful-ware potters versus sculptor-painter-potters”6, this last observation having particular resonance when viewed in the light of her later work.
A typical example of her output at the time, from a 1962 exhibition at Primavera gallery in London, was almost a craft cliché: a ‘punch set’ consisting of cups with handles, a large, footed bowl and a ceramic ladle, all in muted, ash-glazed stoneware. And although Alison Britten, writing of this period in her essay ‘Gwyn Hanssen Pigott: a view from her second home’7, recalls that she represented a “... benchmark of sound and sensitive practice ...”8, other commentators had a different view, with Robert Melville, writing a few years earlier in Architectural Review, remarking that much of the ceramics coming out of the crafts movement seemed to belong to a “... village and market town community of highly aesthetic peasants ...”9
Gwyn Hanssen Pigott would soon reinforce this commitment to tradition (and here the word ‘tradition’ needs to be understood as being as much notional as factual) and by the mid-sixties, inspired by the simple beauty of French domestic pottery, she had settled in the district of Haut-Berry a few hours south of Paris. She built a large woodfired kiln and used local materials in a direct extension of McMeekin’s purist methodologies, which he in turn had inherited from Leach. (In truth, Leach was quite willing to modify his purist approach for the sake of expediency – it was more the early students like Michael Cardew and Harry Davis who took some of his philosophical urgings to what can only be described as fanatical extremes.)
She made pots in France and travelled often to England, where she supplemented her income by teaching at various art schools. Gwyn Hanssen Pigott had become a highly regarded maker of functional pottery, as good as any in the business. She was also very aware of the contradictions and paradoxes that ran through this modern, largely middle-class obsession with traditions that had faded away, when as early as 1969 she wrote that “... we younger potters ... can never be ‘potters of Haut-Berry’ ... we can never recapture the spirit that has passed. We remain, as ever, our immigrant selves, alone always, our work our own personal struggle and delight”.10
Later she recalled that she had “... tried ... to make something which would be real. I hoped that if I lived like a traditional potter somehow I would make pots like those unpretentious craftsmen in times gone by. But in fact I wasn’t unpretentious at all – nor simple ... I was acting a part that I hadn’t the strength for, and I was caught in a very subtle ambition to which I saw no end”.11
What is apparent from this statement is that Hanssen Pigott already had the ability to see beyond the objects she was making in order to interrogate their place in the world and, by extension, to question her own role as a contemporary craftsperson. This ability (which is rarer than one might think) does not necessarily lead to comfortable conclusions, and it probably contributed to her decision to leave her “... French idyll taking only what I could carry in my bag”.12
In 1973 Gwyn Hanssen Pigott returned to Australia. She worked for a while in New South Wales, and in 1974 moved to Tasmania where, with her student and future husband John Pigott, she established
a pottery near Hobart. During this time she returned to the methodologies that had characterised her work in France, making functional ceramics from locally sourced materials. The curator of Hanssen Pigott’s 2006 retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Jason Smith, states that this time shows her “starting again”13, but she was also repeating herself, just in another place.
Her move in 1980 to the JamFactory workshops in South Australia resulted in a more substantial shift in her working practice, in that she found a way by which the effects she sought could be achieved more efficiently, albeit without any significant alteration to the final product. As ever, change in Hanssen Pigott’s work came incrementally. Change in location happened more frequently.
In 1981 she moved to Brisbane, becoming a resident potter at the Kelvin Grove campus of what is now the Queensland University of Technology. Over the next eight years, Hanssen Pigott continued to make functional pottery, even pursuing the decorated surface before “... reinvesting in simplicity ...”14
If functional, production-based pottery had maintained a certain cachet during the sixties and seventies, by the 1980s its allure was wearing a bit thin. The challenges first mounted on the Leach- derived studio pottery tradition by modernism and the Funk movement had evolved into a myriad of divergent styles; all clamouring for attention, all given equal time within the ceramics community, all suffering from the same lack of critical analysis that typified the discourses surrounding the Crafts and – with one or two possible exceptions - all being ignored by those working in the fine arts.
Working in the environment of an art school, the widening rift between ceramics made as art and studio-pottery was apparent. As Jeff Shaw, then Head of Kelvin Grove CAE, wrote of a 1983 exhibition of Hanssen Pigott’s work at Blackfriars Gallery in Sydney: “Gwyn’s ware is simply practical and simply beautiful, unpretentious but carefully considered. It is a pleasure to use and view.”15 Which is all very nice, but it doesn’t make it art and it meant that, as Jason Smith notes, Hanssen Pigott was increasingly being written out of the critical discourse.16
And then something happened.
The precise moment that Gwyn Hanssen Pigott began to group her pots together as a statement may never be known. The transition from casually observing thousands of pots sitting side by side on ware- boards or in the kiln, a familiar
sight to anyone who, like Hanssen Pigott, was a production potter, to the conscious grouping together of objects so that the whole was more than the sum of the parts probably happened slowly. Those who knew her from earlier times comment that she often would take great care in selecting and placing objects in her own home, with the same degree of care and control that typified her approach to all aspects of her craft.
A grouping titled Three Inseparable Bowls was exhibited at the Gary Anderson Gallery in Sydney in November 1987 and her adoption by this dealer gallery, more known for representing fine artists than craftspeople, certainly played its part in situating her work within a wider context. (Interestingly, the Gary Anderson Gallery staged a group exhibition in 1990 titled Homage to Morandi which featured many well-known artists, including Alan Mittleman, John Peart, Leonard Brown and Kevin Lincoln.)
A picture of Hanssen Pigott’s 1987 work, together with a short artist’s statement, can be found in the February 1988 edition of Pottery in Australia and it marks a bellwether moment in Australian ceramic history. Hanssen Pigott states that the “... bowls, bottles, beakers or teapots (are) ... meant as much for contemplation as for use; but whether studying them will yield any sense of meaning is questionable. They are only about themselves and about the years of needing to make them ... I can’t offer them as new, surprising, noble or comfortable. I have to make them because they are beautiful, worth the trouble”.17
There may be some argument as to whether these three bowls, taken individually, were new (metaphorically if not literally). The term ‘surprising’ doesn’t spring to mind; they were comfortable in the sense that were in no way challenging, and as to the question of nobility – well, “What poor an instrument, may do a noble deed”18 probably sums it up, if one takes poor to mean humble, or even self-effacing.
But that is if the pieces are seen individually, which of course they can’t be because they were ‘inseparable’, and therefore were one. Viewed through the finely tuned lens of Hanssen Pigott’s later work, these three bowls are very much a beginning. They only hint at what might come, but their significance to the artist is demonstrated by her reference to a poem which reads:
Some men go ten years without crying and when they do cry
it’s only because they feel utterly helpless. (Gerry Gilbert)
Here, she is wrapping the work in text, and the reader is to understand that the pots are inseparable not only from each other but from meaning with a capital ‘M’. She had found a way for her pots to be something other than just objects of use, an ambition which she had held for some time. It wasn’t a major work, but all the elements were there – it just took a few more years to refine things.
For a good part of her life, in Australia, England and France, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott made beautifully crafted domestic pottery when most attention was being paid and most accolades were being given to work that existed at the extremes of aesthetics. She made quiet pots during a period when the volume was turned up to eleven. Lou Reed once said to a heckler in an audience, “I can drown you out”, and there was a time in Gwyn Hanssen Pigott’s mid-career when that seemed to be her fate.
As Steve Dow noted in his article on Hanssen Pigott, although she “... never called herself an artist and hated the word ceramist ...”19, it was only when her work became contextualised as art that the mainstream arts commentators – those whose purview extends beyond the confines of the ceramics world, or simply exists outside it – began to vociferously proclaim the value of its craft origins, neatly packaged as it was within a familiar and highly recognisable pictorial language.
When the critic Christopher Allen, recently writing in The Australian in an article tellingly titled ‘Ceramist’s picture-perfect suites’20, states that “... in the 1980s, a particularly ill-conceived hybrid art form arose, known as ceramic sculpture, embraced largely by women and supported by an ill-digested mixture of theories about craft, folk-art and feminism”21, the products of which “... varied from faux-naif whimsy to ideological kitsch ... almost (all) uniformly dreadful”22, one gets a pretty accurate appraisal of how many in the art world viewed much of what was celebrated within the ceramics world. Those who worked in the fine arts wanted potters to be potters, while many of those in the ceramics world desperately wanted to be considered artists. Paradoxically, the fine arts contingent felt quite content to relegate all ceramics to a position somewhat below art, until a potter presented them with work which, quite literally, looked like art, while still being pottery.
By the early 1990s Hanssen Pigott’s work had arrived at its final configuration.
The groupings of pots now included taller shapes as well as bowls and beakers, teapots and cups. The early work, made at Netherdale in Queensland where Hanssen Pigott had moved in 1989, was a little clunky – the odd, elongated cone shapes of the vases were more smoke-stack than fragile Morandi, especially when glazed in the darker tenmoku blacks and browns; but by the mid-1990s it was pretty well all there, with the fine porcelain clays clothed in exquisitely nuanced whites and ivory creams through the palest blues, greens and yellows. The bottle shapes were more resolved, the cylindrical beakers and bowls had lost the broad French peasant foot and, seen individually, each piece became almost the idea of a pot, or perhaps the ideal. All of Gwyn Hanssen Pigott’s considerable technical skills were brought to bear on the simplest and most pared-down of objects, which, when gathered together
in groups of three or four or even twenty or more, achieved a kind of critical mass fuelled by their shared simplicity. It was a case of less is more and more of less, more or less.
As the groupings became increasingly larger, so did her reputation. She showed extensively in both Australia and overseas and obtained representation at galleries that had hitherto been merely unobtainable goals for Australian ceramics artists, or indeed any Australian artist.
In 2000 she moved back to South East Queensland, and over the next decade exhibited her pots at the highest level in Canada, the USA, England, Europe and Asia. In Australia her work broke boundaries as well as records for the kind of prices a living potter could achieve. She was the one who made it, and in doing so she paved the way for others to follow.
There is much to analyse in Gwyn Hanssen Pigott’s later work, far more than can be done in an
essay like this. Her arrangements of historical collections at museums like the Smithsonian are just one example of an artist whose oeuvre straddles art, craft, curatorial intervention and interior design in a bravura display of ... well, that is still to be decided. Beauty, certainly. Meaning, perhaps. In terms of this little corner of art history, she changed the world.