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    Bernard Palissy, Prophet of Modern Ceramics Essay

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    We have witnessed during the past two decades a rare, but not un precedented, historical occurrence, the transmutation of a popular craft in to a fine art. Photography. On similar occurrences pivot the histories of the arts. The nineteenth century saw the birth of classical ballet, the eighteenth heard the transformation of music, the seventeenth, opera and drama. One could catalogue them. All signs indicate that we are about to see another, this time in ceramics. The breakthrough in that field began about a hundred years ago, more or less simultaneously, in France, England, and the United States. Its leaders, as has so often been the case in such movements, thought of themselves as revivers or restorers rather than creators. In a sense they were right. “Destiny had marked them out to be the renovators ol ceramic art. . . grave and suspicious … for years in seclusion . . . they boasted no special qualifications . .. save a fervid ambition to revive the forgotten art and pro duce anew ceramic marvels.” wrote an observer at the turn of the century. “The ambition of each,” he continued, “was to be regarded as a modern Palissy. . .. His was the name ever on their lips.”1 The chief model and the chief inspiration for those founders of modern ceramics was Bernard Palissy. He had achieved -for a brief period barely outlasting his own life and for one of the few times in western history—what they were seeking: the elevation of ceramics to the level of a serious art form. Moreover, the story of Palissy’s life was a heroic legend that helped sustain them in their own struggles. Most important, his work stood, and for that matter still stands, as the most enduring single influence in ceramic art from the Renaissance to modern times. The Palissy story, however looked at, was extraordinary. For almost a quarter of a century, during the late 1560s, 1570s, and early 1580s.

    Master Bernard cut an audacious figure at the court of the queen regent ol France, Catherine de’ Medici. With both his living quarters and his studio in the royal compound, officially dubbed “Designer of Naturalistic Ceramic Works for the King,” and in charge of laying out and adorning the gardens of the queen regent’s new palace of the Tuileries, he enjoyed the highest status accorded to an artist.1 But Palissy’s presence excited a certain amount of resentment. He emerges from the pages of his own writings a rustic genius whom the regent on one of her tours of the provinces had discovered and plucked up.1 He had little social grace and less polish, but more than enough energy, arrogance, and gall. Unlettered in Latin or Greek, he ex hibited a jagged intellectual profile and a good deal of the impatience, in tolerance, and aggressiveness that come from self education. But he man aged brilliantly at court, leaving critics helpless before a mantle of eccentri city. Palissy was not charming, but completely disarming. A sort of unrefined French I^onardo. Palissy indulged not only a creative imagination, but an insatiable intellectual curiosity. He designed military fortilications, made extensive geological observations, established his own museum oi natural history, and conducted a wide range of scien tific experiments. On one occasion he invited the physicians of Paris to lec ture them on medicine and they came, including the famous surgeon, Am broise Раrё.

    As the years passed he wrote treatise after treatise touching an astonishing number of subjects including biolog)’, geology, paleontology, hydrology, chemistry, physics, alchemy, metallurgy, agriculture, miner alogy, embalming, toxicology, and meterology.4 But perhaps most surpris ing of all, Palissy not only embraced the new Protestant doctrines and founded a congregation, but openly championed the reform cause during the Religious Wars and on the very site of the Saint Bartholomew s Day Massacre. He managed this through the protection of the regent, but when she took to her death bed in 1588, the rabid Catholic element at court lock ed him up in the Bastille where he died within a year. Before the regent rescued Palissy from poverty and oblivion in the pro vinces, he had already gone through two careers and established himself in a third. From an obscure birth around 1510 in the ancient fruit- and fowl producing town of Agen in southwestern France, he moved through an ap prenticeship in the the time honored craft of stained glass to haphazard employment as a young Itinerant glazier, roaming over the better part of France and perhaps into the Netherlands and Rhenish Germany.

    His train ing involved sufficient mastery ol drawing and painting to enable him to supplement his income during these years by selling portraits. He also learned enough of the three R’s to enable him to qualify later as a licensed land surveyor. In the 1530s, as the demand for stained glass fell off in the face of the Renaissance preference for see-through windows, Palissy, now in his mid-twenties, returned home, married, and settled down in the nearby town of Saintes to try to make a living as a surveyor. A lew years later the course of his life changed again, this time dramatically. Around 1540 someone, though he does not say who, showed him a white cup—perhaps a piece of fine, Italian majolica or a rare example of Chinese porcelain, or most likely, a piece of Saint-Porchaire ware.5 The white cup’s design and finish dazzled him. He could not imagine how such a thing was made. It haunted him. He could not shake the vision from his head. It became an obsession. He determined to learn its secrets, to understand how it was made, in short, to be able to make one like it.

    Typical of Palissy, such a drive represented the essence of his genius. He rejected authorities and preconceptions, whether in religion, science, or art, and undertook his own investigation of problems afresh. His aim,always, was to go to the source, to understand a thing in its fundamentals. One has “to scratch the earth,” he says in the introduction to his Discourses, “and to search its bowels in order to understand the things it produces.”0 Palissy did not, as he paraphrased Scripture, ”hide my talent in the ground” but felt it incumbent upon him to “bring to light the things it has pleased God to make me understand.”7 The mode of transmittal, the vehicle he chose, varied according to the message: lectures for instruction, treatises for argument, his museum for demonstration, his “little academy” of friends and associates for discussion, and art for the rest. When Palissy plunged into his search for the secrets of the white cup, his ignorance of the potter’s craft constituted, from his point of view, not a burden, but a blessing. He had no received authority, no preconceptions to overcome. From the outset he was a free agent. It may be so simple a reason that he achieved his apotheosis in art rather than in intellectual or spiritual endeavors. “There are very lew things in this world,” he said in one of his maxims, “that cannot be clarified by art.” Palissy s search proved a courageous agony.

    He sacrificed sixteen years of his life, all the money he could borrow, the health of his children, and the respect of his wife, friends, and community. In return he reaped poverty, scorn, humiliation, frustration, loneliness, and deep sorrow. But his spirit held and at the point of desperation transformed determination into zeal. When he had spent the last of the family bread money on firewood for his kiln and it burned low. he broke up the household furniture for fuel, and finally ripped up the floors. But in the end he succeeded. There is no question that he succeeded, though commentators have vir tually all misread him. They have interpreted Palissy as saying he failed to attain his goal because he never duplicated the enamel of the cup. In fact he says nothing of the sort. What he docs say is that he realized that with his talent—“because God had given me to know something about drawing”-he could “make pottery vessels and other things of good design.” and he launched in.” He started, he explains, with enamels, with conquering surface design first. But he got to the problems of form shortly. “Without thinking that I had no knowledge of clay, I started to look for enamels.

    ” He tells us later that in the process, the other mistakes he made “while experimenting with enamels taught me more than such things which were easy to learn.The treatise on the Art of the Earth contains, he says, an account of the calamities he suffered “at the beginning of my interest” in ceramics, ‘ before attaining my goal.”1* Palissy never set out to duplicate the white cup but to understand it. 1 le aimed not to make one like it but to be able to make one like it. He had no sympathy for copying. He castigates those who “glorify themselves only in that they know how to imitate the works of pagans and wish to be honored as designers.”1’ And he notes that “no one in the world takes lightly the secrets of art save those who get them cheaply,” i.e., those who go no deeper than imitation. Palissy understood clearly the distinction between copying and creating, something many of his contemporaries did not. One of the few clear historical patterns to be seen in the Renaissance reveals a long initial phase in which intellectuals and artists drew heavily upon anti quity.

    It took the better part of three generations before they felt comfor table with their own creative initiative. Palissy made the transition in a single leap. His goal, first and last, was understanding, or better said relative to art, it was mastery. That he certainly achieved. Of Palissy’s prodigious output, only a few score pieces remain to us. None of the large works for which he was famous in his day survive. These originally included life-size figures—so realistic that unaccustomed strollers in his garden, upon suddenly encountering one. invariably offered it a greeting—as well as a clay watchdog that stood beside his studio door to in timidate would-be intruders but as often excited ferocity in its real life counterparts.15 What we have are a range of his plates, platters, vases, bowls, basins, cups, salt-cellars, sauce dishes, inkwells, candleholders, and pitchers, plus fragments of molds for some of his life-size figures.16 Palissy worked in two broad styles. On many of his plates, platters, and pitchers he encrusted high relief leaves, insects, serpents, and sea life, so naturalistically molded that their exact species are identifiable. And on other pieces he used elements from the store of classical motifs common to Renaissance artists. The latter formed for Palissy a ready allegorical vocabulary’. Often he combined the two.

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