Sunday, 26 February 2017

Hans Coper : Potter,"the experience of existence"


“I become part of the process, I am learning to operate a sensitive instrument which may be resonant to my experience of existence now.”
Hans Coper, Artist Statement 1969.

Hans Coper’s iconic assembled ceramics frame the later part of the twentieth century with an ambivalence of both alienation and reconciliation. His pots reveal differences that have resisted the homogenizing effects of the culture of the time. They embody and are a physical testament to what the potter himself has reflected on his life, “endure your own destiny”1 within the space and time of the human condition.
Born in 1920 into a prosperous middle class background, his childhood years were spent in the small town of Reichenbach in Germany. In 1935 his father Julius, is singled out like many other Jewish businessmen for harassment and ridicule under National Socialist Party. This would result in the Coper family moving frequently to escape the attention of the Nazis. Tragically in 1936 Julius takes his own life in an attempt to safeguard the future of his family. The remaining family, Erna Coper and her two sons return to Dresden. In 1939 Hans at the age of 18 leaves Germany for England, the following year he is arrested in London and interned as an enemy alien. He spends the next three years first in Canada then returns to England by volunteering to enrol in the Pioneer Corps. In 1946 a meeting with William Ohly who ran an art gallery near to Berkeley Square, brought about an opportunity for a job in a small workshop run by Lucie Rie, a refugee potter from Vienna. Hans Coper now began earnestly through his engagement with ceramics to reveal a continental modernity “whose work seemed uncomfortably abrasive to the traditionalists.”2
Hans Coper and Lucie Rie worked together at Albion Mews for 13 years forming a friendship and a working relationship that was mutually reciprocated through practical concerns, innovation and experimentation. There is a creative synergy in place through their mutual sharing of process and experimentation within the practicalities of the studio space. A documented instance of this reciprocal inventiveness is in the appropriation of the technique of “Sgraffito” which Lucie Rie employs after being inspired by some Bronze Age pottery at Avebury Museum bearing incised patterns, which are displayed with some bird bones, which may have been used as tools to incise the pottery. These “dark bowls of Avebury”3 are transposed through the use of manganese engobe and a steel needle into Lucie Rie’s ceramics, Hans Coper although not present appropriates the bird bone for the engineered steel of a pointed needle file and uses the action of an abrasive hand tool to remove layers of the manganese engobe. In this way Coper is enacting onto the surfaces of his ceramics, the very agencies that Modernism was acting out in the realms of architectural space and surface treatment of materials. In 1959 a move to Digwell Arts Trust would bring to a close his working relationship with Lucie Rie. Coper now became involved with a number of architecturally based projects through the Digswell Group of architects and building professionals. Coper’s engagement with the Digwell Group was not without problems and creative frustrations, but seen in retrospect it became an experimental period where Coper was strengthening his ability to bring his pottery into a spatial communion with the modernist architectural sensibilities of the time.  However it was a wartime friend Howard Mason who introduced Coper’s work to Basil Spence, from this introduction Hans Coper was commissioned to design the candlesticks for the new modernist cathedral at Coventry. The Six Coventry Candlesticks completed in 1962 explicitly reveal a sensitive and progressive spatial awareness to the architectonics of built spaces. The candlesticks delicately tapered and waisted are made in sections and assembled on site onto rods set into the architectural interior. These assembled thrown and fired towering forms seem to be more about a presence than their actual physicality. They appear to paradoxically transcend the monumentality of their setting through their very immateriality, their slight of form being perfectly balanced to accommodate a single candle and its temporal flame.
As a maker of pots he was in constant touch with his working process, an analogue process, a creative membrane that surrounded the agency of making and thinking. He was able to pursue his vocation “My concern is with extracting essence rather than with the experiment and exploration”4 His resultant works reflect what might be termed a “machining in” of a creative durability that is both ancient and modern that contains both tensions and fragility, and that above all seems to exist in a state of timelessness.

 His assembled “pots” are constructed from thrown components, “throwing” as a process that he remarks on “I become part of the process, I am learning to operate a sensitive instrument, which may be resonant to my experience of existence now”. It is through the wheel, the body and the interplay between clay and air that the inner space that defines the form is created. Adam Gopnik writing about the art of Edmund de Waal describes what I might be termed a spatial sensibility “the pot-ancient as it is, is the first instance of pure innerness, of something made from the inside out.”5 Hans Coper further adds sensuality to this “innerness” when he encloses it in a skin that appears archaic through a deeply physical surface treatment of engobes, incised grooves and scratching of the raw pot; then when finally once fired the dry vitreous surface is further machined and abraded to give a graphite-like sheen.
Hans Coper’s pots speak in silence of this interior “architectonic” space that is itself reverberated through an almost archaic modernity. He seems to be able to tune the interior, to load its mass, its void.
There is a strong sense of the vessel, the concrete with the emptiness, even an analogy to corporality set in motion by his treatment of the surface and interiors of his pots. The pots themselves belong to ever extended families, to new familiarities created by the subtle interlays between the negative spaces created through the spatial awareness that has been crafted into their very making. The pots through proximity with each other are in a spatial communion, they act to define particular spaces by defining boundaries and creating thresholds between exterior surfaces and space. These pots are themselves are “encounters” they ask us to be attentive to the responsive sensory inner space set up in residence by the permeable world of the ceramic vessel.

1 Birks, Tony. 1983. Hans Coper. London. William Collins Publishers : p75.
2 Birks, Tony. 1983. Hans Coper. London. William Collins Publishers : p22.
3 Birks, Tony. 2009. Lucie Rie. Catrine. Stenlake Publishing ltd: p44.
4 The Essential Potness. Hans Cper and Lucie Rie 2014. Collingwood and Coper Exhibition 1969. Victoria and Albert Museum.
5 Gopnic,Adam. 2013. The Great Glass Case of Beautiful Things : About the Art of Edmund de Waal. New York; Gagosian Gallery : p6-7.

Selected Bibliography.

Birks, T. 1976.Art Of The Modern Potter.London: Country life Books.
Birks, T. 1983. Hans Coper. London: William Collins Publishers.
Birks, T. 2009. Lucie Rie. Catrine : Stenlake Publishing ltd.
Coatts, M. 2008. Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, Potters in Parallel. London:
Graves, A.2005. Hans Coper: Sculpture in Architecture. Interpreting Ceramics Issue
Gopnic, A. 2013. The Great Glass Case of Beautiful Things: About the Art of
Jones, J.2005. Keeping Quiet and Finding a Voice : Ceramics and the Art of Silence. London: Interpreting Ceramics Issue 5.
Edmund de Waal. New York : Gagosian Gallery.
Whiting, D.1996. Coper at Coventry. London: Studio Pottery no 20.

2014.The Essential Potness, Hans Coper and Lucie Rie.