Huge Storms in Little Cups

6 minute read
Michael Fitzgerald

In the light-filled pavilion, there’s a sense of serenity that not even the booming chorus of All You Need Is Love from the ’60s British art show downstairs can shatter. Displayed along glass cabinets usually reserved for sacred scroll paintings are mere pots of wood-fired clay. But through the alchemy of her kiln, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott has lent these objects a heavenly aura. Before your eyes, her luminous glazes seem to fade to white; porcelain lips quiver. When two Buddhist monks enter the room, they are drawn to the pieces like moths to a flame, which is hardly surprising. If Tasmania’s Les Blakebrough is the father of Australian pottery, then Ipswich, Queensland-based Hanssen Pigott, who practices a form of Buddhism, is its mother superior. “If there was any investment of her spirituality in her work,” says Jason Smith, curator of the National Gallery of Victoria’s current retrospective, “it would be that calmness, and the hope that people would find that in her work.”

Two decades ago, the potter began arranging her bowls, beakers and bottles along window ledges – airing them, so to speak, where their pure forms could be worshiped by the eye – and an artist was born. But despite the loftiness of her achievements – Hanssen Pigott is considered one of the world’s best ceramic artists – the beauty of this exhibition is in showing the earthiness of her inspiration. Born in the Victorian goldmining town of Ballarat in 1935, this daughter of an engineer and craft teacher naturally, it seems, sought salvation from the ground. As an apprentice to Ivan McMeekin at his Mittagong pottery in the ’50s, she became as expert as a geologist at analyzing the mineral contents of clay. Later, at the studios she set up in France and Tasmania, she was forever “digging and scrounging and carting and milling and sieving clays and rocks and ashes,” Hanssen Pigott recalled. What she was looking to unearth were the means to perfectly render her forms – the ideal mix of clays, for instance, or the right transparency of glaze. For, as this insightful show makes clear, the shapes of her inspiration had already formed.

As a student of fine arts at the University of Melbourne, Hanssen Pigott was required to make pilgrimages to the rooms of European painting at the NGV, but this “very young 19-year-old in a dirndl skirt,” as she later wrote, preferred the road less traveled. En route she would find herself spending hours with the gallery’s collections of ancient Chinese and Korean ceramics. In the green celadon glaze of a Koryo Dynasty bowl or the elliptical lid of a Song court vessel, she found pieces of perfection – and the source of her art. It’s a discovery wonderfully echoed in the show: to approach the retrospective you must first walk through the Kent Collection as the 19-year-old would have done, and if you look around carefully enough, you’ll find some of Hanssen Pigott’s pieces sitting in the cabinets as if they belonged there. It’s a small but significant touch. In a prodigious and prolific career spanning 50 years, Hanssen Pigott’s work has turned slowly through time. “There’s no linear trajectory,” says curator Smith. “It’s all elliptical. She’s coming backwards and forwards all the time.”

If Hanssen Pigott’s craft reaches back to the Chinese courts of a millennium ago, her sensibility remains modern. No matter how exquisite, form follows function, and in the course of filling the show, the curator has left many a kitchen cupboard bare. Until recently, a prized bowl owned by Hanssen Pigott’s sister was used daily for rhubarb. “The usefulness of her pots is very important to her,” explains Smith, “and even the works in the still life groups today could be used if people wished to do so; but people tend not to want to use a cup that costs $A25,000.” But her modernist instinct goes beyond mere utility. In the mid-’80s, having returned to Australia after 15 years living and working in England, France and the U.S., Hanssen Pigott began to exhibit for the first time what she calls her “inseparable bowls,” the ceramic clusters and trails for which she is now justly famous. “I like what happens to more than one,” she said at the time. “Volume changes into line, as our eye perambulates. Interior colors float from thin rims, making an echo.”

What she was in fact circling was the work of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). With monk-like devotion, Morandi spent a lifetime honing the still life, grouping bottles and cups into quiet meditations on solitude and society. Hanssen Pigott had seen his 1972 retrospective in Paris, admiring his “geometry tempered by poetry,” and in the following decade an Italianate bottle emerged citadel-like from her kiln. She called the piece Thinking of Morandi. Over time her vessels grew into simpler shapes, the space between their groupings often as important as the objects themselves. In this way, a producer of domestic pottery became a sculptor of space. With Leaving Bologna, 2002, a triptych of beakers and cups is gently humanized, as if representing the three sisters Morandi lived with in an apartment on Via Fondazza. “Once she started arranging,” says Smith, “she couldn’t help but go back to Morandi.”

And now beyond him. Composed with the deliberation of music or poetry, her groupings of bowls can limn the personal (Silence, 1995, where two pairs of figures tower above a silvery pool, either mute or deaf to each other) and the political (one can’t help but read the queue of 23 moist-lipped vessels in Exodus II, 1996, as asylum seekers). Other still-life groups simply delight in their play of form (the rising and falling rhythm of Breath, 2000) and color (the enlightening journey of Fade, 2003). Her groups, which the artist keeps carefully documented in photographs, are growing. In 2004, for instance, Hanssen Pigott placed ten trails of 20-odd vessels in a display that curved along a beach in Cornwall, England, with sand, surf and ceramics commingling. Sadly, Caravan hasn’t made it into the present show, but The Beatles have. Which is in the end perhaps appropriate, for these chamber pieces of perfection, together and alone, inspire a kind of love.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at