Brother Daniel, of Taize

A Secret Shared

translated from the French
by Brother Anthony, of Taize

Part Two : All for an oil spot!

Perhaps one day someone will write an art history, not a history of works of art, but of the lovers of works of art. When I say works of art, I mean, of course, those works which are born out of an inner obligation to create, not a mere whim of fashion or the mechanisms of sheer routine.

If such a history were ever written, it would surely have to stress the art-lover's desire to encounter the person of the creator through and in the work. I recall something Zola wrote, in a brochure containing his collected articles about the art Salons: "What I look for most of all in a picture is a person."

This desire goes far beyond mere biographical information: we long to know what happened in the creator's sensitivity at the moment of the decisive event represented by the appearance of a work of art. It soon becomes clear, though, that such a desire can never be more than very partially realized. For there is, I believe, a mystery in every creation, and each work is a wonderful witness to this mystery, at the same time as it is the privileged locus of a potential encounter.

In our history of the lovers of works of art, it would also be important to stress that the wished-for encounter is in no way proportional to the dimensions of the work in question. We are at the farthest remove from the quarrel opposing minor and major arts. Some may hope to experience a creative intimacy with Cezanne, but it is possible to wish equally intensely to know what went on in the heart of a Sung dynasty potter when he took from his kiln, for the first time in history, a bowl marked with "oil-spots," for instance.

For an object conceived and produced by a simple craftsman can also become a place of meeting. George Braque once wrote that when he touched a fine oak table, his hand encountered that of the carpenter. If such were not the case, I believe many craftsmen would think twice before setting to work.

It is not because the work in question is more or less modest that the encounter looses any of its intensity. Behind a simple bowl, just as much as behind a painting by a great master, lies a creative will, multiple choices, a whole series of exercises, risks taken, failures, corrections, and sudden convictions. The potter Philippe Lambercy, quoted in a study by Camille Virot, has gone so far as to liken a ceramic object to a seismograph chart of the creator's inner movements. Personally, when I am turning a pot I have the feeling that I am making a recording of myself -- with the wrong notes included, too!

We might conclude by saying that there is no such thing as an utterly anonymous work. There is a person behind every work of art, and it does not take a signature to bear witness to that presence. Every work is capable of initiating a relationship, of provoking an encounter. The levels of intensity differ, of course, depending directly on the creative power of the maker, and the attention and receptivity of the art-lover. What personalizes a work, then, is the intensity of the moment in which it was born, infinitely more than any signature.

Now I want to come back to the Sung dynasty potter taking out of his kiln, for the first time, a pot with the marks known as oil-spots. I take this as an example because the recovery of this glaze has played a special role in my own itinerary as a potter. There are two things I can imagine with near certainty. First, the craftsman-potter could not have anticipated this unprecedented effect, so there must have been a remarkable element of surprise when he first glimpsed it! Second, his raw glaze must have been composed uniquely of a particular kind of rock discovered by chance, ferruginous for sure. For if we try to reconstitute it, although it is not particularly difficult, still it requires the combination of various parameters, and that is only possible with a method and with some sense of direction. The Sung potter's method must have been limited to applying to his pots slurries of each of the different rocks available to him, alone or perhaps in combination. And a fine method it is too, still the first analytic reflex of today's potter when he cannot obtain an analysis of something he has come across.

The Chinese potter was not acting completely haphazardly, though; he knew where his materials came from, he knew more or less under what conditions they were fired. That meant that if something worked, there would be a fair chance of producing the same glaze again. We are still left with the question as to what passed through the potter's mind when he suddenly found himself placed before that phenomenon, the exact nature of which he could not fathom. It shows that there is still a distance between the potter and the 'amateur/lover'; an encounter begins by means of the artistic object, but it remains incomplete. Since we cannot go back in time, we have to ask ourselves whether there are other ways of bridging the gap.

For the outside 'amateur' (and in using the word we must not loose sight of its prime meaning of 'lover'), it might seem that the most direct method must lie in a visit to the workshop; there at least, there is the possibility of watching and of asking all the questions one may have. Those who have had such an opportunity will know to what extent their approach to works of pottery has been changed by it. Of course, a documentary film might go a long way towards producing the same result, but it can never take the place of a direct contact with the craftsman himself. In the best of cases, it would be like listening to a record for a music-lover, to whom the living presence of the musician remains something irreplaceable. Certainly, when a potter opens his workshop to visitors, he risks having to devote a large part of his time to them. It is at once obvious that any demonstration of his work, especially the actual turning of pots, awakens in the spectator, sometimes brutally, sensorial dimensions that an essentially cerebral educational system has left deprived and impoverished.

Nowadays it sometimes seems as if people have been equipped with hands uniquely so that they can hold a pen or use a computer. It is striking to see how much visitors "feel at home" in a working pottery, where they enter what seems to be a space in which a deeply rooted nostalgia finds rest. For that to happen, the contact between the potter and his materials has to be of the closest, both physically and emotionally. As soon as there is a machine that does part of the work, or if the work is subdivided into various stages, each one entrusted to a different person, the interest of the visit becomes purely documentary, it looses that unique inner vibration. Children are particularly sensitive to the special atmosphere attached to a workshop where the raw materials are guided through all the stages to the finished object by a single pair of hands. They are only too happy to work there, and it is not necessary to keep warning them not to do this or that.

After some such workshop visit, or after seeing an exhibition, or, like Palissy, after being impressed by a single pot, many people have decided to 'have a go' themselves, eager to feel what it's like to create. That is, of course, a far remove from the kind of 'pottery craze' that we have seen in some artistic circles in recent years, although there too the same kind of healthy reaction may well be involved. Some 'weekend potters' in fact differ from professionals only in the small amount of time that they are able to consecrate to their new passion, and it is astonishing to see the high levels they reach, the quality of the glazes they discover, classical or not. In all events, someone who has dabbled in pottery, even at the most rudimentary level, will certainly be far better equipped to imagine the hard-won steps that have marked the long history of the world's potters.

Of course, someone involved in pottery full-time is in the best position to identify with all the many craftsmen who have been before us. Personally, I would never have felt that desire to come close to the Sung potters if it had not been for years spent in the craft. Needless to say, it was not in the lecture-halls at university that I first heard about the Chinese craftsmen, nor during those early years of faltering first steps, as I learned almost everything by trial-and-error, alone. I spent my apprenticeship far from the main pottery centers, in the years just after the war, when equipment was of the simplest, and specialized manuals were non-existent. Glazed stoneware had not yet become fashionable in Europe, and for several years I worked with clays taken from quarries formerly used by a flourishing local industry, that had died out when aluminum pots replaced clay pots for cooking. For my glazes, I used an ordinary commercial glaze that I was able to mix with certain local rocks, in particular certain marls with a very low melting point. Besides using a more-or-less satisfactory electric kiln, from time to time I constructed little wood-fired kilns that gave me a taste for high temperatures. It was only years later, with the installation of one of the first gas-fired kilns, that I was able to devote myself entirely to stoneware.

Some ten years after my first beginnings, a friend invited me to exhibit some of my work in a gallery in Paris. On that occasion a weekly cultural review gratified me with an article entitled "In the footsteps of the Sung." Unfortunately, the type-setter was as ignorant as I was about those ancient Chinese potters, so that in place of 'Sung' he put 'sang' (blood). It meant nothing, but did have the effect of making me feel a heartfelt sympathy for those potters whom it seemed I had been dutifully following without in the least realizing it!

Then books I was at last able to consult taught me the history of the Sung, and offered lists of what they had produced. But those books told me nothing about who they really were, how they had worked, and above all what they had felt when their works emerged from the kilns, or what their criteria were for the choices they made. Those choices must have led them to select certain types of glaze, those that everyone recognizes today, and that we still keep coming back to because they somehow recapitulate the very essence of the adventure of the potter in the invention of his glazes.

One day, as I was visiting the collections of the Guimet Museum in Paris, Madame Lion- Goldschmidt was kind enough to let me take in my hands certain of their treasures, and I could scarcely keep from trembling. That was one more step in our encounter, one that I am not likely to forget.

Naturally, holding a Sung pot in your hands brings you very much closer to the hands that formed it, especially if you are yourself a potter. But it does not really tell you much about the complex relationship there must have been between the pot and the creative sensitivity of its maker.

Next, I turned to certain modern specialists who have made technical studies of Chinese glazes in the hope of reproducing them, Nigel Wood and Robert Tichane, both of whom had worked in this field and published their results. But it is significant that despite their use of highly sophisticated means of analysis, they had to admit that they could only approximate the ancient models they had studied.

So I decided to work in this direction myself, without any means of analysis, of course, but with, somewhere in my mind, the ideal model of a celadon, or a sky-blue glaze. That led me to make a considerable number of experiments, which often carried me down unexpected byways. But I quickly realized that the way of reconstitution was lacking in realism, no matter how much you might learn by it. Quite simply, today's potters do not dispose of the same basic materials as the old Chinese potters, and no analysis of a fired glaze, ancient or modern, can ever tell you the nature or provenance of the minerals that it was initially composed of.

This at last allows the notion of 'secret' to be put in its proper place. A little incident related to me by the Catalan potter Cumella may also help: one day Cumella visited the potter Artigas, Miro's close collaborator, to ask him for the recipe of a certain black glaze he had never seen anywhere else. Unexpectedly, Artigas absolutely refused to give it to him. Cumella asked him to explain his refusal, which was so unlike their usual close friendship. Finally Artigas burst out, "The reason is because you're the one who gave me the recipe in the first place!" The same formula may give very different results, then, when two potters use materials of differing and sometimes very particular origins. What counts is not only the chemistry but also the physical state of the substances in question, with the result that very often the potter is quite unable to explain the results of a firing. If we want to keep the notion of a 'secret,' then, we had better put it where it belongs, hidden in the nature of the materials composing the glaze, conditioned by the interpretation given by the flames.

That is probably why it is so fascinating to test a rock encountered somewhere by chance, to see what the fire does with it, and perhaps discover the best ways of incorporating other materials so that it becomes a glaze with its own special characteristics. This kind of trial-and- error approach is specific to the individual craftsman, it is a source of endless wonder, and suspenseful reflexion. The Sung potters must have experienced that, too, with their own special capacities: an extraordinarily developed sense of observation, together with a fine memory of the conditions that had to be fulfilled in order to reproduce any desired effect.

Today's potter needs that, too. What distinguishes us from the potters of the past is our better knowledge of the phenomena of fusion, a possibility of identifying exactly the basic materials we use, and a system of notation and calculation for our glazes. All of which allows us to pursue our research at high speed, with a quite different notion of time from that of the old traditions. For example, if I possess the chemical analysis of an ash, say, and have a proper working methodology, I shall not waste hours testing mixtures that lie outside the possible zones of fusion. The question remains, though, whether all these 'advantages,' or what we consider such, will in fact lead us any more rapidly than the Sung potters to the glaze of our dreams!

I should note here, on the basis of experience, that the method of working often becomes clear and can be defined only after a long series of hit-or-miss approaches. I can best illustrate that by telling briefly what led me to the so-called "oil-spot" glaze.

I was aware, of course, that such a glaze existed, but since I had absolutely no idea how to begin to try to produce it, I had never taken much interest in it. For a time I had some Japanese potters on a training course in my workshop; they had produced such a glaze at home, they said, in the kiln belonging to the son of Kawai, and they claimed that there was no particular problem involved in achieving it. Moreover they possessed detailed formulae, so I quite expected to see this marvel emerge very soon from my kilns, which were fired by wood or gas, and always "in reduction," where the atmospheric oxygen available is all combined with carbon in the flame, and remaining free carbon draws oxygen atoms from the glaze. All we got were pots with glazes smooth as bars of chocolate.

It was only years later, and quite by chance, that a glaze using a complex marl from a nearby quarry one day robed the shoulder of a vase with a splendid panther's skin. But after that, once again nothing... It took a quite new circumstance for the adventure to turn in a positive direction. I was eager at the time to test a turquoise glaze using copper oxide, and I knew that it was a glaze that had to be fired in an "oxidizing" flame, one where there is still excess oxygen available to combine with the glaze. I took advantage of this special firing to put into the kiln specimens of all the glazes I used that were usually fired in reduction, to say nothing of some vases coated with that marl that had once yielded oil-spots by chance. The result was quite spectacular, and it became clear that an oxidizing atmosphere was essential.

Excited by my first success, I fired a whole kiln of pots, sure of the outcome. The result was a disaster, and I was obliged to ask myself the reason. I could only think of one. Before filling the kiln I had checked the state of the walls, as a good professional should, and I had noticed some quite alarming cracks. I had at once done what any potter would do: I had carefully filled the cracks. Only, of course, it had been through those cracks that the extra air needed for a proper oxidizing atmosphere had found its way in... I therefore arranged a system of proper ventilation, better controlled than those cracks, which I naturally left sealed, and from that day on all went well. But I still had no explanation for the actual phenomenon of the "oil-spot" effect, those dappled glazes that were never explained in any pottery manual.

It took the interest and ingenious memory of one of the brothers of our Community to find the key; he recalled classes he had taken in mineral chemistry, and there was the answer to the riddle: "the equilibrium of ferric oxide is such that at 1210 degrees Celsius in an oxidizing atmosphere it decomposes, six moles of ferric oxide becoming four moles of magnetic (ferrous) oxide, with the liberation of one mole of oxygen..."

When you read this kind of declaration isolated from all living practice, there is nothing more boring. But when you discover it while you are directly confronted with an actual piece of research, it becomes the magic wand that turns the pumpkin into a carriage! If the ferric oxide incorporated into a glaze looses some of its oxygen, that glaze is bound to bubble, no matter what kind of glaze it is. In order to verify our theory, I began by the simplest of solutions: iron oxide in a feldspar. The thickly-glazed specimen tile emerged from the kiln looking like a bit of the moon, all covered with knobs and craters.

We had our phenomenon, then, but the glaze was too viscous to allow the bubbles to burst and the craters to level out. We introduced chalk and magnesia in an attempt to remedy this, in a long series of detailed tests. But still we had not solved the problem: there were far too many bubbles, burst or still intact, spoiling the glaze. This led us back to the text, and further reflexion about the notion of "equilibrium." The change of ferric oxide into magnetic is a reversible process; that means that if I send too much oxygen into my kiln, the glaze will go on bubbling for ever with nothing to stop it. This led to a simple conclusion: once we reached 1210 degrees, we should reduce the draught until we had a very slightly reducing atmosphere. This we did, and the pots emerged spotted, and smooth as riverside pebbles!

That was only a first stage, for now there were new questions. Bubbles form and rise to the surface of the glaze, "just like you find happening in the sun" as an astrophysicist friend told me, but was there any limit to the force with which they rose, to the pressure contained in the bubbles? In order to find out, I covered the basic oxide-containing glaze with the complete range of my other glazes, and waited to see what would happen. The answer was: everything, from waves of glaze running down to the foot of some pots, to monstrous specimens covered with swollen blisters big as wind-bags. But between these two extremes we found all the skins of the felines, the plumage of pheasants and partridges, and all the shells of an imaginary ocean. Moreover, when the superposed glaze contained vegetable ash, a new actor took the stage: phosphorus. I still have no idea why phosphorus is so fond of iron oxide, but it makes the oil- spots turn now scarlet, now blue, a blue that no cobalt can ever imitate...

After all of which, it may seem that I am a long way from that imaginary encounter with the Sung potter who first discovered the oil-spot effect. But it is as if I had to take this road, studded with chemical symbols and figures, with disappointments and lucky finds, in order to arrive at the wonder produced in me, as a craftsman of past and present, by a discovery that was destined, without any warning, to provoke that encounter: a walk one day in a nearby quarry, the automatic gesture of a hand collecting a little dust from under a rock-crusher, a bowl glazed with nothing but that dust emerging two days later from the kiln speckled with oil-spots, like something straight out of a museum of Chinese pottery...


A glaze
in its bucket:
a violin in its case.

Your feathered seeds,
halo of a dead flame.

With a long journey ahead,
I row away
in my tank of glaze.

The river is narrow.
But the bleak
finds water wherever it goes.

Spider busy spinning
in the freshly-thrown jug:
your life on a thread!

July rain.

How hot is your oven?
the baker.

Every ruin
has its swallow.
Such is Grace.

Spoilt blue vase
holding sunflowers.

Ripen, green apples!
When you're ready,
we'll pick you.

On the embankments,
purple foxgloves.
My pots in bloom.

of swifts,
stony tower.

My sickly pots
mean more to me
than the healthy ones!

Such curtsies before the wind!
That isn't the Spirit,
dear bamboos!

My dreams of glazes!
in their plastic buckets.

Of all the jay's feathers,
the ones you find
are always the little blue ones.

I pursue my potter's path
burrowing like a mole.
What a warren, at times!

Back to Index | Go Home