When I heard Gwyn Hanssen Pigott had died from a stroke in London (July 5th) I was quite shocked. Constant Gardener thought she was old but she was only 77; she was born in Ballarat in 1935, though that was certainly another era. A household name in artcentric houses, Hanssen Pigott was one of Australia’s great potters. (Gwyn John took her names from two husbands.)

She called herself a potter, and was mostly described as a ceramicist — a tag she hated — but was in any case an artist (a term she never used about herself) with a worldwide reputation. She worked in glazed and fired clay, creating installations of groups of objects shaped like bowls and bottles and cups — they were “pared down forms” though they remained clearly “pots.” But their utlity had become complicated. They were groups of pots designated by their maker as installations, or still lifes, and that’s how we have learnt to see them.

There are many wonderful things about her work. Not least is her refinement and restraint. So many art-craft objects take on a very fanciful turn or are just plain wacky (just google art ceramics). Her vessels remain clearly a bowl, a cup, a bottle, a glass, though opaque as in a Morandi painting, and they have the most pellucid of glazes over their porcelain.

Their proportions are just so, their idiosyncracies are delicate (the lip of a bowl drooping just off horizontal) — that these daily objects they don’t look merely banal has to do with their elegant geometrics; a delicate judgement on her part — think fo faces that just miss being handsome or beautiful, or are merely pleasant instead of gorgeous. The difference may be only a couple of mills. And the spatial relationships in the installations compel. Like statues, or a thicket of plants, or as she sometimes sees them, as a family. They are the most sophisticated silent sentinels, and they command, or at least encourage, stillness and calm.

Looking at Hanssen’s Pigott’s work I am reminded of something Robert Hughes said towards the end of his 2004 program, The New Shock of the New. Hughes pondered the intention ofr the “work” of art over the last century:

100 years ago, 75 years ago even, people used to talk about revolution as though it were the model for art — if you did it right, art was going to produce some sort of social change. I’m not at all sure that was achieved and if it was it was invisibly so.

And today we are left with a more modest but equally difficult task — to be beautiful, to manifest beauty. People need beauty, there is a hunger for it amid the clamour of visual imagery that surrounds us. And so we seek out zones of silence and contemplation, arenas for free thought and unregimented feeling.

Beuty. Hanssen Pigott’s works are sites or arenas for free thought and unregimented feeling. A respite from the white noise, or, in visual terms, the rainbow jam.

Can seeing an exhibition change your life?

Gwyn Hanssen Pigott made her very simple and radical move in the early 90s — she no longer made jsut pots, she created installations of objects. This remarkable epiphanic transformation had a long genesis. Skipping her honours year in Fine Arts at Melb Uni, GHP apprenticed herself to the potter Ivan McMeekin in Mittagong in 1955.Three years later she left to study in the UK with McMeekin’s own source, Michael Cardew, and also worked with the legendary Bernard Leach. She then lived and worked in France from 1966 to 1973 before returning home.

Through McMeekin she continued her love of Chinese pots, which she had seen at the NGV. And in Paris, in 1972, she saw a retrospective of Giorgio Morandi’s work, “which profoundly moved me.”

A Song Dynasty vase (960-1279 CE)

Girogio Morandi, Natura Morta 1951

Peter Timms on Gwyn Hanssen Pigott: As good as art

I spoke to Peter Timms, critic and author (of Hobart, the book of the city), who met Hanssen Pigott when he was Director of Shepparton Gallery in the mid-70s and was starting to build and form its ceramics collection.

‘She was modest and sincere, a lovely person you wanted to spend time with. She was warm and humorous, always laughing and smiling. But she could be very exacting and quite demanding about her work — how it was to be displayed, and how not.’

How good was Hanssen Pigott? ‘I love her work. She was one of our greatest potters,’ says Timms. I asked about the sense of underappreciation noted in the Fairfax article. ‘She felt for a long time she had not been given her due by the art establishment, because she was a potter and not a painter. She was not bitter or resentful but she knew she was very good at what she did. It was a bit of a contradiction; she worked in the country and didn’t move in those circles or promote herself, but she also wanted the recognition.’

So, I say, what about this old problem about craft and art? She didn’t want to be called an artist. She hated the term ceramicist. (She is a sculptor, I say. Oh she would have hated that, says Timms.) ‘Yes, she didn’t want to be known as an artist, she wanted to be known as a potter, and didn’t see why a potter couldn’t have the same regard. She felt the craft was of great moment, and the equal of painting and sculpture,’ says Timms. In other words, GHP didn’t want to be seen as an artist because that implicitly elevates that term over potter.

But how about those groups, I ask. The installations, the still lifes. They are surely beyond the Leach doctrine of “fitness and beauty” of the utilitarian made beautiful. Timms says that the leap to installations is where Hanssen Pigott is at her most interesting. ‘It’s that tension — she is most interesting where she explored the tension in the conceptual space between the vessel as a useful object, and as an object in a sculptural group. Do you put fruit in the bowl, or is the bowl part of the installation? The installations were a bid to give the craft a high seriousness.’ That last notion certainly suggests an anxiety over respect, a tension of another kind.

Touching, not talking

In an interview Hanssen Pigott says that what sustains her practice is beauty. Timms points out that ‘beauty is not just a visual.’ He recalls an exhibition opening of GHP’s work at the Art Gallery of Ballarat some 15 years ago. ‘There were signs on the walls: PLEASE TOUCH. She had insisted that all her works be handled.’ Timms gives the example of a group of three bowls which when you picked them up you noticed the different weights, heavy and light, different feet, some indented, different rims.  A pot, or group of pots, is not a painting or a sculpture — it offers a haptic pleasure.

The negative spaces she is exploring in the groupings has to do with the silence in Morandi’s paintings. She says, ‘In his paintings and drawings, space is important in a way that architecture relates to space. Space is always important. Morandi’s paintings of familiar bottles and vases are very simple and encourage a meditation and contemplation.’ But as she also says about the work of finding and making that space, ‘perhaps, after all, not to be spoken about too much. Words get too big. Leave them.’