It seems that we have lost some wonderful women from the ceramics world of late. So much of the early history of ceramics as part of the craft movement in Australia is about women - as makers but also as editors and gallery owners and teachers and organisers. The blokes often got the lions share of attention, and a lot of the top jobs, but Gwyn ended her innings at the very top. She did what no one else had done before, and good on her.
In the process of writing about Gwyn for the next issue of the Journal of Australian Ceramics – and they are publishing a much larger article than usual, which is only right and proper - I came across some archival material that might serve as a good starting point for some observations about her life as a potter.
Some time ago Susie McMeekin gave me copies of correspondence between her father, Ivan McMeekin, who was Gywn’s first teacher, and Bernard Leach. The letters are mainly to do with Leach’s visit to Australia and New Zealand in the early sixties, since McMeekin was instrumental in organising Leach’s itinerary during the few days he spent in Sydney. They are lovely documents – a couple of aerogrammes, which Susie had thoughtfully copied in colour for me so the original blue colour of that fine paper was preserved – and a letter. Some are typed and others are written in Leach’s distinctive hand-writing.
Apart from anything else, these modest documents remind us of how those involved in the ceramics world were a well-travelled lot. Especially Leach - one of the letters outlines his flights as he travelled between Wellington and Sydney, en-route to Tokyo.
In these letters Leach talks about Gwyn, as she provided a continuing connection between the English pottery world and Ivan McMeekin, between Australia and Britain. There were others in this lineage of Australian potters who had studied in England – Marea Gazzard was in London at the same time as Gwyn, David and Hermia Boyd had worked in England and France in the fifties, McMeekin had been there in the late forties and fifties, and Gladys Reynell, Margaret Preston and Norah Godlee were all there before the war.
In a letter dated the 30th December 1959 Leach expresses a kind of fatherly concern for Gwyn’s emotional welfare, observing that her ‘ … affairs of the heart have rather thrown us all for a loop’. You get a lovely and very human picture of a young woman who is finding her way in the world but is already very much a part of a community, and I think especially in those days the ceramics world really did consider itself a community.
Another letter from Leach is dated the 18th May 1962. The stationary it’s written on was from International House in Tokyo, but this is crossed out and over it Leach has written 18 Albion Mews, W2, care of Lucie Rie. He writes that ‘ … Gwyn and Louis are having a show at Primavera and Lucie gives a fine report of their pots.’
Just by chance I happen to have a 1962 copy of the English journal Pottery Quarterly where the Primavera show is reviewed – it notes that Gwyn ‘ … is a potter’s potter …’ and that her work more or less summarises the ‘Leach-Cardew-Davis-Finch field, and in this respect is akin to the work of the Mackenzies in the USA and McMeekin in Australia.’
There is a photo of her work in the magazine, of a punch bowl and ladle with six cups; a quiet stoneware setting, now almost a craft cliché like goblets of ramekins, but then very much in vogue.
She was twenty-seven years old and already pretty well regarded. The review also mentions that although she came from Australia with, and I quote - ‘far-away-Commonwealth-shining-bright-images’ - she quickly settled in to the realities of the British ceramics scene. So much so that she came to be regarded as a British potter. Even when she started to spend much of her time in France she was included in exhibitions like More British Potters – which is from the very late sixties or early seventies, although the catalogue doesn’t actually have any dates listed, which drives me absolutely mad, but I digress. Here, the work she made in France is included with ceramics from Bernard and Janet Leach, Lucie Rie, Michael Cardew, Hans Coper, Ruth Duckworth, Ray Finch, Marianne de Trey and Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie – she kept good company.
But she was also aware of the paradoxes presented by the life of a potter, especially when she was involved in trying to make very traditional, useful pottery, as she was doing in France. In 1969 she wrote that … ‘ we younger potters can never be potters of Haut-Berry and we can never recapture the spirit that has passed. We remain our immigrant selves, alone always, our work our own personal struggle and delight.’
The line ‘our immigrant selves’ is memorable – as a writer it’s the sort of line which makes you think ‘Oh, I wish I’d written that.’
She later 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.’
But there was an end, and in 1973 she returned to Australia, although she was to all intents and purposes a British potter.
Of course it’s difficult – and arguably not very constructive – to stereotype these things, but just as Margaret Dodd came to pottery in California in the 60s and has basically remained a West Coast ceramist ever since, and just as so many Australian potters were incredibly influenced by Japan, to the extent that they spent their lives making copies of Japanese pots, to me Gwyn was always an English potter.
A bit cool, distanced maybe, controlled, polite, the work quite small in scale, very considered, beautifully crafted, thoughtful.
She spent the next fifteen or so years making lovely, understated pottery at a time when the volume of ceramics was turned up to eleven. Funk, pop, expressionist sculpture, Memphis – the maker of domestic ware didn’t get much of a look in. It was simply not a very fashionable thing to be doing. If Gwyn had remained a competent maker of lovely useful pots at a time when the ceramics world was clamouring for – well, often just clamouring, really – she wouldn’t have become the enormously successful ceramic artist that she was.
But something changed.
The work she is famous for, the groupings that had their beginnings in the late 80s when she was with the Gary Anderson Gallery and that developed over a period of a few years until she had sorted out their dynamics, were in some ways a continuation of her earlier work. But in other important ways this work was completely different to what had come before, and it is as a result of those differences that we are here today.
The common thesis is that her original groupings quickly morphed into arrangements of objects that borrowed heavily from Morandi and these works are now even called still-lifes, a proposition which is both right and wrong.
Here is a quote from Robert Hughes about Morandi.
‘Instead, the things … seep deliberately into one’s attentions. 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 … how many colours may be contained, as dusty hints and pearly afterimages of themselves … 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 … the silence of the motif and the inwardness of vision are one.’
Remind you of anyone?
The problem – or should I say challenge – is that Gwyn’s work isn’t really like Morandi’s at all, in that Morandi only used the collection of little bottles and vases sitting before him as a starting point – they weren’t the end product. I used to have a picture of Morandi’s studio with the objects he painted sitting on a table, and the scene didn’t resemble a Morandi painting at all, so in that sense he certainly wasn’t a still life painter after the traditional Netherlandish or Spanish school, where a microscopic attention to detail was matched by the rich allegorical messages contained within the works. Morandi was just this side of abstraction and his paintings didn’t say much at all – he was just obsessed with shapes and colours and the limitless manipulation of form within strict boundaries. To the extent that Gwyn was influenced by Morandi she did exactly the same thing as he had done but in reverse – she extracted the core idea from his painterly interpretation of real objects and then applied it to back onto studio pottery.
This raises the question of just what Gwyn’s arrangements were, and my answer to this question would be – in the first place – that they were both very simple and very complex, and that is their allure.
They exist somewhere between art, craft, curatorial practice and interior design, and they are both the object and it’s depiction at one and the same time, which, when you think about it, is quite a trick. In fact, whereas Morandi is quite the modernist one could argue that Gwyn’s work is essentially post-modern (which I just mis-typed as pots-modern ,,,,,) – in that it slips between pre-existing categories and refuses to be pinned down.
Her work is also very self-aware, in that it engages with the mechanisms of context and display at a highly sophisticated level. To this extent it is akin to some ephemeral contemporary art that relies heavily on context to activate its relationship with the viewer, but it does so much more tidily than a Joseph Beuys pile of felt sitting in the corner of a contemporary art space. You can invite Gwyn’s pots home in the full expectation that they will perform the same function in your living room as they did in the gallery, and if hard pressed they can probably do a job in the kitchen as well.
The thing I find most interesting about Gwyn’s work is that it champions the causes of technique, beauty, calm and poise, in a time when contemporary practice is seemingly completely biased towards shock and awe, parody and discomfort. That it proved to be so successful is a lesson in itself.
As a historian it’s sometimes difficult to decide what information should remain private and what should be noted when giving an account of an artists career or working life, which is a part of - but not the entirety - of their life.
In the case of Gwyn Hanssen Pigott there is one factor which is both personal and yet had a great - even an overriding - impact on her life, and that is her unwavering devotion to a spiritual movement centred on the teachings of a young Indian mystic or guru named (then) Maharaji.
Margaret Tuckson, in her article on Hanssen Pigott for Pottery in Australia Vol.22 No. 2 quotes Hanssen Pigott as saying that .’.. In late 1972 I was told about Maharaji and went to a meeting in Paris to hear more. I remember feeling a secret excitement. It was obvious to me that these people were speaking from a real experience and clearly if what they were saying was true I had to know the experience for myself. I felt such a relief. I was tired of theories and philosophies and impossible romanticism. I set off to find one of Maharaji’s appointed teachers and a few days later in London I was shown such a beautiful energy inside myself and an experience of peace that took me by surprise and changed everything for me. It was Guy Fawkes night in London and I felt that all the fireworks were celebrating with me.’
What is largely unstated in all the existing tributes to Hanssen Pigott is that from that moment on her devotion to the Maharaji (which those who knew her intimately sometimes disparagingly refer to as ‘The Cause’ controlled most aspects of her life. Her decision to leave France (the pottery she owned became an ashram) and her movements within Australia were largely dictated by the needs of ‘The Cause’. Her relationships suffered and many who knew her would observe that her devotion to the Maharaji did not necessarily bring her peace or tranquillity.
It will be for others to examine this aspect of her life more closely if a biography of her life is ever undertaken. In terms of art history it is necessary to mention, if only in passing, this side of her life, in that it explains many of the sudden and rather unexpected shifts in location, which in turn impacted on her career.
Willunga, August 2014