THE CONTEMPORARY POTTER
By Bernard Leach
The intention of the whole meeting is focus, exchange and discovery of
what the roots are. It would be very easy for this Conference to run into
a technical series of discussions, but if I can read at all what the
situation is for the contemporary craftsman, it is very much concerned with
this point in history in which we are set. We are the representatives in a
way of the attempt in our intention at least - to express the whole man.
The man who employs his head, his heart and his hands. And how to do that
their relationship? That's our road of discovery. I think many of us in
our own hearts are uncertain in certain aspects of how we can function in
contemporary society. Well, let us put our heads together and in all
generosity and goodness of spirit see what we can find.
As Peter Cox said, things were at a low ebb. Two wars such as we've known have torn society, not only in Europe but in the whole world, to pieces, and made this another focus - a focus of history a point which probably the human race has never faced before. That is the possibility. the progressive possibility of a round human society. And in that society we as craftsmen want to know what part we can play. I am particularly glad that in this Conference it is not Europe only it is not even Europe and America only. We have representatives, and true representatives, and the voice of the East to speak to us, and you'll hear this afternoon the beginning of the message of the East. Not the unknown East, not only the East of the past, but that part of the East which has been thrown by the force of circumstances into the family of nations with all its problems. So that their problems are our problems and our problems are their problems. My travelling has shown me that this is the case to an extraordinary extent. And if I say East and West, I also mean North and South, and I know the Continents and I mean Africa as well. The problems that face the craftsman in his effort to attain what I call integration, I'll speak of at the end of the Conference. There is the same problem whether it is in Africa, in Finland, in Scandinavia, in England, America or Japan. But as I said, after two ware things have gone to a very low ebb and many of the craftsmen in this country alone, we'll say, had not seen the work that had been done. between the wars. That was the start of the idea of having an exhibition over there to summarise that and the Conference came out of that.
I'm going to talk a certain amount about America, because I have felt in the months that I have spent there that if the American craftsman and artist can find his purpose find his true role through not having a single pattern of tradition, but all traditions, which is much the same thing as having none, if he out of all the medley of what we inherit today can find his way towards his individual integration as a craftsman, then the other problems in the other countries are comparatively easier.
The individual craftsman, of course, starts in this country where the industrial revolution took place, with the arts and crafts movement William Morris and Ruskin behind him. The first reaction that took place to this process, which was as far as we are concerned very much a splitting up of the personality, a splitting up of activities, and dividing off work which is done for utility and commanded largely by the intellect, and from which I think most of us would agree too much heart has been left out - too much feeling, imagination, choice.
Speaking broadly about the Arts and Crafts Movement I think a great many people would say, "Well, what did it achieve? It was a drop in the bucket and the bucket was too much for the drop." And yet the thing's gone on and its spread, and the wave of thoughts and actions in craftsmanship has gone right round the world. This is the moment when the waves are coming back to these shores. It's for us to go on - not with a static thing, leaving it to encrust as it threatened to encrust and to become Cotswoldish and to grow beards and to be individualists separate from society. (I'm not making remarks about personal habits.) (LAUGHTER) But I did notice, in my own case, that nearly everybody who came to work at the Pottery had to go through a phase of growing a beard. I think they've all got out of it pretty well. I've nothing against beards but it's a sort of little symbol if it's exaggerated and unnatural as one sometimes feels it to be - of an aloofness, a specialisation belonging to that field of thought that we call "The Ivory Tower".
Well, I won't go on much with the story of the Crafts Movement because you know it and you've been in it. But I'll take it on into the pottery field. What is the story of the modern potter? Where does he start? I'11 quote here and read you a little bit because one can often put things more succinctly in thinking quietly and wri ing, and I've done a certain amount of writing in the last two or three years. Here's a bit from an article I wrote in a paper: "Historically the modern movement started in France about the middle of the last century. The movement of the potters spread over the Continent, especially to Scandinavia from France. But England was very little affected. It is true that the four Martin brothers, who were our first studio potters, were encouraged and taught by one of the early French stonework potters, M. Cazin, who was a refugee from the Franco-German War of 1870, and 1871. But the English work from the outset has not resembled the French, and in any case the Martins and their contemporary, an Englishman also and a novelist, William de Morgan, who worked under the influence of Persian pottery, have had little to do with the movement which has developed during this century".
I don't know whether I'm prejudiced but I'm going to say what I feel. My own judgment is, looking over the whole field of pottery, at the risk of favour to my first and my own country, England, and for my second homeland, Japan, I believe that the contributions towards modern pottery from these two centres the one in the East and the other in the West are in some ways at least the most important. The significance lies in the cultural marriage of the best elements of East and West, and as has been said my life has been spent between East and West. I may have a bee in my bonnet but I can see things as a whole and it seems to me that the division of humanity is mainly East and West and that they are complementary and opposite; but it doesn't mean to say that there is not East in the West and West in the East.
The Far East has always claimed that its classic work was produced during the time of the Sung Dynasties let us say between the Seventh and the Thirteenth Centuries. As far as pots are concerned, the West simply did not believe this until early this century. During the building of Chinese and Korean railways, however, with the excavations that were necessary, enough pots were excavated from early tombs to give convincing proof of Oriental claims. Since that time discerning minds, including those of potters working independently in different countries all the way from Japan to Finland via America, have recognised the highest achievement of men in ceramics in China of the Sung Dynasty, and therein they have found spontaneously a criterion of values or a standard or a measuring rod. Not that such a thing is a static thing either, it is always a moving point. But in looking back at the past we do look for the groundwork of tradition, achievement - that by which we can judge the present.
I have been myself a kind of link or courier between English and Japanese potters in the interchange between our pre-industrial traditions and theirs. And at that point one should make it clear that Chinese and Korean concepts and methods were often preserved in Japan when long lost on the Asian Continent. Japan corresponds to Asia as England does to the Continent. And in both cases these two countries, protected by a band of water - even if a narrow band have become the repositories of the cultural content of the Continent behind. I was born in the Far East and returned to Japan by my free choice at the age of 21 and lived amongst the young artists of Tokio from 1909 to 1920. During that time I became a potter under Ogata, the sixth master of the Kenzan School. Two or three Japanese friends became potters and followed my example. Because I should explain that although there were many country potters, even potters that were connected with the Court, there was nobody in our sense of the word comparable to a modern individualist potter. From that beginning the Japanese craft movement grew up under the leadership of my old friend, Dr. Yanagi.
Coming back to the problem that faces the potter today, we have our own traditions and, as I have said, in America more than elsewhere that thread, that tap root, that source from which we draw our strength not only in pottery but of course in the whole background of life, is now broken to a large extent. And so, instead of depending as our blacksmiths and our old builders before we had so-called architects did upon the right way of doing things which was passed down from generation to generation, from father to son, from workshop to workshop, we have somehow to find our own roots on personal grounds. And we must look behind ourselves to our country, our people, its way of life, its dependance upon its inheritance of culture, its atmosphere, its climate. For instance in Japan, what an effect the earthquake has had upon the development of the Japanese culture and character. We haven't got that. The Chinese haven't got that. And so we have to make our own syntheses. I may quote it again, but at this point I feel that I should give you the paraphrased words of Confucius: "The wise man is he who in his maturity can make natural use of the gifts with which he was born". It's very simple, and it's very difficult, and we all of us, I think, know something of this difficulty. I think of the times when I've gone over, for instance, a hundred or five hundred drawings for pots done in the year or look back upon work which I made six months ago, and have a sinking sensation because I can see the falsity after a spell of time. It's not integrated. I'll tell you more about it in the words of Hamada later on in my next talk.
Well, there we are. That's an indication I think it's very halting of the kind of problem that faces the craftsman. It's suddenly very much the problem that faces the artist. The artist, the musician, the poet, the painter, has had this a long time. But it's only in our lifetimes that its become a problem of the craftsman. In fact, it means to say that that which is true and exploratory in the life of the artist now becomes true for the craftsman. He's got to do this much wider thing. But he's got to do it without all those signs of self-consciousness which dominate our Western art, perhaps more than we realise unless we get outside our Western life and see it with a long perspective. I had that chance of seeing Europe out of Asia by living with and among my Japanese contemporaries - and seeing Europe from all that distance. Well, I'll leave that to Dr. Yanagi and Mr. Hamada to speak. first-hand. I'll only introduce the subject.
Well, here we are trying to find what are good shapes, patterns, colours, textures, techniques, to express that which we can gather from all sources. And we're faced with this thing which has been born in our time - born of this industrial revolution - which is the machine the application of science to life. I'll say something now, or read something rather, about the machine. In the foreword to my "Potters' Portfolio" I said this about the ceramic industry: "Machine-made pots have been omitted from the illustrations because their good qualities are due to causes and processes of a different order to those made by hand under the control either of craftsmen, who represent a traditional handicraft, or of an individual who is a conscious artist. The use of machinery to increase output and lower costs involves a division between designer and executant (who, in the main, is the machine-tender) which limits artistry almost exclusively to the designer on paper. He, in turn, must make his plans of delegated work strictly according to what the particular machines and their attendants can do with given materials. Behind him stand a formidable array of Directors, Managers, Buyers, Salesmen, Unions and Shareholders. An error in calculation and thousands of pounds may be lost. Small wonder that imagination and feeling can get little play. The margins are too narrow, the background unpropitious, cut-throat competition and the vulgarities of advertisement too rampant. Even under favourable conditions the absence of an overall personal responsibility at every stage of execution, combined with standardised raw materials and absolute uniformity of exact repetition inherent in the industrial process, reduces the possibility of expression warm, human, voluntary expression. It's reduced to a cool, hard abstraction very different from the spontaneity of direct handcraftsmanship. Nevertheless, within these limits and I don't want to underestimate these within these limits a different kind of formalised techtonic and functional beauty may, and occasionally does, emerge when the honest work of scientist, engineer, chemist and technician is freed from false and unnecessary restrictions. Isn't it about time that we realised that the real contribution of the machine is mass-production of the basic necessities which our swelling population requires not the make-believe application of false art. Nor the two penny cup to make it sell better. If only the trimmings of catchpenny ornamentation could be left out for one surprising day in our lives, to give a glimpse of what might be. We have had a hint of it in these years of austerity but without enough of that honesty of design often to be found in the tools themselves with which the shams are perpetrated."
Then a thing that I can't, I think, speak adequately about, but which I can start and I hope others will take up I think from the continent particularly, and perhaps from America too, we may hear the voice of the modern, wtat shall I say, free, imaginative, geometric, abstract art that has broadly come out of the machine age, which is visible in architecture, in sculpture and increasingly in craftsmanship. The result of the movement from Cezanne to Picasso and there I will read you a line or two about what I think of Picasso, because in every lecture that I've had to make for some time past I have known perfectly well that somebody is going to turn up and shoot questions, "Well, what do you think about Picasso?" I'll just tell you a little bit of my answer and I'll tell you a little bit more next time I talk to you.
Well, excuse me if it doesn't follow quite, but you'll catch the thread in a moment. "At the other end of the scale from the contemporary potter I have included a group of primitive pottery, some of it made without wheel or kiln all of it unglazed (that's in my book). The earliest goes back about 5,000 years to Crete and Egypt. The beauty of such pots has been too long neglected or simply not perceived, as with all truly primitive art, let us say, until the advent of Picasso. Picasso only because he may be taken as the type of a modern painter possessed of a flexibility of mind together with a capacity for personal synthesis so sufficiently strong as to cover a large part of the aesthetic experience which we inherit today. He as much as any other man - perhaps more - opened the doors of our perception to the art of primitive man by himself producing an art inspired by it, which leads to my belief that the artist-craftsman in our time must be an artist and accept the responsibility of being born in an age of world-synthesis."
That is not my only thought about the artist. What the artist is and what the function of the artist is we're going to hear a great deal about from Dr. Yanagi, who will deal with this question of over-emphasis, broadly of individualism, which appears in a great deal of our art. So I leave that to him. The Bauhaus is one focus of this thought that has come out of our own age and bears the character and stamp of our period. There are representatives of the Bauhaus here present. Again I leave it to them to say something to us about that aspect of adventure and forward-moving between the arts, and arts expressive of our moment in history.
I want to go back to the standard, the criterion of value, because without some yardsticks, some however flexible instrument, we cannot apportion between the good, the bad and the indifferent. In most forms of art a classic background provides a criterion based upon what discerning minds have considered good over a long period of time. But in the field of ceramics very few people have more than a vague conception of what constitutes the finest achievements of the past or of the present. Various examples are gathered in books and museums which may or may not be beautiful. Rarity, historic or technical importance, ostentation, extravagance or mere freakishness frequently determine their inclusion. When I was writing that book I felt and looked around and thought and asked, "Is there a book which has been collected for the pot's sake alone, for the truth of the pot beauty if you like to call it but for the living qualities of the pot?" And I don't think there has been - not in pictorial form anyhow. And so it was really for those people who wanted to look at pots and have a collection. So many asked me, "Is there a book with good large reproductions? Possibly we'll cut out the pages and put them on the wall. They could be the silent witnesses to our own activities as potters." Well, as I suggested just now, I think it is spontaneously and not just my mere imagination that we have this admiration that's grown up in the last 25 years, let us say, about Sung pottery. And I'd just like to say something more about Sung pottery.
This last half-century has seen a great leap forward in outlook in many directions certainly in the evaluation of pots. The high classics of 1900 are not those of 1951. When I left England to go out to Japan in 1909 all our museums and all our books had Ming and Ch'ing (that is to say, from the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century onward) as the classic standards of the past. When I came back that place had been taken by Tang and Sung. It was a complete change. Our eyes still turn to China, but to the Seventh and the Twelfth Centuries and not to the Thirteenth to the Eighteenth, to a concept of ceramic beauty utterly different in its essential nature, to the inner rather than the outer character of the same amazing race. What a pity we haven't got a representative here from China. It seems all wrong. To those accustomed to the brilliance, gaiety of colour and elaboration of ornament of later work the elusive meditative spirit of austere nobility of the classic period must have seemed very different. I should mention in passing that the cause of this - again something that I know that Dr. Yanagi is going to speak to you about - is the fact that that earlier work represented Buddhist and Taoist cultures, whereas the later work represented largely Mohammedan influences. For some reason, in England, we don't realise the full significance of the story of Mohammedanism, but there was the time when Mohammedanism stretched from Spain to Pekin that was the period following Kubla and Ghengis Khan. To the people of China it came, not necessarily at once, but via the Court as the main influence. If you think of Mohammmedan character in art - the absence of the human figure, the largely freehand geometric ornamentation- and you translate that into terms of blue and white porcelain and enamels, and contrast that with these quiet Sung pots with their greys, their grey-greens, their creams and their quiet meditative forms, you get quite a contrast.
In this country the first great revelation was the Chinese Exhibition at Burlington House in 1935. I've heard so many people say of that Exhibition it was a revelation. So something corresponding to that must have happened in many other countries. I don't know them well enough to be able to point to the exact point. But these events must have awakened us to things that were slumbering inside us, to the beginning of our quest in pottery and there I must pay tribute to Staite Murray, because Staite Murray was hard at it when I came back from the East in 1920, trying to penetrate that world of Sung pots, to digest it, and to put it forward. His work is over there and you can see. But he was an inaugurator and a teacher here who played a significant part in our movement in England.
Where this movement in pottery leads us? It leads us in a relationship, as Michael Cardew would say, to the genuineness with which we can either work with the machine or alone or supply ideas which are the true ideas for the people who are working with the machine if we don't do it ourselves - and it's very difficult to do both. The machine represents a whole world in itself. We can't design pots for the industrial processes without special training. But we can offer an adventurous mind, which isn't just theoretical. It's searching into matter, into clay, into form interpretative of various things that have happened, offering suggestions of beauty in clay, fired and glazed, which can be carried out by others by methods which provide enough at a sufficiently low price; so that, for instance, we may in future be able to get what we cannot get now a tea-set to sit on one's table which would provide us with some of the beauty that, let us say, is in the first porcelain made in China in Tang and Sung times. People accuse us stonework potters of being clumsy, heavy, rough, and so on. But for some of the purposes for which we make our pots, vases and so on, I don't think there's anything to be critical about. They haven't got to be in an elegant line. But for our tables they need to be. They can't go suddenly all heavy and clumsy. Is there all that reason that they should, considering how in the ninth, tenth, eleventh or twelfth centuries the Chinese made those beautiful reduced and oxydised pots of a very thin and charming .kind? With that elegance and with that refinement of material why can't we have something which would be as delightful on our tables as the Japanese insist that their pots should be on theirs?
I believe, with Michael Cardew, that there is a place for craftsmanship in the future. You may remember that we were talking before this last ghastly war, or the economists were talking about, an age of leisure. An age in which certain theorists, theoreticians, thought they could reduce the working hours from eight or nine down to five or four. Well, I often wondered then what on earth were the people going to do with the remaining nineteen. They'll sleep, say, nine of them they've still got ten hours left. If we can get to peace, which we know we'll get to, whether it's soon or late we'll have this problem coming back to us what are people going to do with their leisure? They can't spend it all on jazz and cinemas. I believe myself that the balance to the necessary mass production will then come into vogue more and more, more and more sense of vocation, of personal expression either alone or in small groups, and it is in that direction broadly that looking far ahead the development of crafts can take place, just as, at this moment, people spend their times on little market gardens or allotments or flowers as their pleasure.
Well, I'm going to end my disjointed talk there, and take it on again and into this other field of the processes of integration.
Reproduced from the conference report with the permission of the Dartington Hall Trust Archive