THE LONG READ: Ceramic Artist Thiébaut Chagué

by Tanya Harrod, design historian and co-editor of Journal of Modern Craft

In May 2012 I visited Thiébaut Chagué at Taintrux in north east France. Taintruxis in the Vosges, an area that has witnessed battles and bloody conflict over many centuries. The Vosges retains a secret fairy-tale quality and Chagué’s home is surrounded by meadows and encircled by small mountain peaks, dark with fir trees and with deciduous trees on the lower slopes, just coming into bright spring-time leaf. One surviving industry in this remote area is logging. It is a good place for a potter with a wood-fired kiln. Chagué lives in one of the austere farmhouses characteristic of the region, with windows and doors framed with red sandstone.

On that visit we drove to the nearby town of St-Dié, razed to the ground by German troops in 1944. It was rebuilt after the war as a place of parks, fountains and good housing. Chagué showed me the famous Usine Duval, a garment factory designed by Le Corbusier as part of this rebuilding process. At the nearby Musée Pierre Noel an exhibition dominated by fine African sculpture and masks included a monumental piece by Chagué, Béance, and a pair of massive pierced forms by Chagué’s friend, the Anglo-Nigerian potter Lawson Oyekan. Both artists looked at home in the company of these historic and contemporary sub-Saharan objects. Nonetheless neither Chaguénor Oyekan borrow directly from other cultures. They are not neo-primitivists.

The awe and wonder that Chagué’s work excites has more to do with being grounded in a place, or rather, a series of places. We visited the town’s metalwork shop where young apprentices are taught the skills of welding, cutting, raising and working metal. In this cavernous space Chagué’s L’Enfer dominated. It is a majestic conoid stoneware form, split open and secured with turquoise coloured epoxy putty, its surface dotted with blobs of melted earthenware body. L’Enfer was cradled within a steel frame, made with the help of Fabrice Perrin who teaches in the workshop. Perrin accepts the strangeness of the collaboration without question. Indeed, throughout the day I spent with Chagué I was struck by his role within the local community.

Nicholas Bourriaud’s term esthétique relationnelle, describing art that produces or prompts human relations, sociability and even conviviality, comes to mind. Of course, Chagué spends time alone in his studio, with its view of meadows and mountains. But his natural playfulness and gift for friendship have led him into communities of all kinds. He has worked alongside the women potters of the Gwari village of Tatiko in Northern Nigeria. He makes the firing of larger works performative and very public -most memorably in the garden of the Victoria and Albert Museum where in 2010 he created an improvised kiln around his mighty sculpture La Soif et La Source.

Chagué’s modus operandi unselfconsciously employs contemporary strategies of interactivity, just as his old teacher the great potter Michael Cardew embraced esthétique relationnelle long before the term was invented. Chagué once organised a community dinner and concert, with 250 people eating off his plates, each one playfully inscribed assiette en glaise. Like Cardew’s Wenford Bridge Pottery in Cornwall (carried on after his death in 1983 by Cardew’s son Seth but now completely gone) Chagué’s house is a collective where he, his children and his friends, students and helpers eat and discuss together at a long wooden table. Chagué’s particular choice of raw clay, is brought as dug from a village near the pottery town of La Bourne. At high temperature it acts temperamentally. Forms split and shapes sag. This is not a concern for Chagué, indeed he relishes the uncertainty of the ceramic process, finding uncertainty a useful provocation –in French a word that has powerful artistic associations. The clay is not purchased for its efficiency but for its tactility and materiality. He disregards conventional ceramic technology, and all his work is fiercely sculptural. It is therefore surprising to discover that all his pieces are built from thrown elements. The discipline of the potter’s wheel with its drive to repetition and symmetry appears remote from the dramatic, fractured nature of these complex objects.

In different ways, therefore, Chagué’s oeuvre recalls natural objects that are willed into becoming art objects –like the rocks mounted on wooden stands and placed by Chinese literati on their desks for contemplation. Today we do not really grasp the significance of Chinese ‘scholars rocks’. To understand the sources of Chagué’s inspiration is a challenge also. He directs me to Michael Cardew’s great essay The Fatal Impact in which Cardew writes on art and the child. According to Cardew ‘being aware that the world is overflowing with some tremendous significance the child has to do something –or rather make something –as a kind of acknowledgement of the mystery. He does it by making certain things mean something, by giving esoteric names, properties and meanings to certain stones, sticks, animals or places. He invests them with supernatural significance and potency’.

Most children lose that faculty with adulthood, but, Cardew goes on, ‘there are always a few who for some reason do not allow that to happen. I wonder what the reason is: were they specially happy in childhood, or specially unhappy?’ Nowadays Cardew’s conflation of the child and the artist, in which the child represents an innocent ‘other’ to which the artist should aspire, is dismissed as a form of Orientalism. But Cardew expresses the urgency and concentration of children’s creativity accurately. His imagery recalls Chagué’s own childhood, when he first encountered clay in his grandfather’s sculpture studio and was delighted by its ‘bonne odeur’ and when, fascinated with fire, he made ‘some memorable fires –one in a dustbin, and a remarkable one on the carpet in my bedroom’. Looking at the trajectory of Chagué’s work –towering and recumbent forms, small, utterly convincing tea bowls, torn, complex, honeycomb structures –is to encounter a continuing sense of urgency and daring, traceable back to those juvenile passions and transgressions.

In this exhibition we are both guided and playfully confused by the titles that Chagué has given each individual piece. Some come under the category Albarelle and indeed these upright forms faintly echo their namesake, the highly collectible Renaissance maiolica jars known as Alberelli. But these are jars turned biomorphic and matched by an equally haunting series that come under the rubric Blastoïde –a poetic reference to the fossils of long extinct seabuds, once anchored to the sea floor. Both sequences belong equally to the natural and made world. They are the work of Chagué’s hand while offering echoes of primordial growth during some remote period –Devonian or Silurian perhaps –long before humans walked the earth. At the same time these are highly sophisticated examples of ceramic facture that allow chance to play its part but which also testify to a long-learnt control over clays bodies and glaze materials. And of course they are remarkable because they braid ceramic and sculpture. Chagué’s work has deep roots in ceramic history –but that is not the whole story. Rainer Maria Rilke, writing in 1903, explained that sculpture was ‘a complete thing about which one could walk, and which one could look at from all sides.’ He concluded that sculpture also had ‘to distinguish itself somehow from other things, the ordinary things which everyone could touch’. Ceramics, of course, belongs in both worlds described by Rilke –that of the ‘complete thing’ and of ‘ordinary things’. What Thiébaut Chagué gives us are sculptures that everyone can touch.

Tanya Harrod is the author of The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture, Yale University Press, 2012

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