This may seem a little wordy for a Blog post however, i really wanted to share what my PhD was all about….here goes…
The creation and legitimisation of a culture and its political position is not immediately associated with decorative functional ceramics. It may seem fanciful to use three-dimensional forms to directly manipulate people’s views and promote a leader or redefine a nation. However, throughout history, the surfaces of a variety of decorative objects have carried visual narratives to promote power and political positions. Understanding how this has been achieved frames this dissertation.
Three questions propelled my research project:
How can an investigation of selected historical narrative ceramics inform the development of a new body of ceramics that reflect aspects of twenty-first century Australian politics?
In what way can drawn images on the surface of three-dimensional ceramic forms convey political ideas?
In what way can form and surface imagery be combined in the construction of a political narrative?
Functional narrative ceramics, a genus of craft, formed the basis and starting point for my artwork and research. Bowls, cups, jugs, teapots, and plates are forms with an intended domestic use. Narrative is defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary as ‘a tale or story’ (Sykes 1985, 673). An account of events or experiences, whether true or fictitious can therefore be represented through both language and images. For the purposes of this research I confined my discussion to the role visual, pictorial narratives might play on the surfaces of objects. As author James Fentress notes, a story can be ‘a natural container for memory…a way of sequencing a set of images…a way of ordering our knowledge’ (Fentress and Whickham, 1992, p. 50). On the other hand, a narrative can bring together disparate elements and be open to interpretation. Ceramic forms that use visual narratives extend their functional role as vessels and tell us about the world we live in.
Political conditions can determine the role that ceramics play within society. For instance, when the exercise of control over a nation or society is paramount (such as autocratic rule), the surface decoration on ceramics is utilised by rulers and dictators for propaganda purposes or aimed at promoting supremacy (Wardropper et al., 1992, p. 14). Surface narratives can also carry a royal family or government’s status or seal, confirming authority and political position. For example, the Commemorative ware of the British Royal families have existed since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), memorialising births, weddings, anniversaries, coronations, jubilees, deaths, and visits. These ceramic forms skilfully utilised the functional requirements of consumption, while promoting and highlighting the reign and supremacy of royalty through the decorations on the surfaces. These types of forms continue to be marketed as diplomatic currency and as demonstrations of wealth and achievements both to the populace and abroad. The surfaces of these forms ‘are intended to reflect a sense of dignity and reverence’ (Clark, 1990, p. 66), parading portraits and silhouettes, busts of the king or queen, royal coats of arms, dragons, national flowers, armour, and decorative initials.
As an example, objects also served a purpose for Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) following the French Revolution (1789–1799) when France shifted from feudal reign to civil rights. When Bonaparte came to power in 1799 he ‘fostered relationships with leading intellectuals and artists in order to promote his reputation and popularize his image’ (Hanley, 2005), and used the deployment of the smallest coins to grand ceramic sets to promote his representation of history. By manipulating the surface decoration of familiar forms, such as coinage and ceramics within French society, Napoleon formulated his story of victory and triumph. Presentation vases (designed to be overwhelming and impressive by their size) narrated stories commemorating military victories. Cameo portraits of Napoleon and his marshals adorned tableware that was produced for the palaces and homes of French aristocrats (Coutts, 2001).
However, in a democratic environment, personal expression and engagement with authority has greater freedom. Individual artists are able to communicate private concerns without fear of retribution. Ceramic forms and their surface narratives are less controlled by governments, mirroring the society and its regard for choice and freedom of expression. Thus, contemporary ceramic artists are able to discuss and comment on political situations of the twenty-first century through their artworks, without fear of government interference.
My relationship with political porcelain objects was formed as an undergraduate art student in the 1980s. I was curious how Russian revolutionary pots made during the early twentieth century incorporated modern designs and political energy with traditional decorations on their surfaces. As such, I became interested in the contrast between what past cultures had integrated onto ceramic forms and the surface narratives of functional ceramics in the twenty-first century.
This dissertation is divided into three chapters and explores how selected ceramics, through their durableness of form and surface imagery, record and comment on political histories.
The first chapter of the dissertation examines the surface decorations of porcelain produced at the State Porcelain Factory in St Petersburg as Russia changed from feudal reign to communism. Following the Russian revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik Party utilised ceramics as part of their propaganda campaign. Surface narratives on traditional porcelain forms became promotional tools in the dissemination of communist ideals to the Russian nation and the world. Surface imagery was appropriated from a familiar language of folk and religious images and decorations in the construction of a political narrative. The work of three artists are discussed within this context. Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya, Sergei Chekhonin, and Mikhail Adamovich cleverly combined traditional graphic symbols and styles that were familiar to the Russian community with controlled images and dictatorial political messages. The State Porcelain Factory included artists who worked with the modern art movements of the time, such as the geometric abstraction of Suprematism and Constructivism. However, my dissertation will be confined to the artists which adopted traditional Russian motifs and styles to create propaganda.
The second chapter of the dissertation explores how two contemporary Australian ceramic artists, Gerry Wedd and Stephen Bowers, respond and borrow familiar decorative patterns and motifs, and how British artist Stephen Dixon, comments on the political and cultural concerns of the twenty-first century. In the work of these artists, an attempt is made to create order out of chaos as the lived experience of unfolding political events is articulated using symbols to tell stories. The visual representation of political ideas and thoughts is achieved by artists Gerry Wedd and Stephen Bowers through their adoption of familiar patterns, such as the willow pattern, to create irony within political narratives. Stephen Dixon references images, such as an historical image of a Roman soldier, to comment metaphorically on political decisions in the twenty-first century.
Following this, I discuss the ceramic works created during this research project, communicating political narratives that reflect personal ideas concerning Australian politics, which occurred during 2012 and 2016, the duration of this PhD. My investigation of the surface decoration of Russian revolutionary ceramics and selected contemporary ceramic artists informed my creative research. The primary aim of the research project was to create a new series of functional ceramics that express a personal view of selected Australian political events, giving permanency to the issues that impact our lives. My political convictions informed the text and surface imagery which developed on the surfaces. Words and phrases used by the Australian Trade Union movement and sound bites taken from the slogans and speeches of Australian politicians became prominent in my decision to portray a personal viewpoint. A further aim of the project was to develop a visual language that referenced Australian culture and politics.
The porcelain works produced as a result of this investigation continue the role of ceramics in documenting, recording, and interpreting political history. These works explore how text, visual narratives, and ceramic objects can be combined to provide commentary and discourse about contemporary Australian politics.