I’ve been thinking about figurative versus abstract art. Art that tells stories versus art that uses only colour or pattern or shape or material.
Very possibly I could do some research to find out what the art theory experts have to say about this difficult topic. Probably a lot, very little of which I would understand. Instead, I’ll write about it from my own point of view to see if I can define the appeal of each type, and, as usual, I’ll illustrate my arguments (tenuous as they may be) with images from my collection.
But first I’d like to tell you how this subject came into my head. Does it happen to you, as it sometimes happens to me, that you suddenly find yourself pondering upon a particular random topic and then you wonder how your train of thought brought you to this point? So you mentally work back a stage at a time through the sequence of steps between then, just a few moments ago when you were trying to decide which breakfast cereal to pour into your bowl, and now, when you are reflecting, milk jug in hand, upon the meaning of life? I have the impression that most thinking people conduct this process from time to time, and that often they succeed in tracking back to the origin of their thoughts. Or perhaps it’s just me.
On this occasion, I happen to know precisely how I came to be thinking about figurative versus abstract art. On midsummer morning my wife Frances said that she had been awakened in the early hours by the music of the dawn chorus coming in through our open bedroom window. Then she woke again a little later and all was silent.
. . . Which made her think of the words “And no birds sing”.
. . . Which are from the ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats.
. . . Which prompted me to fetch a book of Keats’s poems so that we could re-read the whole poem together. If you don’t know the ballad, you can find it at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44475/la-belle-dame-sans-merci-a-ballad. Very beautiful. Very bleak. Kind of scary.
. . . Which set me thinking about some of Keats’s other poems.
. . . Which brought me to re-visit Ode on a Grecian Urn, which is reproduced to the right. Or in easier-to-read type at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44477/ode-on-a-grecian-urn. Very beautiful. Rather cool. Quite difficult.
. . . Which made me compare how Keats derived his poetic inspiration from contemplating an ancient pot highly decorated with human and animal figures, while my own prosaic tendency is to be inspired by all kinds of pots including some which are very plain and very monochromatic (often brown). Not, of course, that I’m inspired by any pot to a lyrical pitch where I’d be able to sit down and pen an Ode.
. . . Which made me think about figurative versus abstract art, particularly in relation to pottery. As readers of this blog know well, much of what I think is in relation to pottery.
So that’s my train of thought. Makes perfect sense to me, if not to you.
Now, there’s a slight problem here. I’ve been trying to find a picture of the very Grecian Urn which Keats was contemplating when he wrote his Ode, and it turns out :
- that experts have been trying unsuccessfully to identify the Urn ever since the poem was published first published in 1819;
- that they have reached the conclusion that there was no single Urn, but that Keats had in his mind’s eye a sort of ideal Urn from antiquity, combining images from the Sosibios Vase in the Louvre (of which he had seen and traced an engraving) and from Greek and Roman urns on display in the British Museum in London, including the Townley Vase. Add to the recipe a generous dollop of imagery gleaned from the Elgin Marbles, which had recently gone on show, and stir well. And
- that Keats’s ideal Urn was almost certainly made of marble, not pottery.
For the purposes of this blog, I’d like to be able to tell you that Keats was inspired by a pottery pot. But I can’t say that for certain. However, it’s possible that he did indeed contemplate decorated Greek and Roman terracotta vases as well as marble ones. He might, for example, have seen them on semi-public display in London at the Duchess Street mansion of Thomas Hope (1769-1831), interior designer, architect and novelist. Hope was a big-time collector of Greek and Roman pottery urns, and owned about 1,500 of them in 1806. He was also big in the London literary circle. His novel Anastasius (currently high on my books-to-read list) was published to great critical acclaim in 1819, the same year in which Keats’s Ode was written.
Is it too much to suppose – even in the absence of documentary proof – that Keats might have seen Hope’s vases and incorporated some of their imagery into his ideal Urn? Well, it’s a good enough supposition for me, and I always try not to let the lack of evidence deter me from presenting supposition as fact.
There’s also no evidence to show that the only type of pots which inspired Keats were highly decorated ones. How do we know that he might not have gone on to write an Ode on a Monochrome Plate had he not died of tuberculosis at the age of 25? We don’t know.
We do however have some clues from the poem itself about how Keats looked at a pot. Clearly his main interest was in the Urn in its role as the silent narrator of the story of the figures frozen for all time on its surface. But as well as its subject matter, he also considered:
- the form of the Urn, its “Attic shape”;
- its material, with “marble men and maidens overwrought”;
- its origins (Grecian);
- its current cultural significance: “When old age shall this generation waste,/Thou shalt remain”, and
- its aesthetic impact when it tells us that
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
I might be breaking new critical ground here. In my intensive-but-at-the-same-time-superficial skimming of what the academics have to say about the Ode on a Grecian Urn, I haven’t yet come upon any which touch upon what the poem reveals about Keats as an art critic. There’s clearly an undergraduate essay to be written on this topic. Fortunately I don’t have to write it.
Instead, I’m going to use Keats’s methodology to contemplate five ceramic objects from my own collection. I don’t have many urns, and I’ve previously blogged about jugs, so this time it’s plates. They are all circular. That’s the form dealt with.
Plate 1. A maiolica small plate or piattini made at Castelli d’Abruzzo in the province of Teramo in central Italy around the middle of the 18th century. It’s in tin-glazed terracotta and decorated with coloured enamels. Around the rim are satyrs’ heads and putti, and the simply-drawn scene in the centre tells a straightforward story of a boy in a late summer landscape effortfully treading grapes in a wooden vat. Compared to the best of Castelli production, this is a pretty crude effort, and in my opinion the slightly cartoonish bucolic subject matter of the central image juxtaposes rather awkwardly with the conventional mythological decorations on the rim. It’s just 17.5 cms in diameter, and has been broken and repaired (how else could I afford to own it?). But it’s a bright, cheerful piece, full of Italian joyfulness and sunshine. Little wonder that this type of ware has been for centuries popular and highly-prized among collectors. I love it.
Plate 2. A Delft plate, 23 cms in diameter, from the middle or late 18th century. I’m not expert enough to judge whether it is English or Dutch delftware, but I believe it’s more likely to be the latter. In white tin-glazed earthenware with cobalt blue decoration and a yellow rim. These plates are neither rare nor especially valuable, and this one has some big chips around the edges. But I love it – so much, in fact, that I have its picture as the screensaver on my iPad. There’s something about the softness and whiteness of the glaze and the simple, naively-painted vase of flowers that gives it a calm and homely charm – full of warmth and domesticity, and entirely lacking the chill of Keats’s marble Urn. You can picture it in a Dutch still life painting, on a white cloth against a dark background, grouped with pewter, glass, flowers, fruit (probably including a half-peeled lemon), perhaps a dead lobster in the foreground. Click on this link and you’ll see what I mean.
Plate 3. A Japanese pottery plate 26 cms in diameter, made probably in the late 20th century either by Kato Hiroshige (加藤 裕重), the 12th master potter of the Kasen kiln in Akazu, near Seto, or by his father the 11th master. The kiln has been in use by the Kato family for more than 400 years. The type of ware is Seto-yaki, the green glaze is oribe, and the buff glaze is shino – but note that I only know all this because I posted a photo of the plate to the Facebook Japanese pottery group and got some incredibly thorough and helpful responses. This type of pottery isn’t much seen outside Japan and comes from an entirely distinct ceramic tradition from the type of precise and highly decorated Satsuma and Arita ware that we in the West tend to think of as typically Japanese. It looks pretty basic and unsophisticated, but in fact everything about it is in strict conformity with the purest and most elegant traditions of Edo Japanese art and culture. I love it. A field with nine rice stalks bending in a high wind. A flock of ten birds flying overhead. Couldn’t be simpler. Couldn’t be more expressive.
Plate 4. A 22 cm plate from Winchcombe pottery in Gloucestershire, England. It was almost certainly made by owner Ray Finch (1914-2012), but since it doesn’t bear his personal seal, I can’t make an unqualified attribution. In buff stoneware with an unglazed rim and an evenly-applied semi-matt tenmoku glaze to the centre. The decoration is nothing but a single sharp zigzag line drawn in cream-coloured slip. If you’ve read my book Random Treasure, in which I describe a Ray Finch jug in great detail, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of his. He was hugely influenced by Bernard Leach, whose aesthetic was in turn developed by his years living among Mingei potters who were trying to revive interest in the ancient Japanese crafts. So this simple plate is in its own English way as self-conscious and sophisticated as the Kasen plate. Perhaps even more so because of the way that Ray has taken the old English slipware tradition and given it a distinct mid-twentieth century modernist vibe. That’s a lot of big words about a brown plate with a squiggly line on it, but that’s the story that this plate is telling us. Naturally, I love it.
Plate 5. A porcelain plate, 28 cms across, by Rupert Spira (born 1960), who has recently given up potting and become a full-time “teacher of the Advaita Vedanta direct path method of spiritual self enquiry” (Wikipedia). This is doubtless a good thing for spiritual self-enquiry, but it’s a huge loss to studio pottery. This plate is from Spira’s tableware range, and is very much plainer, simpler and smaller (and cheaper) than some of his monumental pieces whose surfaces bear sgraffito or relief texts of poems written by himself or by others. My plate is covered with a thinly textured raspberry-coloured copper glaze, through which you can in places glimpse the underlying white clay. That’s it. No pattern, no lines, no figures, no decoration, no story. Except that there is, of course a very detailed back-story to all of Spira’s ceramics, embracing his training, influences and techniques, his exceptional talent and his personal philosophy of life. His pots live “lives, he would hope, of usefulness and decorum, each cup, mug, plate or bowl bringing indefinable and lasting pleasure to the owner”. I couldn’t have put it better. As you will have guessed, I love it.
So. Five plates, ranging over nearly three centuries, from different countries and traditions, from intricate pictorial decoration to ethereal minimalism. Each with its own story, and each, to my mind, fulfilling in its own way all the emotional and aesthetic requirements to qualify as a candidate for its own Ode.
I regret, however, that I can’t provide such odes: my feeble juvenile attempts at writing poetry always came out as pretentious doggerel and I gave them up decades ago. Keats is entirely safe from competition from me. The plates will need to look elsewhere to be immortalised in verse.