Like many people, I first got hooked on West German pottery more like a magpie than a real collector, eyes caught by the bright colors. Eventually, I got to know the forms and a wider variety of glazes, becoming amazed by the range and depth, the variety surpassing any other art pottery field. Still, what came to impress me most of all was the history, the art as social commentary, flourishing under conditions that might well have crushed the creative spirit or, at the very least, turned it onto a dark, depressing path. Instead, the result was a 30 year period of unmatched creativity in the art pottery industry, often with a strong sense of whimsy and an insistence on a positive outlook, art as therapy on a massive scale.
The land and the people had already been ravaged by WWI, leaving scars and holes both physical and emotional, as well as literal and metaphorical. The world changed, and artists, already re-visualizing the world before the war, insisted that art must change. Things could not, should not be viewed or thought of in the same, insufficient way. By 1917, Marcel Duchamp had “told” his visual pun with a urinal, and non-representational movements, Dadaism, Surrealism, Cubism, and others grew stronger, sometimes darker, more challenging, and more aggressive.
But the postwar power vacuum and economic problems helped Hitler and the Nazi party rise. They were certainly darker and more aggressive, and they didn’t like challenging art. Repression began early, and in many respects, Germany itself was the first country conquered by the Nazis. By the time WWII ended, the art world in Germany, like much of the culture and people, had endured over two decades of increasing repression, topped off by the destruction brought on by the Nazi aggression.
By 1947, Picasso was working with ceramics in France, while in Italy mid century modern designs were appearing in both pottery and glass, but German designers, almost as if the country’s central location acted as a magnet, pulled inspiration from all around, generating a breadth and depth almost beyond imagining. Much of the early post-war pottery looked a lot like the pre-war pottery, which is no surprise, and some of these lines continued through much of the 1950s. However, once freed, the creative spirit that had been repressed and punished, but not broken, rose and blossomed.
Rosenthal was working with asymmetry and slight exaggeration in their porcelain as early as 1950, but I mark 1954 as the dawning of the golden era of W. German pottery because Ruscha introduced two eventual icons, the 313 shape by Kurt Tschörner and the Milano decor by Cilli Wörsdörfer. They captured much of what would be the dominant design elements for the 1950s and into the early 60s.
The 313 began with a jug-form that was exaggerated into an elegant, whimsical shape with a profile suggesting forward motion and determination, particularly in that lip and neck, like a jaw jutting forth. Many of the other forms from that era would be based on jugs or pitchers/ewers, a form also common in earlier pottery, but now the shapes became playful, with exaggerated handles, twisted bodies, ballooning bellies, and a general movement from physical utility toward aesthetic motility and utility. The concept of form follows function was transformed into form is function as designers created turned everyday items into sculpture, making aesthetics part of the household more than ever before.
Many of the decors, including Milano/Domino and into the Bodo Mans era at Bay with Paris, Rheims and others, echoed the Art Deco era but also were part of the larger art movement away from traditional representational art toward geometric abstracts. And the representational motifs (Reiher/heron) tended to show either Oriental influences or were simplified, playful images (Fische/fish, the Keto version of Paris) Some included influence from Cubism and other movements that had roots before the war (Torero from Ruscha). The stems may have been chopped by Nazi repression, but the roots survived to grow again.
The Ruscha version of “Paris” was something of an exception. Even though it was also from Hanns Welling, the same designer who created a similar but light and playful “Paris” for Keto, the Ruscha version had an underlying darker commentary. The three primary elements of the motif are the streetlight, the cat, and the young woman. Some versions became more suggestive with the addition of a young man, and there’s a less common version that labels one of the buildings in the background as “Hotel” just in case anyone wasn’t sure of the suggestions in less overt versions.
In the early 1960’s designs began moving from the organic, whimsical forms toward more angular looks and sharper edges, as seen in “Tunis” and related designs for Bay by Bodo Mans as early as 1960. Variations and exaggerations that might prove troublesome when being removed from the mold were minimized or eliminated, making it possible to produce more items faster and cheaper. At the same time, the amount of hand work in the decoration diminished. Designs such as “Rheims” and “Paris” by Bay and “Milano/Domino” by Ruscha required skilled hands, and you can see a sloppiness, especially in some of the Bay lines, that may have indicated less-skilled (less expensive) decorators were being used, or pressure was increasing to get more items done.
And the popular “engobe” designs such as “Maske” and “Paris” from Ruscha, and those from Keto and Kiechle required a skilled hand to incise the basic design pattern through the black glaze plus someone to apply the enamel well, with the personalized touches that meant no two items were likely to be the same. All of this took time and skill, especially a complex design such as “Filigrana” by Adele Bölz, which may have been the last gasp of the incised work. Of course, a good design/form can still create great aesthetic appeal.
Clearly, there was a push to increase production numbers and decrease the number of specially skilled workers. The push for profit was pushing out the time consuming aesthetics. Not surprisingly, this is about the time that the classic Ruscha 313 began undergoing design changes, changes that would allow Ruscha to continue the popular form but reduce the cost. The original design by Kurt Tschörner was an aesthetic joy but a practical problem. Exaggerated lines and a thin body meant increased loss through items coming out of the mold wrong or just being more fragile all through production and shipping.
In some respects, the original 313 may have been almost an accident, an aesthetic pleasure but a production problem that a designer more versed in ceramics might never have designed. (According to Horst Makus in 50er Jahre Keramik, Tschörner’s training at that point was more in glass which shows in the lines that echo Murano glass.) And Ruscha’s administrators must not have imagined the eventually demand for increased production, or they would never have approved the design.
The first re-design was fairly It’s actually not clear if the 313 form was redesigned once or twice, with a possible early adjustment so minor that it’s still not clear if it’s real or simply variations in production. At any rate, a more radical change was eventually made. This change kept only the suggestion of the original form and became just a slightly modified jug-form. The area under the handle is very open, the “back” now curved rather than straight, the spout no longer thrust so far forward, the opening much bigger, the body more “upright” and the entire piece thicker. Fortunately, Ruscha produced some particularly fascinating glazes after the switch to Version Three, which is what kept the 313 a big seller then and now.
By comparison, Scheurich’s shape 271 designed by Heinz Siery was a commercial delight. It used many of the styles of the period, asymmetry, angled mouth, angular handle, but none were particularly distinctive or exaggerated. It was a shape that could be enjoyed by many, easily recognized, and also easily produced. The shape is still popular with collectors, but the aesthetics lack the power of some of the more daring forms.
Another victim of the push for production was the handle itself. The 1950s and early 60s saw numerous interesting handles and some designs that were absolutely amazing, and amazing that they survived, which likely led to their demise. Handles that looked great but were hard to produce and likely to break came under the heading of aesthetics that became unprofitable. Certainly, handles continued to be a significant feature, but the drama was largely gone, replaced mostly by simple ring handles, vestigial nubs, and similar variants. Some worked, some, such as on the larger versions of the Scheurich “Vienna” form, were more of an intrusion than an artistic statement.
Certainly, these were changes crucial to keeping the art pottery industry alive and growing, and the results included marvelous forms and some unbelievable glazes as well as a staggering quantity. Meanwhile, production also included an enormous amount of kitsch to sell to the growing crowds of tourists. It also marked a shift from the survival era, when the aesthetics were as much about coping with conditions after the war as they were about economics. The next stage was about economics first and design second, but the need to fill a hungry market still created, even insisted upon, new shapes and new glazes that kept designers reaching further, pushing boundaries, and coming up with results the Nazis would have never allowed. Success may well be the best revenge, and the artists in Germany had their revenge in a glorious way that the rest of us can also enjoy for generations.
If you would like to see the West and East German pottery we currently have for sale, you can start at http://www.ginforsodditiques.com/west-german-pottery.bay.carstens.ceramano.html