History - Tradition - Authenticity

February 2022

When trying to explain to people what is it that I do, I often stumble upon the terms of history, tradition and authenticity.

As I’ve been taught at school, one should start by defining terms, so let’s have a look at them.  History is something pertaining to the past. In my context, historical ceramics are those made at a given time period in the past in a specific region using methods and materials relevant to the time of their manufacture. Tradition is something that is still alive, or a habit that is documented for a given period of time. Tradition can go back 5, 50 or even 200 years, however it changes and adapts. And the funny thing is, often traditions are much younger than we imagine them to be*. Authenticity seems to be quite a versatile term, too. The dictionary definition of being authentic is true and accurate, real and genuine, honest.

So when I apply this to ceramics. Early modern to modern European ceramics, to be more precise, because I know next to nothing about all the other styles, forms and traditions. Historical ceramics are all those pieces we see in museums.  There were several centres of production and some of those produce ceramics to this day (they have a long tradition of producing ceramics). Over the decades the styles produced would change according to the developing technologies, fashion and customer demand, influences from abroad… When one visits museums or looks in books, one can see specific shapes, patterns and styles that were typical for the individual places of production  (as there would be continuity of the designs) together with specific qualities of the clay and glazes used and that is how historians can date them.

As I mentioned, there are ceramics centres with different traditions, and I might write more elaborate blog posts about these later. For now, I'll use the Italian town of Deruta as an example, which is tricky, because the tradition is really long there. Pottery production has been documented there since 1490, reaching a peak in artistic quality in the 15th and 16th centuries. Today, there still are many workshops, a school, and one encounters maiolica on every step. A typical pattern used is the “raffaelesco” dragon as it is called today. It’s a pattern that was supposedly based on a fresco by Raffael Santi, but honestly, similar grotesque creatures are frequently found on 16th century maiolica of the region. The way it is usually painted today is somewhat “standardized” – the placement on the different items remains creative, however, it is the same figure over and over again. I suspect that it was developed sometime in the late 19th (or early 20th) century when Europe experienced a wave of resurrection of its old traditions. I even suspect it could have something in common with Romano Ranieri – but that is just a speculation, and I haven't found any sources to support  my claim.

 

An example of historical ceramics - a 17th century plate from Deruta. Photo by Sailko - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Deruta dragon on contemporary traditional ceramics - pictures from my trip to Italy in 2016.

And now I get to authenticity which pulls it all together and where I struggle the most because authenticity is probably the most ambiguous term of these three. True and accurate – to what? Materials and technology? Shapes and patterns? Original and genuine – as in new and unaffected by other influences? Honest and coming from the heart?   

So where do I stand? Are my ceramics historically authentic? No. If I were to produce items that were historically authentic, I would have to use tools and materials corresponding to the place and time of their production, but I don’t do that. I use modern non-toxic, lead-free glazes and I fire in an electric kiln and my products comply with the modern standard of being food safe. On the other hand, I observe and imitate designs found on historical ceramics trying to reproduce them in a credible manner to make them look as close to the original as possible.


Are my ceramics traditional? No. I don’t consider myself a part of any ceramics tradition. I haven’t grown up surrounded by ceramics of a particular style and I do not copy patterns that you can see sold today in places with a ceramics tradition such as Italy, the Netherlands or Spain. Sometimes the local artists replicate the same historical sources as I do, and when they do it, the authenticity level (in my eyes) grows. Sometimes I wish I had the support of tradition that I could build on. On the other hand, I am not bound by it and can explore the variety and look for points of connection - where traditions stem from and what they have in common.


Is my work authentic as in “original”? No… and yes. Sometimes I copy really closely; sometimes I combine existing elements of a style to fit to a shape that I managed to get my hands on (being limited by not being able to make my own shapes). Sometimes I play around with the concept of copying from historical prints – something that maiolica artists would have done in the past as well, adapting them to a chosen style. Sometimes I play with “creative anachronism” and sometimes I paint something not based on a particular example, just using whatever comes.

Do I put my heart into what I do? Yes.

Thank you for reading my little confession. If you enjoyed it, let me know - write a comment, send me an email or message me on social media.

* A footnote on tradition: for instance, I have learnt only quite recently that all the designs considered traditional in henna body art are fairly modern – only about 50 years. The tradition of using henna on the body has been around for centuries, however it would be applied with fingers or sticks. It was not possible to create the elaborate patterns we see today. What was the gamechanger? The invention of the cellophane cone!

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Comments

Steve Earp
7 months ago

It's so good that you are doing this. More writing on the subject of "historically inspired," or however it is designated, pottery is needed! Looking forward to reading more.