Gwyn Hanssen Pigott: A Fifty Year Survey
Article by Owen Rye
First Published in Ceramics Art and Perception 62, 2005, pages 3 to 6
A comprehensive survey of work by Gwyn Hanssen-Pigott, reviewing the fifty years from 1955 to the present day is on show at the National Gallery of Victoria from 4 November 2005 until 19 March 2006. It covers her output from the functional wares she produced through the 60s and 70s through to the still life groups of porcelain vessels that she has developed since the 1980s and for which she is internationally renowned. The exhibition will be shown in the Asian Gallery spaces, symbolising the fundamental influence of the NGV’s Kent collection on her decision to become a potter. Herbert Wade Kent presented his collection of Chinese artwork to the NGV in 1938. It included many ceramic works among its 129 pieces ranging in age from Neolithic to the eighteenth century, and became the nucleus of the gallery’s Asian art collection.
The exhibition of Pigott’s works with the Kent collection will allow an evaluation of the extent of the impact made by her study of that collection as a student in the 1950’s, and especially of the glazes of Song Dynasty wares. Despite a great many publications by and about Pigott, this connection through materials seems only to have been discussed in very broad detail. Ian Mackay ¹ saw the relationship not in the colours or other direct glaze qualities but ‘... in her special achievement in the unified organic form as opposed to the multi-unit constructed form’.
As with most artists, our globalised communications make Pigott’s work well known through publications and much less so by direct experience. I live near enough to see this exhibition, and will welcome the opportunity to form my own responses and opinions. Many pictures have been published, and many writers have discussed Pigott’s work but as she says: “Writers, poets, artists have described again and again the force of these everyday objects, but who knows how many potters, knowing, finally, the rightness of their work, have despaired of having their work actually perceived.” ²
Within the many publications can be found a long list of influences on Pigott’s work. Her original introduction to ceramics in the 1950s came via study of the Kent collection, and Bernard Leach’s ‘A Potter’s Book’. In seeking to learn more she was disappointed with other potters until she met Ivan McMeekin who was probably her main influence of all. Pigott is one of a number of potters who worked with McMeekin and have subsequently become well known, including Col Levy, Les Blakebrough and I might modestly add myself. I met her as a student in the early 1960’s when she spent six months in the Industrial Arts Department of UNSW with McMeekin, working on developing overglaze enamel colours.
I was aware at that time, early in her career, of her sensitive forms, and I still have a small cup that she made simply as a test piece but that has a subtlety of form and quality of feel that many potters never manage to develop. She worked with McMeekin on various occasions at a time when stoneware and porcelain materials were not available to purchase and had to be developed from raw materials. So McMeekin’s deep appreciation of materials and skills in using them gave those who worked with him a life long appreciation and understanding of the basis of ceramic beauty in materials and firing. He did not just look at pots; he studied their most intimate details.
Many other influences have been mentioned both in her writing by Pigott and by others who have written about her. For example Neville French ³ mentions Dutch potter Geert Lap, and painters Rosslynd Piggott and William Bailey as well as the ubiquitous Morandi.
One might show concern about an artist who has too many influences, the kind of concern that wonders about their inventiveness. Peter Timms ⁴ dismisses such concerns. He sees Pigott’s work as a complex dialogue with the past; not in terms of ‘quotes’ or homages, or of directly drawing on the past but rather as her distinctive response to a variety of sources. There is no conclusion other than that finally her work is distinctly her own. ‘The innovative artist does not reject the past but engages in a constructive dialogue with it, reworking and reinventing the stories that make up the cultural fabric’.
Given that, Morandi is always central to her discussion of her groups. In which case it seems quite odd that the NGV has elected to show her work in the context of the Kent collection, which these days seems a remote and somewhat indirect influence, without the essential accompaniment of work by Morandi. It seems to me that an exhibition of Morandi with Pigott would have made much more immediate sense – although it may not have so well made use of NGV holdings.
Pigott certainly attributes her source of the idea of grouping work to Morandi. For anyone wishing insight into her processes she has discussed her thoughts and feelings about her groups ⁵ and how they relate to the work of Morandi in considerable detail – more than can reasonably be included here.
Morandi (1890-1964) began painting still lifes in the 1920s. His style involved simple composition, muted colours, and free flowing lines. The colour schemes of objects used plain white, cobalt blue, muted iron browns, ochres or muted pastels. The objects are clearly common domestic items. According to Karen Wilkin ⁶ the characteristics of Morandi’s still lifes include repetitiveness, subtle variations, some of utterly familiar repeated objects which sometimes hide each other, and are sometimes individuals. “In Morandi’s closely linked ‘serial still lives’, apparently identical groupings of familiar objects, altered by the addition or subtraction of a single element, the presence (or absence) of one more bottle, one less box, can serve not only to completely shift the dynamic weight and spatial logic of a given composition, but to change its colour harmonies, and even the entire proportion of the picture”
Given Pigott’s standing in the ceramic community, influences could be expected to flow the other way as well. A look through the past three issues each of Ceramics Art and Perception, and The Journal of Australian Ceramics, shows at least 20 Australian potters working with the group concept, some of them embarrassingly closely imitating Pigott and most obviously derivative. I rather kindly allow that some potters may have grouped work for the practical purposes of photography.
Had I come to this work with some knowledge of recent art history, and none at all of Pigott’s journey, I might say that her work is much more suggestive of the modernist movement than it is of its beginnings in a love for Sung dynasty ceramics; more redolent of Bauhaus Germany or later Scandinavia than distant China. I would base this on the character of the forms, with their severity and hard-profiled nature. Following this modernist theme, the most powerful attribute of the group concept is the barefaced (meaning shameless or impudent according to my dictionary) simplicity of it all. It raises the feeling of irritation common to everyone in the arts, the “why didn’t I think of that?” At its most basic it clearly relates to the pots on the shelf in the kitchen, all there ready for use, to be put back in a never ending series of rearrangements.
Here we can be deceived, for in some ways greater simplicity is greater complexity. Consider the sportsman, making to the observer what appears as a slow, easy, graceful movement, but in consequence this seemingly simple move can carry the greatest effect. The apparent simplicity comes from getting it right in every subtle detail, with everything just so. In Pigott’s groups this involves ordering the tiny variations from one ‘similar’ piece to another, the slight differences in glazing or in fire effect from placement in the kiln. As an aside one reason for the effectiveness of Pigott’s group concept is that everyone thinks they understand it because of its apparent simplicity.
If, as has often been said, the vessel in general can be seen as abstraction then it follows that the grouping of vessels involves an abstraction of an abstraction. This creates a very strange conjunction, considering that each individual form can be seen as familiar to anyone and nameable as a bottle, a bowl or a cup. So the group carries a kind of alternating current, a constantly reversing flow from one polarity to another; from abstraction to reality, from stillness to movement; from fragility to sturdiness; from permanence to impermanence (could easily be rearranged); from colour to an almost black and white quality, from light to shade. The concepts of ‘still’ and ‘life’ may themselves be opposites. This dialogue of opposites can be extended indefinitely and I suspect that each viewer arrives at their distinct version.
No doubt this work creates a degree of tension between the artist and any gallery showing her work. How, with many items in the larger groups, can the specific arrangement decided by the artist be reflected in the gallery display? Is it important that this is so, or is the potential for an endless variety of arrangement something that should be explored? What is the distinction between a ‘good’ grouping and a ‘bad’ grouping – especially when we get to subtle rather than completely obvious differences?
Early in the evolution of the group concept, Ian McKay ⁷ in 1990 discussed the inherent contradictions in the grouping that arose at that time from considering each item in the group as a functional object, a bowl or cup or whatever for daily use. These functional pots if used and replaced would constantly modify the group. Or, if the group was retained in its original format then quite usable objects could become solely objects of contemplation. In a prescient manner (the article was written just before his death ) McKay suggested that ‘....the still lifes should be thought about again, both by enthusiastic critics and the artist’.
Well, here we are fifteen years later thinking about them again.
Anyone wishing to capture the feel of a Pigott exhibition showing her groups could do no better than read their description by Peter Timms in his What’s Wrong with Contemporary Art? ⁸, a book much admired by Australian ceramics practitioners. Timms describes the character and feel of the groups in ‘as if you were there’ detail. He discusses concepts of imperfection, details observations of the structural considerations in grouping, colour variations and the feel and even weight of objects within the groups. He earlier ⁹ (1992 ) summarised Pigott’s work to that stage and it is now extremely interesting to look back at some of the earlier groups, which she termed ’Still Life’ , and which contained three, four or five vessels, preceding her much larger groupings of today. He saw the groups as almost anthropomorphic, as a kind of family with each member having individual characteristics while all were related. ‘They are not accidental differences nor are they, in the usual sense of the word, controlled. They result from a combination of the artist’s intuitive understanding of the medium and an absolute surety about what she wants to do. In a way these are musical concerns, they have to do with relationships, intervals, tones and endless fruitful variations on established themes’.
Much has been written about Pigott’s travels, her life and work, very little has been said about her ceramic techniques and methods of working. An exception is where Neville French ¹⁰ outlines in interesting detail Piggott’s approach: forms slightly distorted while plastic, sponged and even sanded to create fine surfaces, and a complex process of glazing with testing and blending glazes to produce many colours. A slow concentrated kiln packing, and after firing the process of grouping.
These methods, while gradually being refined, have not changed greatly over the years. Gwyn has not sought frivolous novelty, but has determinedly developed along a single persistent line of work. This may now seem like an old fashioned way of working, taking an area of fascination and developing increasing subtlety throughout a long career, but it has been proven by many of our older generation clayworkers to produce the greatest refinement.
3 Neville French Ceramics Art and Perception Issue 17 pp68-70
4 Peter Timms Ceramics Art and Perception Issue 9 1992 pp13
7 Ian McKay Ceramics Art and Perception Issue 1 1990 pp 41-43
Peter Timms Whats
Wrong with Contemporary Art.
UNSW Press, 2004,
9 Peter Timms Ceramics Art and Perception Issue 9 1992 pp13
10 Neville French Ceramics Art and Perception Issue 17 pp68-70
A catalogue entitled Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, A Survey 1955-2005, containing essays by several writers, has been published by the National Gallery of Victoria to accompany the exhibition. It may be obtained through their website at www.ngv.vic.gov.au