Entering the sixth floor of the Victoria & Albert Museum, glass cases and shelves replete with ceramic pieces stretch almost as far as the eye can see. Wading through the seemingly precarious plates and bowls, it is difficult to imagine that porcelain was introduced to Europe relatively recently. Whereas the Chinese knew the secrets to the fine, white, semi-translucent porcelain since the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280 AD) (although this is disputed), Europe was grasping at straws and majolica as recently as the 1570s when the Medici in Florence cracked the formula.
Chinese porcelain had been highly prized in Europe and, due to its rarity, was collected mainly by the upper elites. As a wealthy merchant family, the Medici’s saw the value of this material and dedicated an incomparable amount of time and money to discovering the recipe for themselves. The Medici’s’ early discovery is a significant stepping-stone in the history of porcelain, and a reminder of the importance of patronage. Only sixty-four pieces of Medici porcelain are known to survive today, many of which were diplomatic gifts.
The origins of true porcelain, so-called because it is hard-paste, begin in Europe in the German town of Meissen, which set the precedent for creations of other porcelain factories in the 18th century. They are best known for their figurines — small sculptures of characters or people, frequently mounted on a base. Most memorable were the large-scale animals that were commissioned by the patron of the factory, Augustus II, who had wanted a porcelain zoo. The ceramic sculptor, Joachim Kaendler, had struggled with the task due to the nature of firing porcelain. A reminder of the complexity of this craft is recognised in the life-sized goat, riddled with cracks and holes, on display at the V&A. Meissen’s influence is still seen today in the work of American-sculptor Chris Antemann, a Young Master’s Guest Artist of 2010 and 2014. Since beginning a collaboration with Meissen in 2011, Antemann’s works have continuously moved away from the archaic gender roles portrayed in porcelain and instead examine and parody male and female relationship roles. Each piece is a narrative unto itself, telling the story of domestic rites, social etiquette and taboos.
The Young Masters Maylis Grand Ceramics Prize, inaugurated in 2014, represents a continuation of the value of porcelain and patronage born centuries earlier. The work of British-ceramicist and Young Masters alumna Amy Hughes, celebrates the wares produced at the Royal Sevres Factory in the late 17th and 18th centuries- an important time in ceramic history. Specializing in hand-building ceramic techniques, Hughes works closely with form and texture, studying its relationship to decoration. Her romantic vessels both pay homage to, and comment on, the grandeur, opulence, sense of occasion and status that surrounded the Royal Sevres Factory. While maintaining technical excellence, through absurdity and eccentricity Hughes breaks with tradition, creating a kind of ‘modern decadence’ in her contemporary practice.
While porcelain is often perceived as a material that is stuck in its ways, contemporary makers prove the opposite. Porcelain is undoubtedly a material that pervades fixity- one which contemporary artists deploy critically in light of its complex history and traditions. Experimentation and innovation is integral to the progress of the craft, and this is something that The Young Masters Maylis Grand Ceramics Prize hopes to encourage.
By Joyce Choong
Featured Image: Chris Antemann, A Strong Passion, 2014. Meissen Porcelain. 28 x 26 x 23 cm.