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12 April 2023

Ali Smith on the groundbreaking art of Lucie Rie

How the Austrian-born ceramicist changed everything possible in pottery.

By Ali Smith

On yet another of the many days we’re living through in which our government sends out poisonous, divisive and powermongering rhetoric about disallowing entry in the UK to refugees, especially those endangered people brave enough to arrive in small boats, I went to see the Lucie Rie exhibition, “The Adventure of Pottery”, at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Rie, an international prizewinner when she was only in her thirties, had been ploughing an original furrow against the grain of ceramic design expectations in Vienna in the 1930s. She trained at the city’s Kunstgewerbeschule but made work like no one else, based on her own experiments on ancient Roman pots she’d seen in the vineyard of an uncle, and in her determination to make and use glazes her tutor had told her were impossible.

She arrived in England from Vienna as an Austrian Jewish fugitive from Hitler’s fascism in 1938 with a suitcase full of the pots she’d made wrapped in her clothes. Many of these pieces cracked in transit. Never mind. After a few months she took up residence in an old garage not far from Marble Arch in London, where she installed her kick-wheel and her small and unlikely electric kiln for firing pots, which she’d had designed by a maker of dental kilns – all of which, with great financial and practical difficulty and sheer strength of will, she’d had shipped from Vienna, along with the modernist shelving she’d had made to show her wares. She refitted what she could of this design round the tiny mews. What reputation she’d gained had melted away. No one knew her, no leading British contemporary potter could make head nor tail of her technical choices, pots glazed too thick and formed too thinly, earthenware treated like stoneware, above all fired once only, against all the rules.

The war began. She was declared an enemy alien and repeatedly denied a licence to work or to make pots, so she became a firewatcher, did war work in an optics factory and in what time was spare she hand-moulded and -made glass buttons for the new utilitarian fashion industry instead. The fashion industry loved the buttons, bright, stylish, playful, beautiful, in a dark time. They wanted more. She found herself running a button workshop assisted by many other refugees from fascism. Only English was to be spoken; this was her rule. After the war she went back to making pots and utensils again. She used almost no water. She used basic tools, a razor, a knitting needle, the end of a broken pen. She painted her glaze straight on to unfired objects with a household paintbrush from Woolworths, perfected her raw glazing and single-firing techniques at a higher temperature, worked glazes till they were as thick as kefir, welcomed the surprises other potters called flaws. She never claimed artistry at any point in what was a long, quiet and concentrated life of steady and stunning work, in which this unfussiest of people was awarded first an OBE, then a CBE, then a DBE, and in which she changed everything possible in both the technical workings and the appreciation of studio pottery.

The parallels are so obvious. Where we are now, when it comes to refugee status, is so damning that it’s shaming, and the shame is physically and spiritually exhausting. Come with me, then, into the sheer relief of this exhibition, the revivifying vitality, the calm and simple and dignified beauty, the amazing lifelong inventiveness, the brightness, the sheer pleasure everywhere you look. It covers a period from the 1920s to the 1990s (Rie died in 1995 at the age of 93 and worked till she was in her late eighties). It’s 20 years since the last major UK Rie retrospective, and this is a show so naturally at home in Kettle’s Yard, next to Jim Ede’s house where notions of home and art have long met on unified and unifying terms, that it couldn’t be more right for an exhibition where the everyday, and our lives, and history, and time itself, its surface and its passing, and what all of these things – home, people’s lives, history, time – can mean, all meet and coalesce over and over again in something so small as a cup, a beaker, a bottle, a teapot, a vase, a bowl, a button.

[See also: AI art is only good for hollow, hotel lobby pieces]

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Can you enter a still life? Here it’s as if you physically can. It’s like Rie has given literal dimension to the auratic, revealing the way an object is itself a beauty, how in its smallness it can matter, should matter, does – and by extension the life of everyone and anyone whose hand or eye (or home and life) every object here can somehow conjure. The inside of Bowl (circa 1962), stoneware with sgraffito exterior and inlaid interior fleetingly resembles a pupil and iris, or is it something more planetary? Its sgraffito lines are imperfect and precise, quite human; its balance is one of darks and lights fused, light lined with dark inside, dark lined with light outside. On a visit to Avebury Rie had seen ancient sgraffito vessels that had been scratch-decorated with birdbones. First, she painted the lines on vessels. Then she scratched lines with a knitting needle through a layer of manganese oxide glaze.

You can see her doing sgraffito, steady, freehand, with rhythmic concentration, in a clip from an Omnibus programme from 1982 showing at the exhibition, where a younger David Attenborough visits the Albion Mews studio and sits in awe of an elderly lady, or a sprung force of energy contained in the form of a person, who at one point dips herself almost completely upside down deep into a huge kiln to unpack it and asks Attenborough to hold her ankles while she does. (The story goes that she wanted this footage removed from the film; too undignified, she said. When she was working on her own she had to tie weights to her ankles to unpack the kiln without falling in.) “Is the pink the colour you expected?” Attenborough says. “Not precisely, but nearly,” she says. She laughs, is disarming, and her gentleness is a steely form of firmness. With the same rhythmic discipline she welds the top and bottom parts of a vase together, smoothing the joints to make a singular thing. The seam disappears. “You won’t ever see it, unless this breaks,” she tells Attenborough.

Her hands covered in clay, their instinctual cupped embrace of earth and water, are another gift of this footage; in photography of Rie at the wheel her hands take on the nature of the clay she’s working as if they’re made of it too. More: every still photo of her reveals the sprung tension in the forearms, the bend of her whole body balanced against the wheel, strength and momentum in honed stasis.

Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Throughout the rooms of the exhibition, clear vitrines on slate-like steel metal tables with legs like little girders hold up the Rie artefacts with a mix of strength, clarity and delicacy that reflects their combination of these things. Salad Bowl (1950s), stoneware with shiny white glaze and manganese flecks leans its lip to one side with a thinness and a routing of symmetry that make it look an impossibility. How could it not shatter? Beaker (1960s), stoneware with brown and green spiral looks neutral at a distance, then it’s as if you’re watching colour form and reveal itself, or is it fading? Something sky-like is happening all over this small near-nothing of a tumbler, something solid and airy, where the lightest touch of colour means there’s movement, life, all through the object, because of colour that’s at once fugitive and present. It’s so simple, it’s a mix of two clays, producing an effect she allowed to do what it wanted. It’s subtle, stunning, like nothing else. It’s a beaker. It’s a wonder.

The Wedgwood factories must be kicking themselves that they did not follow through on the prototype cups and saucers she made for them in 1963, whose white inlaid repeated circles suggest that self-containment and contentment may well be related things. But it wasn’t to be; she was too unique a worker, one who honoured the irregular rhythms of uniqueness, squeezed unexpected shapes in unfired everyday ovals, experimented with surfaces to make them as smooth as alabaster or resemble lava or become as porous and pocked as fruitskins, and as fresh-looking. She made things that look like they’ve been grown from stone or coral. She granted vases and bowls amazing unearthly colours, as if blessed by passing northern lights. How is Bowl (1987) stoneware with pink and blue volcanic glaze holding all that light? How is it so pliable yet so brittle?

“The spirit of this country is a great influence – it is everywhere – in small things and in big things and it makes one feel very humble,” she wrote in 1951, the year that she and her great co-worker (also a refugee who suffered internment here) Hans Coper, both showed their conjoined work in the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion at the Festival of Britain on the South Bank. For the Festival, Rie made a plain cream coloured beaker, lightly constellated, stamped on its sides with the year date, a piece of the “new optimism and formal clarity of the architecture and design of the period”, as Andrew Nairne puts it, in the beautifully produced exhibition catalogue of essays that expand on all sorts of aspects of her work: from her Austrian background to her use of natural motif, her technical genius and her ability to wow the fashion industry, whether it was utility Britain in 1942 or Issey Miyake’s collection in 1989. Her own spirit? Apparently she was a formidable person. Apparently she was also a very welcoming host to everyone who came to Albion Mews, “her coffee mixed like her glazes”, as one guest said.

“It has been a huge gift to Britain that Lucie chose England as her home when forced to leave Vienna,” as another friend put it. “Little-Big, we used to call her,” Jane Coper, Hans Coper’s wife, wrote. Something very big is happening in this exhibition of little things, and it’s breathtaking. Don’t miss it.

Lucie Rie: The Adventure of Pottery
Kettle’s Yard Cambridge, until 25 June

Ali Smith will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, hosting a panel of debut writers and giving the inaugural A Room Of One’s Own lecture, both on 23 April. Tickets are available here. NS readers get a 20 per cent discount on all events: use the code NSSPRING23 at checkout

[See also: An unmissable view of Vermeer’s secret worlds]

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue