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.