Ceramic art in Flanders from the eighties on or the decline of figural sculpture
At the beginning of the eighties, Belgian ceramics occupied a special place within the European ceramics scene because of its sculptural character.
The absence of an important ceramics industry and of a strong potter's tradition which was to be found in the surrounding countries, could not stop the development of creativity and spontaneity within ceramic art. Quite to the contrary, the step towards making ceramics as an independent means of expression could even be taken earlier and more easily than elsewhere. Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) was undoubtedly the initiator of this new development. Inspired by his teacher Van de Velde, Pierre Caille (°1911) broke new ground, at first hesitantly in his own work (from 1942 on) and later more convincingly as a professor at Ter Kameren (from 1949 on).
Because of the lack of interest for and openness to this form of ceramics however, another two decades were to go by before our Belgian artists began to receive the international recognition they deserved. Particularly the figural sculptures by the Flemish ceramics artists Carmen Dionyse (°1921), Octave Landuyt (°1922), Jose Vermeersch (°1922), Achiel Pauwels (°1932) and Yves Rhayé (1936-1995) made a great impression during international exhibitions and competitions (e.g. from 1964 on, at the Concorso della Ceramica d'Arte in Faenza). Their generation broke forever with purely utilitarian ceramics. Free expression became more prominent in Flemish ceramics during the sixties and seventies.
Although they gained recognition rather quickly at the inter- national forum, countries such as France, the Netherlands, Germany and to a lesser extent Great-Britain, where sculptural ceramics hardly existed at all, found it difficult to appreciate the Flemish contribution and place it within the history of ceramic art. We had to wait until 1980 before a genuine interest grew abroad for the work of a whole group of ceramists who had been active here before 1970.
While these artists continued to build on their international repute, a new group of promising artists had arrived in the seventies, such as Piet Stockmans and, somewhat later, Tjok Dessauvage1. With the exception of Piet Stockmans and the much missed Patrick Van Hoeydonck, they were all taught by one of the established artists in Belgian sculptural ceramics. From then on, we can see a remarkable rise in the importance of sculptural ceramics which meant that Flanders gradually lost its particular position. Contrary to their predecessors, most young artists produced sculptural forms which did not directly refer to human or animal figures.
The developments in ceramic art since 1980 must be seen against this background.
Piet Stockmans (°1940) occupies a special position, since he is also very active as an industrial designer. Although he would only begin to play an important role in ceramics later, he has been able to follow the developments within ceramic art closely from the early sixties on2. When he graduated in 1963 from the Sculpture and Ceramics De- partment of the Provincial Higher Institute for Architecture and Applied Arts in Hasselt and in 1966, as a modeller at the Staatliche Höhere Fachschule für Porzellan in Selb (in the former BRD), he was immediately employed as a free-lance at the 'Porselein- en Tegelfabrieken Mosa B.V.'13 in Maastricht and three years later, he already received a teaching post in 'Product development' at the Municipal Higher Institute for Visual Communication and Design in Genk4.
He is the only industrial designer in Flanders along with Vic Goyvaerts (Arabia, Finland). During his 26 years at Mosa, he has designed more than 150 different pieces in china. Before 1969 and after 1983, he regularly designed household china and, in between these two dates, he produced hotel china5. In 1967, he designed the stackable cup 'Sonja' (1967) of which 30 million pieces have been produced, while in the meantime he also designed the most ingenious sets and services for hotels and institutions. What interested him the most however, was designing products for the disabled. His decoration-free white objects seem cool and businesslike. Yet, designs such as his multi-functional 'Passe-partout' services and his breadboard, which enables the disabled to butter and cut bread with one hand, prove that creativity can triumph, even when designing industrial products. It was extremely important that these designs suited the market, were functional and reasonably priced, could be manufactured and matched the company's existing collections. This was in fact the reason why Piet Stockmans started his own design activities in 1987 under the name Studio Pieter Stockmans (independent of his contract with Mosa) and finally left Mosa in 1989. He felt that as a designer, he was to dependent on other factors and moreover that he had insufficient control over the composition of the collection. Together with Henk Dressens, he then started his own factory in Genk which employed 35 people all trained by himself. In January 1992 however, technical and financial reasons forced the NV Pieter Stockmans Products to close its doors. During that period, the very successful and highly refined service series "Expression" (1991) was put on the market (see fig.) and since the closure of the factory, is being produced in Weimar (Germany) and sold by the Dutch company Indoor B.V.. This company also sells other designs by Stockmans, such as the 'Modus vivendi' service.
Stockmans is regularly invited as a guest lecturer at home and abroad to discuss his work and on each occasion, he repeatedly states how much he considers his industrial work as being a heavy intellectual process, one of continuously re-evaluating the rules imposed ... while his free work always comes as a relief in which emotion, sensitivity and the tactile can be given free reign. "My industrial work is produced by my head, my free work stems from my body" is one of the well-known state- ments he continues to repeat during his lectures. Although he has been making free work from the very beginning, we had to wait till the end of the seventies before he really came into his own as an artist. Since his participation in the summer exhibition "Young Ceramists, Belgium 1980" at the Meeting Centre Scharpoord in Knokke-Heist, exhibitions have followed one another at an increasing pace. 1980 was also the year in which he bought his new oven, allowing him to experiment at his own workshop. "One can indeed speak of a whole revolution that is still going on. The exhibition in Hasselt was a climax in this process. Until the very last day, I was producing work and removing older pieces and this resulted in an exhibition of the production of only one year. And what a year it was!"6. We can therefore rightfully say that his breakthrough occurred in 1981 during the exhibition in the Provincial Museum of Hasselt, with the furniture producer ARTIFORT in Maastricht (the Netherlands) and in Genevilliers (France) where his first spatial installations were put on display (ill.). In 1983, he participated in the 17th biennial in Sao Paulo (Brazil). In October 1985, he was invited along with Frank Steyaert and eight other famous ceramists from abroad to participate in the large exhibition "Dragon Stone" at "The Art Gallery at Harbourfront" in Toronto (Canada) during the 4th "International Ceramics Symposium". The artists on display there were considered by all to be the "leading edge" of the international ceramics scene of that time8. All participants shared a capacity for being daringly expressive and highly individual in their use of the medium clay. Stockmans' four large wall installations and a floor installation created an impressive feeling of spaciousness. Because of the fresh, innovative and even revolu- tionary nature of these installations, Piet Stockmans was considered the odd man out at the exhibition. In 1986, shortly after taking part in Toronto - which was an important step towards international recognition - he was asked to do his first retrospective at the Museum for Decorative Arts in Ghent. Ever since, the interest for his oeuvre seems to have become limitless. In 1988, he was awarded the 'Staatsprijs van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap voor de Beeldende Kunsten' (State prize of the Flemish Community for the Plastic Arts). Stockmans' exhibition with Johan Van Loon and Jan Van der Vaart in 1991 at the famous Municipal Museum of Amsterdam, was also a milestone in his career. Moreover, several large museums in Belgium and the Netherlands started buying his work and he has been asked by some clients to integrate his ceramics into pieces of archi- tecture. And as if that wasn't enough, he was also appointed Cultural Ambassador of Flanders in 1995.
At first, Piet Stockmans did not produce large-scale works. In fact, he first began by putting the rational dimension of indus- trial production into question in rendering cups unusable by changing them slightly, for example (see fig.). Only later (by the end of the seventies), did he start to revolt against the impersonal aspect of repetition in floor and wall installations, it being the conditio sine qua non in industry where the object designed must be suited for mass-production.
In certain works, the step taken from industrial to free work is more than evident. Examples are his series of vases (see fig.) dating from 1980 of which Stockmans made variants in 1987 and 1994 (shown in the catalogue section). These were produced industrially and were intended as serial products (and therefore were also stamped). But because of the manual changes carried out during manufacture, the work also has a strong personal character.
There are indeed links between his industrial work on the one hand and his independent work on the other. There is his preference for pure china, something he had learned to master as no one else during his training courses and experiments at Mosa. "It could be any material whatsoever as far as I'm concerned, but it so happens that my greatest skill is in ceramics. So I do not see the use of turning to other materials. My schooling plays a role here, my links with the industrial and my knowledge of the materials which results in an almost physical relationship with my work. (...) I would turn to another material immediately if I were suddenly to realise that what I want to make is no longer feasible in china"9. Piet Stockmans casts practically everything himself (the last few years he is helped by his assistant) and he gradually bakes it at 1410°C. He colours his pieces with industrial china glazes to which, at times, he adds some colour. He is the only one of his generation (1965-1980) who has been so consequent in his use of china. At a later stage, people like Tjok Dessauvage (°1948), Patrick Picarelle (°1952), Erna Verlinden (°1953), Anne Mortier (°1956) and Mieke Everaet (°1963) would follow in his footsteps. Contrary to some of them, the china in Stockmans' oeuvre has always been subordinate to its concept.
A second allusion to his industrial production in his free work is the emphatic presence of the serial aspect of manufacturing: the continuously recurring principle of quantity and repetition to which he so relentlessly opposed himself. From the eighties on, his china installations with their thousands of randomly arranged small dishes are all identical in form and still so different because of his subtle use of mainly blue colour glazes and powder and he removed each one from its plaster moulding by hand (ill.).
The effort involved in these numerous ritual unpackings and rhythmical set-ups is comforting to Stockmans. Later on - also because of the difficulties at his factory - this physical aspect became even stronger until he finally and almost aggressively rejected the functional by cutting, bending, painting, perforating and breaking the work (ill.). Since 1987, Piet Stockmans has also been producing multiples which he sells in wooden boxes "to give the visitors to my exhibitions an opportunity to go home with a souvenir of an emo- tional experience"10.
Today, his installations consist of objects which do not always allude to utilities which he places or has emerging from boxes filled with straw. This change has come about organically. The boxes have always existed, but originally they only served to transport objects. In these installations, the objects are at the most only partly removed from their boxes which are now an integral part of the installation. Unpacking and storing the wrappings is no longer necessary, therefore. In the last four years, these objects have become masks: casts of his own face.
His two branches of activity should therefore not be considered as being separate, but rather as being the result of an interesting dialogue between the industrial designer and the artist, who are both brought together in one person. On the one hand, we have the industrial designer who works according to the rules imposed by industry, on the other we have the artist who reacts against this and renders useful items dysfunctional through his actions. The strong conceptual, ritual and repetitive nature of his free work also evokes associations with visual artists such as Richard Long and Donald Judd and with composers of music such as Richard Reich and Philip Glass11.
Finally, we can only confirm what Jaak Fontier already wrote some time ago: "The subtle palette of colour, tactility and luminosity which the china has been given, the intelligent way the installations are integrated into the atmosphere and light of a given space and, last but not least, the many-sided ideal relationships which are brought about by Stockmans' vision, lift his work to the level of the very best that is produced in this artistic field in the Western world"12.
Just like Piet Stockmans, TJOK DESSAUVAGE (°1948) took func- tional form as his point of departure though he approached it from another angle, subsequently giving it a more expressive and sculptural character. Tjok Dessauvage's contribution to the development of ceramic art over the last 15 years can essentially be traced in his oeuvre. As we have already mentioned above, the pre-1980s Flemish ceramists have mainly made an important contribution to the development of figural ceramic sculpture. Our country can hardly speak of having a tradition in pottery, but thanks to the contributions of Marnix Hoys (°1943), Hugo Rabaey (°1948) and Arthur Vermeiren (°1942) we have witnessed a revival in Flanders since 1975. Tjok Dessauvage joined the group a few years later, followed by Rudie Delanghe (°1955) and Anne Mortier (°1956). In their search for a greater freedom of form and in order to stimulate their imagination, other ceramists turned to using building and bending techniques for their sculptural pots. To Dessauvage, turning is a challenge. "In fact, the art of contemporary pottery still has a lot to offer as an independent discipline. And one must focus on the specific techniques in order to create new things. One can take turning as a point of departure for creating something and use its essence to arrive at a form of communication. Of course it is easier to stop using the potter wheel, but I will continue to use it because I think that there are still things that can be done with it"13.
From the very start, Tjok Dessauvage was very much aware that the pot is a great deal more than just a mere functional item. He wanted to develope this idea. He started his ceramics studies under Joost Maréchal (1911-1971) at Saint-Lucas in Ghent. But when the Maréchal died two years later, Dessauvage stopped his studies prematurely. He must therefore be considered as essentially being a self-taught man who relied on his own hunger for knowledge in learning about all the techniques involved in ceramics and glazing. There were no technical manuals available at that time.
For over twenty years, Dessauvage has been living in an old tobacco drying shed in the West-Flemish village of Sint-Elloois- Winkel which he has refurbished with his own hands. In 1977, he finally began producing artistic work as a self-employed potter. His preference for the potters wheel dates from his school days at Sint-Lucas "... because it wasn't really the right place to work with sculpture and you had to do something. Turning meant that you were left in peace. So, what else could I do?"14. Although he had always intended to make sculptures, he remained faithful to the wheel in the end. "Turning can be condensed like poetry, I think. Especially the speed with which you form something out of the clay makes the distance between the idea you have and its materialization very small indeed"15. To him, turning clay is just another way of visualizing his ideas and personality.
In order to survive, Dessauvage also made services and other types of pottery on demand, rather than working in a factory or for an institution. "But let me be very clear about this: I will only accept these orders if they are directly related to my craft, if they enable me to start something else"16. For the last few years, he has no longer been obliged to do so. He has developed such a reputation at home and abroad, that he is now in a position to devote himself exclusively to his pot structures.
At first, he rarely exhibited his work because it did not interest him personally or financially. But from 1979 till 1983, he regularly exhibited alongside Arnold Verhé at the Arnold's Art Gallery in Ghent (till 1982, called the Artemis Art Gallery). This resulted in his breakthrough in Belgium.
There, he initially presented pots which had the basic form of the 'milestones' formerly found along the streets and roads (ill.).
Tjok Dessauvage wanted to involve and capture light in these works. At first (1978-1980), the carvings on the horizontal axis of the pot and the etched lines with their ash glazing on these 'milestone' volumes gave rise to an interesting play of light and shadow, to a contrast between material and disappearing matter. In that same period, he also produced introverted strips (ill.) that anticipate his closed double-walled structures. These objects have been stripped of all functionality and express his longing to work sculpturally. Tjok Dessauvage con- siders a pot as a dynamic wall with which one can create many forms of expression. He wishes to go beyond the formal, aes- thetic aspect of utilities and search for the essence of glazes ... to break new ground. In 1980, he baked his first double- walled pot with a low-temperature salt glaze on volcanic glaze, and with fugitive lines and incisions (ill.). The results of a ceramic camp in which Dessauvage participated along with José Vermeersch, Philippe Bouttens, Olaf Stevens, Anton Reynders and Netty van den Heuvel from the Netherlands, were put on display in Gallery Old Art in Rumbeke in 1981. It was already clear then that Dessauvage would distance himself from the content of traditional English design and the 'milestone' volumes. His incisions were replaced by surfaces that broke the line of the form, the inside and outside then becoming part of the same dynamic (ill.).
He gradually developed from creating open forms to making double-walled, closed shapes.
Until 1985, Tjok Dessauvage produced open, double-walled pots which he rendered dynamic by making incisions in the walls or along the edges or by cutting through the axis of the pot and pushing it slightly out from the basic structure (ill.). This part was given its own vitality which was then repeated in the shape, the colour or in line structure. In other pot structures, certain parts have been completely cut loose (ill.). They too, began to live an independent life, while their link with the original form remained more or less present. In his china dishes from that period (ill.), he was able to evoke a very intense dynamic thanks to the transparency of the material. He obtained this effect by thinning down the wall on certain isolated secti- ons to such an extent that an intense play of light was provo- ked. Light, material and form became one. From 1985 on, he increasingly began to use less light-intensive glazes, at the same time turning to the technique of reductive baking17), having first polished the leather-hard18 surface of the pot. This made pots darker and more matt and less noticeable (ill.).
Dessauvage consciously opted for working with pots. They are the most archetypal form found in clay and their dynamic can take shape and expression in their surfaces. In this way, the pot can become an abstract sculpture that transcends its traditional, functional significance.
His first steps abroad were taken in 1984 when he was invited to exhibit his raku work at the Desko Gallery in Kortemark along with some other famous European ceramists19 . This Gallery, which is run by Katy and Aimé Desimpel, is the only one of its kind in Flanders (Brussels included) that has succeeded in surviving by holding high quality exhibitions. From the very start, the gallery has strived to remain international - something which would be to the benefit of the artists selected to exhibit there.
After that, he was invited to exhibit at the Kunst und Gewerbe Museum in Hamburg (1985), at Gross St. Martin in Köln (1986) and he was invited by famous ceramist galleries abroad for individual exhibitions: Anderwereld (Groningen, 1986), De Verbeelding (Baarle-Hertog, 1987), Gallery L (Hamburg, 1987), Kunst & Keramiek (Deventer, 1987), Gallery L (Hamburg and Kassel, 1988)20. The European ceramics scene gradually became familiar with his name and oeuvre. He was selected for a number of high-ranking competitions and exhibitions such as "L'Europe des céramistes" in Auxerre (1989), the 8th "Biennial de la céramique" in Chateauroux (1989), Faenza (1989 and 1991) and "Configura" in Erfurt (1991). In Edinburgh in 1990, he was proposed and immediately accepted as a member of the 'Académie international de la Céramique' (the International Academy of Ceramics) in Genève. This was an important milestone in his international career. Certain contacts can indeed only be made if one is a member of this academy and from then on, he was also able to participate in their international exhibitions. This brought him and more particularly his oeuvre, to places far beyond Europe, as far as Japan and New-Zealand.
It is worth mentioning that these events only had a small influence on his work. Its forms remain unaltered: the halve sphere, the cylinder and the cone. During the last decade, the Dessauvage pot structures have developed into inaccessibly closed shapes, the small hole at the top still silently alluding to the pot (ill.) however. Notwithstanding the solid appearance of these closed forms, they are surprisingly light because of their hollowness.
They invite us to touch them rather than lift them up: not so much those pots with the porous, rough texture21, but the shiny polished pot structures which betray you by showing up your finger prints. His 'pots' are usually black, except for some red and white ones. Here, Dessauvage has stopped using glazes. The porous skin absorbs the light, the shiny one reflects it. He masters the age-old terra-sigillata technique like no other. Although his works have a perfect finish, technique is only of subordinate importance to him, in the sense that, as far as he's concerned, turning and baking has no ritual significance.
Tjok Dessauvage wishes to transmit a clear message in his graphic representations on the flattened tops of his work. How often indeed does he not refer to his pot structures as 'carriers of information', as 'relics'! He places this infor- mation on the pot by means of a few scratched lines and dots or by means of structures, (energy) patterns and geometrical forms and every now and again, by means of a small erect block of alabaster or a piece of porcelain. The surfaces thus created are then polished separately. The small hole which is at times still present, is like the navel of the world created by Dessauvage: a small universe in ceramics that possesses its own 'lines of force'. Each line of force stems from Dessauvage's own personal experience which he abstracts by using highly significant signs or figures, leaving him only with the essence. These experiences can be very diverse and are taken from daily life. He likes to observe people at work like an electrician for instance, making a plan and carrying it out, thus succeeding in lighting up a space. Electrical plans, mathematical figures, spatial expe- riences etc. are represented in an abstract manner in energy patterns or landscapes. The work 'Speelveld' (Playing Field) refers to a moment when he was standing on an empty football field for example. The essence of the overwhelming nature of this (spatial) experience is represented in energy surfaces which are sometimes left unpolished. During the last three years, realistic images have also begun to appear in his work. For these, Dessauvage makes use of photographic and printing techniques. In 1993, Dessauvage won the Premio Faenza for his 'Fragementatie' (Fragmentation) (ill.), an installation of 9 pot structures in which he made use of decorations he found on ceramic shards. These installations should be seen as a 're- evaluation' of the pot form as an information carrier. This work places the socio-historic information which is transmitted through pots and ceramics in another dimension. The fragments are reproduced by using photographic techniques in order to obtain 'replicas' which resemble the original as closely as possible. They are impressions of time in which the narrative aspect of decoration has been reformulated.
It must have become clear by now that Dessauvage is not in search of spectacular innovations. For years on end, he has been using the same austere basic form i.e. the pot. He has used the same shape time and again but never in lively colours. His unobtrusive yet consistent innovations are to be found on the upper surfaces. In this way, Dessauvage has developed a high individual language of form which is now recognised and appre- ciated everywhere. In 1992, he won the 'Inax Design' Prize (Japan). In 1993, he was awarded the 'Premio Faenza' (Italy), in 1994 he was the laureate at the 'Spiez Biennial' (Switzerland) and in 1995 he received the Nyon Prize from the city of Nyon (Switzerland) during the 'Biennial de la porcelaine'. His work is on display in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland and in museums at home and abroad22.
1 We have the following people in mind: Georges Blom (°1947), Denise Cromheecke (°1949), Della (°1953) & Sleppe (°1953), Ludo Thys (°1951), Patrick Van Hoeydonck (1959-1984), André Zaman (°1953), Frank Steyaert (°1953), Rik Vandewege (°1951).
2 See 'Piet Stockmans' in the catalogue section of this edition.
3 When the factory celebrated its 100th anniversary, its name was changed to 'Koninklijke Mosa B.V.'
4 Since 1995, called the Media- en Designacademie (MEDEA, Media and Design Academy) and part of the Catholic Col- lege, Limburg.
5 The wholesalers became indeed Mosa's most important target group from the late sixties on.
6 J. VALCKE, Gesprek met Piet Stockmans (Conversation with Piet Stockmans - 9th of June 1982, in Belgisch Kreatief Ambacht (Belgian Creative Craft), 18th year of publica- tion, n° 4, 1982, p. 14.
7 Vincent Mc Grath (Australia), Steven Heinemann and Diane Nasr (Canada), Alison Britton and Jacqui Poncelet (Great- Britain), Akiko Fujita (Japan), Thom Bohnert and Michael Lucero (United States).
8 D. SMEETS, "Dragon stone" en andere keramische stenen ("Dragon stone" and Other Ceramic Stones), in Belgisch Kreatief Ambacht (Belgian Creative Craft), 21st year of publication, n° 6, 1985, p. 24-28.
9 J. VALCKE, Gesprek met Piet Stockmans (Conversation with Piet Stockmans - 9th of June 1982, in Belgisch Kreatief Ambacht (Belgian Creative Craft), 18th year of publica- tion, n° 4, 1982, p. 14.
10 Conversation with Piet Stockmans on the 12th of September 1995.
11 E. LANGENDIJK, Tussen unica en een miljoen: vrij en industrieel werk van Johan van Loon, Piet Stockmans en Jan van der Vaart (From a unique piece to one million: free and industrial work by Johan van Loon, Piet Stockmans and Jan van der Vaart), in Ceramics, October 1993, p. 10.
12 J. FONTIER, Keramiek in Vlaanderen (Ceramics in Flanders), p. 54.
13 J. VALCKE, Wie is Tsjok Dessauvage? (Who is Tsjok Dessau- vage?) in Belgisch Creatief Ambacht (Belgian Creative Craft), 19th year of publication, n°4, 1983, p. 13.
14J. VALCKE, Op. cit., p. 11.
15 J. VALCKE, Op. cit., p. 11.
16 J. VALCKE, Op. cit., p. 11.
17 The clay is leather-hard when it has dried to such an extent that it no longer shrinks, yet still has a dark colour.
18 Shrink firing is a baking process in which the air supply is decreased when firing at high temperatures. This usually gives the work a grey or black colour.
19 Apart from Tjok Dessauvage, the following artists par- ticipated in the "Europese raku" (European Raku) exhibi- tion (6th of May - 30th of june 1984): Ellen Barendse, Jackie Bouw, Annelies Buchardt, Rudie Delanghe, Antoine & Alice De Vinck, Yvonne Kleinveld, Puck Muller, Hugo Rabaey, Nick & Nicoline Schoorl, Frank Steyaert, José Vermeersch, Edo Versteegh, Camille Virot.
20 For the other exhibitions: see 'Tjok Dessauvage' in the catalogue section of this edition.
21 The structure of the clay becomes porous because Des- sauvage mixes it with coffee grind which is then burnt away during the baking process.
22 See 'Tjok Dessauvage' in the catalogue section of this edition.