Earth and Fire at the Alliance Française

Editorial Staff Art

Astonishingly, not one but two intriguing offerings of French craftsmanship can be seen in the shoebox gallery of the Alliance Française in Earth and Fire: French Master Artisans, the inaugural exhibition of a biennial series devoted to France’s craft heritage. The first comprises a selection of works by six maîtres d’art, a designation that has been bestowed on ninety artists and artisans in the last fifteen years by the French Ministry of Culture.

Like Japan’s Living National Treasures, these talented individuals have attained the acme in their respective media. Moreover, they share their skills with the next generation by taking on state-sponsored apprentices. The six master craftsmen-and they are all men, most at mid-career-display works in clay, metal, and glass. As the title implies, these materials come from the earth and are formed by fire, traits shared by the sixty-plus works of pottery also on view.

While the theme of earth and fire unifies the exquisite yet decidedly disparate works on view, the real theme here is preservation of craft, which may be defined as the hard won knowledge of materials and techniques, essential for creating the luxurious or sublime object. This is perhaps best represented in the work of two metalsmiths working in Damascus steel, a durable material made by welding and rewelding folded layers of iron and steel. While Crusaders envied and feared damascene swords, we can admire the process for its intricate graphite-toned patterns. The organic, swirling layers in the freeform bowls of Jean-Louis Hurlin please the eye, but it is the knife blades of Pierre Reverdy that amaze: miniscule figures appear to run across the metal, a marvel made possible by computer modeling.

Pierre Gaucher’s minimalist wrought iron and mixed metal cubes also stretch our sense of a medium perfected in fin-de-siècle Paris. The silversmith Roland Daraspe shows expertly raised and hammered vessels of bold, if not terribly exciting, design while the forms and glazes of ceramist Jean Girel’s wall plaques suggest a new twist in France’s (and the rest of the western world’s) love affair with Chinese porcelain.

As these artists, or studio craftsmen if you prefer, design and execute their own work with minimal assistance, the inclusion of the glasscutter and engraver Serge Vaneson might seem an anomaly. And yet Vaneson’s vases, which were designed by Ettore Sottsass and made at the Baccarat factory, best represent the tradition for excellent design and craftsmanship in manufacturing for which France has been known since Louis XIV transformed the Gobelins, the workshops still run, incidentally, by the French Ministry of Culture.

The second section of the exhibition features faience from Apt, and tells a more poignant story of the struggle to preserve a craft industry by chronicling the nearly century-long production of one family workshop. Fine faience, or earthenware, has been made in this Provençal town since the late eighteenth century but, despite the region’s distinctive colored clays, production had sharply declined by the end of the nineteenth century.

One of the few to carry forward the traditional techniques was the clayworker André Bernard who, with molds and tools kept in storage, opened a workshop in 1916. His son Joseph joined him four years later and together they produced both antique and modern wares out of red, yellow, or sand-colored clays, or their signature marbled bodies. Many of the most appealing shapes revive nineteenth-century tableware, with tightly marbled earth tones set off by delicately molded, cream-colored, naturalistic floral finials and vine handles.

More innovative are the so-called flamed earth designs, a variegated style introduced by fellow Apt potter Léon Sagy in the 1920s that Joseph enlivened through a broader palette, including shades of blue. As handsome as many of these are, the more recent flamed works by Bernard Faucon, who took over his grandfather’s firm in 1973, steal the show. A luscious swirl of coffee, ochre, pale blue, and cream “flames” emanate from the center of one octagonal charger. Completely different are the symmetrical, stylized, linear patterns on sun-kissed pale green and blue Moroccan wares that represent Joseph’s effort on behalf of the Rabat Royal Institute of Ceramics from its founding in1968 until his death five years later. Although first Bernard and then his brother Pierre’s untimely deaths in recent years led to the shuttering of the family firm, a new generation of potters once again thrive in Apt. The Joseph Bernard Faucon Collection, on view for a short time in New York, will continue to inspire them.

Earth and Fire: French Master Artisans · through Friday, February 13 · French Institute/Alliance Française · 22 East 60th Street, New York, New York ·