PIONEERS IN CERAMICS at Museum Prinsenhof in Delft

There could perhaps be no better city to demonstrate pioneering in ceramics than Delft and no better place in that city than Prinsenhof, a building which is probably the most significant in Dutch history. It was there in 1584 that the assassination of William of Orange led directly to the formation of The Netherlands as a nation state.

This exhibition explores the history of ceramics in The Netherlands and brings us right up to date with the work of twenty-three contemporary artist who work in the medium. Their work reveals surprising similarities and telling differences. The exhibition clearly shows that innovation is motivated by social changes. Based on current themes such as sustainability, locality and diversity, the exhibition invites you to discover connections between then and now.

But what of the history of ceramics in Delft? The VOC (the Dutch East India Company) brought back samples of Chinese porcelain in the 17th century and Delft became one of the first cities to exploit the newly discovered production techniques. Its pre-eminence in the field lasted over one hundred and fifty years. Although originally inspired by the Chinese, Delft Blue soon developed its own style and identity with the brand rapidly becoming known throughout the world in its own right.

There is still a factory in town producing the traditional Delft Blue but the art is not static and, as the new artists in this exhibition demonstrate, one can create a lot more with a lump of clay than vases in which to put flowers or plates off which to eat your dinner.

The selection is diverse, with special attention to self-taught makers, makers with a non-Western background and makers who represent a different perspective. Benedetta Pompili shows work she recently made during her residency at the Rijksakademie Amsterdam. Because Asia is still an important source of inspiration today, work by participants in the Creative Residency Arita in Japan is also on display, including new work by Simone Post. But for me the work of two artists stood out even though perhaps they lacked the conventional aesthetic qualities of most of the pieces on display.

If you took out your spade and starting digging in Delft you would very quickly find an old piece of Delft Blue pottery of one type or another. All industries produce waste and the ceramic factories in Delft were/are no exception. During manufacture pieces often suffered from “mis-firing”, cracking or collapsing in the kilns. The results were thrown away, often into the canals or cess pits. The pile of broken plates and bowls in the exhibition demonstrates that even in a destroyed state pottery can be a thing of beauty. Max Lipsey does not go quite that far to retrieve the bits but finds more recent fragments with which to produce his work.  Nearby another artist proves that ceramics can also be fun. Koos Buster creates mundane everyday objects and imbues them with a dimension that would normally be ignored, much as Marcel Duchamp did with his “readymades”. I loved the bright yellow beer crate, Ode aan mijn Werklust (Hommage to my Zeal for Work) (2021) and Untitled (Senseo) 2020, a capsule coffee machine. Also in a semi-humourous vein was the collection of dozens of different miniature chairs by Sunwoo Jung entitled Tiny Friends. These were just the objects that caught my eye. Of course the majority of the new work on display is more conventionally beautiful and to be taken more seriously.

Prinsenhof always mounts its exhibitions in a well thought out original way and are a joy to visit. Pioneers in Ceramics is no exception. The exhibits are laid out simply on long white tables under glass cases, each table supported, rather incongruously by piles of creamy-yellow plastic crates in direct contrast to the fine china on display.

Whether ceramics excite you or leave you cold, I guarantee that there will be something in this exhibition that with either enthrall or amuse you.   Michael HASTED    3rd March 2024

Pioneers in Ceramics can be seen at Prinsenhof Delft until 8th September