Ceramic Points of View: 'Optical Pot', by Elizabeth Fritsch
'Ceramics Points of View' is the result of a collaboration between The National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts and the V&A. A range of people were asked for their responses to the same ten objects from the V&A's 20th century ceramics collection.
On this page you can discover the six people's responses to 'Optical Pot', made in 1980 by Elizabeth Fritsch (born 1940). Simply choose one of the people below to see their response.
Here the work of Elizabeth Fritsch is critiqued by Alison Britton, Neil Brownsword, Emmanuel Cooper, Claire Curneen, Tanya Harrod and Oliver Watson in the following videos.
Video: Alison Britton on Elizabeth Fritsch
1980. She'd then been working for about five years, hadn't she? I have thought and felt a lot about her work, being almost a colleague; she's slightly a generation ahead of me, but in the same general body of thinking. It so immediately contradicts what you think hand-building is like. You think hand-building is going to be rugged and groggy and clunky and weighty, and this is just so delicate, it's pinched to incredible refinement.
[video clip starts] She's really stretched the palette of colours at high temperature. I mean, this has been fired to 1250 or 1300. She's spent a long time, while at the college, developing a really rich palate of engobes; similar to the engobe that Coper was putting on his surfaces, it's painted on after the biscuit firing.
Colour's really important to her as is pattern, obviously. And there are just so many, I don't know enough about this in a way. I mean, I know that she was fascinated in giving the illusion of a round form by flattening it, so that it's a trick in this envelope of a form that is making us imagine the whole volume of a pot, both in the way the lip has been cut and the way she's done the painting. [video clip ends]
Maths and Music and Philosophy are all things that are very important to her. In other pieces a bit later on she would, I think, have painted the back as well, so I don't know what she means by having a plain back. I'd be interested to know.
Very often, later pieces didn't exist in isolation, they were part of a long line series, and they [interacted] with each other with their different patterns. They were very important at their time. Certainly I think one of the key things for me in my career has been to be one of the curators for the Maker's Eye exhibition in 1981, and she was someone I definitely had to include. It was very much a hot, exciting thing at the time.
For quite a long time thereafter I think her work did settle into a similar pattern. The forms were changing a bit and the colours were changing and there was a period a bit later on, [in the] late 1980s, when the colours became very wonderful reds, [a] very rich Piero della Francesca [type] of palette. But its significance for me at the beginning of my working time is for the play in it, really, for the being straightforwardly a pot, and yet it's got this extraordinary illusion within it. Some people got very upset about them [back] then and said that they were shrinking away from use, and shrinking into being mere mantlepiece things. But to me it was a very exciting step in saying that something could be still life as well as life, to actually have both in it at the same time, and that's what I try to talk about in my little essay in that catalogue.
That was a key theme for her. Very often if I'm showing slides at work [I] will show an image I [have]. It's a photograph of her pots, of a set of them, but it's before they've been finished, so they're just raw. It's a David Cripps picture of a line of raw shapes [and it's] the most beautiful photograph, and that's an object in itself even before she's finished them really. And I quite often show [it] in a slide lecture with an Andrew Lord black cubist set. They had this idea about commenting on function. And yes, there's another place for these objects as well.
Video: Neil Brownsword on Elizabeth Fritsch
NB: [video clip starts] Well, I like the back of it. Again, because for me the backs of things have got this element of subconscious action, haven't they? Whereas I think that' s a bit too ... I don't know ... there's a system there, it's a formulaic system. I've seen it in so many other pots that she's produced, maybe it's difficult to distinguish time periods. But I'm drawn to inner spaces as well. It's too obvious, too blatant for me as an object, just to sit down there. That's got more of an honesty to it, the back of the piece. [video clip ends] Maybe you should think of displaying it that way, I don't know.
MP: There is an exhibition of paintings, I think it might be on at the moment in Germany, but I'm not sure, called 'Intervention', but they've displayed the whole gallery with the paintings back to front, so you can just see the back of the pictures.
NB: Again, purely from the way I'd approach something, it's too systematic, there seems to be that formula in place and then it just seems to carry on to the next piece and the next piece, and part of what I'm attracted to as a maker is that interest in breaking the rules. As soon as you've kind of mastered something, to kind of shift onto something else, to move on and not to regurgitate what you've done. And I know the bodies of work, but I don't know, just no, sorry, [it] doesn't really ...
MP: I suppose if I was being a devil's advocate again you might say that [for] somebody like Liz Fritsch, her work moves forward, but incrementally in very small steps, but she might see them as quite important, major steps. Whereas your work might be recognisable, say the figurative style of work like the 'She wants your Junk' piece, and there might be a series of pieces from that period that you recognise as by Neil Brownsword. Then you make a conscious stop and you're moving towards a different period of work. But in that period you might make similar pieces. And I suppose in a similar way, although you might not see huge difference in her work she' s incrementally moving forward. But her approach is just much more minimal.
NB: Yes. I think maybe some of the latter pieces, somewhere in the Jerwood where she' s totally stripped back to just being objects, they strike more of a chord with me really. And there [are] some optical pots where again I think the visual imbalance with the form, it works very well. But this in particular, for me it doesn't really stir anything, it doesn't arouse anything.
NB: Okay. It's cold, sorry. It does leave me cold.
Video: Emmanuel Cooper on Elizabeth Fritsch
EC: [video clip starts] You can see why it's called 'Optical Pot', can't you? Because in fact from where you're sitting it looks a completely three dimensional object with this rather beautifully squashed and foreshortened top, whereas when you turn it round you realise that this is a trick, and that what Liz Fritsch is very good at is creating a pot which actually looks [like] one thing, but in actual fact is something else. So you are in a constant sense of discovery with the actual object itself. And not only with the actual object itself, and indeed it is a pot which only really looks good from the front because of the decoration, it's the decoration which interferes with the actual shape itself. [video clip ends] The decoration goes in and out of the surface, it destroys the surface. It's a sort of visual wallpaper would be one way of describing it, but it actually does take your eye in and out and in and out like that. And the illusionistic qualities of it have this vague Escher-type trick where everything makes sense but nothing makes sense, but the whole thing here does make complete sense.
Liz Fritsch was part of the new wave of potters in the 1970s, part of the renaissance in crafts in general in the 1970s. The Royal College of Art, which was where she became a student after having studied music, opened up this department. Before that it had been run by a man who was an industrial designer. The course had been terribly rigid and fixed. You had to really design borders for existing shapes endlessly. You had to do perfect plan drawings and part of your examination at the end of it was that you had to produce x number of borders and x number of perfect plan drawings. And I came to see those shows in those early days and they were marvellous, I mean they were you know dead as a doornail in a way.
But when David Queensbury took over the Ceramics Department he started to bring in potters like Hans Coper to teach and the whole thing loosened up, and it was very much in tune with the times in using the facilities and not paying particular attention to industry, but to the development of individual artistic expression, I suppose would be one way of putting it. And Liz Fritsch was one of those people that he took, who'd really done very little ceramics before. So she was there for three years in which time she learnt to make these shapes.
The actual making is done by coiling and smoothing, which is a very laborious, time-consuming process, and you can see that the surface is extremely smooth and flat so that there's a lot of smoothing and honing, and then she started to paint on what is a very complicated pattern in terms of its labour intensiveness. And each piece is painted by hand. There's no trick, you know they're all painted, and they're all designed as she goes along.
It's all to do with musical notation and the idea of jazz and animation and movement onto this form. The form itself is very self-contained. It's a flowing line, it's a vague oval if you like, and so the decoration which is just on the front is beautifully contained within it. And although it's difficult to know exactly how it works in fact, it, the decoration and the size changes very subtly over the surface to mould itself to the actual shape, so that it's not just stuck on, it's actually worked. I've talked to Liz about this and she says she doesn't do it like that, but I'm talking visually how I see it. She says that she just does it and doesn't work it out carefully, and you can't argue with the person who made it, that's how they made it, and I wouldn't dream of doing that. I mean, I talk as I see it rather than as I know, if you like, it was done.
But Liz Fritsch made many variations of these pots, both in terms of the flattening of them and in terms of the decoration. And when you compare this for example to a Bernard Leach or a William Staite-Murray you realise that you're looking at a completely different of way [of] making ceramics. That in fact you're now addressing the world of abstraction, a world in which a lot of things are happening, a world which owes virtually nothing to the east. It would be hard to say what it did owe except that this is stoneware, and that in a way is an Eastern tradition rather than a Western tradition, generally speaking. But really this is about modern times, it's not about history. In the way that somebody like Bill Newland hovers between modern times and history, with here you feel this is really just totally involved with today. It's about ways of looking, ways of seeing, ways of responding to the world in which we live. It's a mixture of extreme activity and extreme peace. And the two seem to be well embodied into this very, very well made and very, very - what's the word? - united, in a way, piece.
MP: It seems to relate as much to the 1970s art world as it does to anything else.
EC: Bridget Riley immediately comes to mind, but many others too. There were many artists who were breaking up the form so that you get this disruption of that, and it does seem to relate more to the art world. Yes I think it does, I think it relates more to the art world than the ceramics world, and I think people like Liz Fritsch didn't look at the ceramic world except for process.
Video: Claire Curneen on Elizabeth Fritsch
CC: Well, this is a labour of love, I think. [It's] much stronger in the object in terms of the pigments, it's much denser than in the photograph. It's amazing that blue where it kind of absorbs light, or that slip seems really seam-like, it's stepping forward. Although, they are slightly in relief, some of these colours. But it really gives that sense of the shifting planes of the view. 'Optical Pot'... you know, you do feel that optical illusion [that] the thing's moving about. And you're uncertain where you should be standing, even though I know she talked about her pots having a particular viewpoint for viewing them, almost like how you'd view a painting, I suppose.
[It's] incredibly delicate, much more refined and pared away than I thought in terms of its weight. It's very interesting this collar, it's almost strange. I wonder what she was listening to at the time? It's kind of screeching, sometimes, and moves you back and forth. But very, very sophisticated in its slight qualities here, where that blue just comes into that plane... whether it was intentional, it looks like [it was] intentional, it looks like it's carefully thought, but it's so carefully thought through, it just makes me feel quite inferior, really. But when you view it from the back, it just doesn't say anything really, it really does need that point of view.
I think this is interesting, as well. In the time when I was studying in Cork a lot of our tutoring at the time would have been referencing people like Elizabeth Fritsch and Jill Crowley and Alison Britton, and the flavour of that runs through all their work is quite interesting in dealing with similar issues. [video clip starts] But there's something incredibly reserved about it as well, which I really like. I like the fact that it is painstakingly mapped out and considered. It's not about spontaneity. The spontaneity seems to come in the inspiration of what she's referencing, whether it's music or sound. It does have those. And she's kept a very simple palette of three or four colours and has kept to that. And that kind of variation throughout is just very, very brilliant. [video clip ends] I do remember somebody, Peter Meanly, who was studying in the Royal College of Art, and he went to look at the box of pots in one of the offices of somebody applying for a place, and he said, 'There were all these pots, and there was a very tiny, little pinch pot by somebody called Liz at the time,' and he was incredibly moved by them. Well, I can see why. That's quite, quite something.
Video: Tanya Harrod on Elizabeth Fritsch
TH: Well, having the pots on the table like this, you want to pick them up and it's always a surprise because this is incredibly light. I'm beginning to develop a theory about pots; there are pots that are meant to be held and there are pots you are meant to look at from afar. And in the second category I would place this pot and Hans Coper's pots. They're also pots that photograph very well for whatever reason, and Liz Fritsch's pots do photograph well, partly by virtue of the fact that they are flattened and they're kind of playing games with our sense of the roundness and hollowness of a pot. So to have it actually here and holding it is a slightly unsatisfactory appearance. It's the kind of pot that you want to be looking at.
And of course this is a solitary example of her work, but quite often she made pots that were meant to be seen in groups which, worked extraordinarily well. They would play off against each other. It's as if she's... I don't know... the actual hollowness or pot shape is not of enormous importance, although it's hard to think how it would work in any other way. But, but the important thing is the extraordinary use of colour and the way in which it reminds you of other art forms: fresco for example, or musical notation. It's curious, these pots have been on stamps. [video clip starts] She is one of our leading living potters and yet I now realise how much I've consumed them through photography, and how absolutely wonderful they look as photographs, particularly when they're seen in groups, and how it's a rather odd experience to be holding it. You wouldn't get a huge buzz out of holding a painting, and it's a bit the same with this. The fact that it's a pot... it's undeniably some kind of vessel, but the pleasures you associate with vessels aren't really on offer here. [video clip ends]
MP: Do you think it's of its time?
TH: Well, yes, I think yes, very much. She's part of a generation of potters who were at the Royal College of Art and were, I think, taught by Hans Coper. And many of them were women and I think they used pottery as a vehicle for all sorts of other activities. It's conceivable that some of them might have gone into other departments like sculpture and painting, but pottery at that moment seemed to offer a lot of freedom. And it's of its time, I suppose, in that it's so eclectic, you know... what is it exactly? It's a synthesis of so many different ideas. And in fact I'm trying to think, what was happening in painting at about that time? But certainly those earlier pots made by figures like Elizabeth Fritsch and Carol McNicholl in terms of what was going on in the design world were truly post-modern, they were quite a powerful reaction against good design and the kind of black box mentality that was still held sway in the design world. So perhaps you should see the pots in the context of the Royal College of Art and its design school, and a ceramics department that until David Queensbury took over had very much been a place where you learned to design for industry. And these remarkable, strange pots that started coming out of the Royal College stand for a loosening up and also a reaction against the boringness of most design at that period.
MP: Do you think that America had an influence on the Royal College at that period?
TH: I suppose that no-one was ever very forthcoming about that. They must obviously have seen American pots, but these are so much more exquisite, and in this example, subtle. American pots may have suggested the possibilities, but [what] we actually have here is completely different in warmth. I wouldn't say it's all specifically British or anything, but it's sort of European, I suppose. I don't know. Well, it's hand-built and you'd think of hand-building as being a very organic way of making, but it's almost like this is just a vehicle to carry this optical design and a little, rather witty joke about what the eye can take in. It's the sort of joke which actually always works best in the form of a photograph, because then there's a real illusion created.
Video: Oliver Watson on Elizabeth Fritsch
OW: Well, I know this pot very well, because this is one of the ones that I chose to get into the Museum. I arrived in the Museum the year before this, in 1979, and we had a big exhibition of hers, [a] touring exhibition. Liz Fritsch, I think, was the first big exhibition. I can remember the sheer excitement of this work. It was stunning, it was visually stunning and it was so different from everything else we saw or had seen then; [it was] terribly exciting and, of course, all the best pieces had gone and the Museum was scrabbling around to try... we got one double piece from that show and then a year later we managed to get a much more respectable piece.
It was exciting just to see all the different things that she was dealing with; different aesthetic, different games is a rather demeaning word to use about the things that she was playing with, playing with the three dimensions working in two and half dimensions, or whatever she said. The precision and thought that lies behind the decoration, 'Optical Pot' here, because it's squashed and that part of it is about what space is it actually occupying and what is the difference between the space it's occupying and [what it would occupy] if it were completely round and so forth. And then her patterns are often based on music and musical variation and so forth.
[video clip starts] As I say, for us then it was something very exciting and very new, and I remember being rather disappointed that a colleague of mine seeing these said, 'Oh, she's obviously been to Denmark.' And of course she had been to Denmark for a while and learned there, and interestingly if you set this pot into the context of contemporary Danish ceramics it makes much less impact. I'm taking nothing away from the qualities of the pot, which are very high, but it's almost in a tradition out there. The quality of the material, the matt glazes, the sorts of colours, the precision, the finish and so forth are all very characteristic of things from that part of the world. But they were a great, refreshing wave of stuff that suddenly came in and set off the Royal College girls, as they were rather disparagingly known. [video clip ends] Students of Hans Coper from the Royal College, with Jacqui Poncelet and Alison Britton and Jill Crowley and others suddenly working in a very new way, and the excitement that it generated. It was in that period in the early 1980s, when there was a private view, you rushed along to queue outside because if you wanted to make sure you were going to get a good choice of pot you had to be there right at the beginning. Yes, happy days, it didn't last long unfortunately.
MP: As a curator, when you are quite passionate about her work, how do you go about deciding what it is you're going to acquire for the museum?
OW: What do you mean? From her work or whether we get her ...
MP: Yes, why Elizabeth Fritsch or why a particular pot?
OW: 'Why Elizabeth Fritsch' is easier, for people who come to the top are fairly self-selecting in terms of who you're going to choose. I think we're rather cautious as a breed, we curators, and you don't want to get things that you don't feel are going to have some life in them, that's going to carry on. It's very easy to get over-excited and get things that then find that they don't last in some way. I was a bit shocked when I published the catalogue of the collection in 1980 to discover the youngest potter we had represented at that time was 35, which gives them quite a long time to establish their names before we get their work. But mainly the potters who you want are fairly straightforward, it's choosing the pots, and there are always funding difficulties. And then the issue about are you going to get a really good piece or is the next one coming along going to be better one. We've tended to wait for the big exhibitions and then see if we can get a special preview to identify the one. I don't know what kind of psychological mechanism is at work there. I usually go in, I look quickly round at everything, [and] a few things catch my eye. Then I work much more systematically round looking at everything and I consult people whose views I value. Quite often I come back to the first thing I spotted - 'That looks a good one.' Whether it was or not I have to leave to others to judge.
MP: Do you definitely have your museum hat on when you're going to buy museum things? Is it very different to how you might go about buying something for yourself?
OW: Oh yes, very different. And I think whether it's right or wrong again is up for debate, but one thing is [that] you have to think of things in the way that we display them and the way it kills pots, that the way that we have to display them is behind glass. And behind glass, a lot of subtleties go. And I remember the agony of... I think we did buy a Richard Batterham porcelain piece, but the whole point of that [piece] is the very, very subtle quality of the glaze and colour and so forth, and you put it behind glass and shine neon lights on it, then it's all pointless. It loses all that. But maybe one should still have it. There might be an opportunity one day of showing it in the right way. But things fighting for space... I think we try and go up against just getting very big brash things. And there are sometimes you can see that potters make things they think are going to be the museum pot which are always their best works. But I'd rather go with John Mallett who was the keeper of the department when I joined here, and he said he was having no truck with committees. He said he didn't mind if some people hated the things so long as some people really loved it - that was enough for putting something in.