By Peder Rasmussen
ceramicist & writer
Catalogue text for the exhibition 'Geertsen Versus' 2014
On the Shoulders of Giant
With this exhibition, ceramicist Michael Geertsen aims to highlight his recognition of tradition as an important resource. He wants to show us that this large, shared ceramic reservoir is still a rich source of inspiration. In his own words, this is something that has taken him some time to acknowledge. Like so many young firebrand artists, he felt that he was on to something completely original and personal, something that no one else had ever explored. Of course he was, in a sense; but still, the potter in him discovered that somewhere in China there was a village potter seven hundred years ago ... who had exactly the same basic idea. Naturally, his work came out very differently. The material was fairly primitive, his tactile sensibilities different, and his idea of usability went in another direction – but the basic idea, perhaps the combination of the small, rounded, chubby form and the three somewhat overly monumental feet … was exactly the same. Michael Geertsen thinks, ‘Crikey, that Ming guy had a deft hand. I can nick that idea!’
Geertsen also looks at Karl Hansen Reistrup’s large blue Flora vase with gold decoration from 1888 and thinks, well, it is rather ... special, but dang, it’s well-made. The relationship between the body, the base and the neck is sublime – the very rhythm in the progression. And the gold decoration is so amazing that no one today would be able to create anything like it. The trick of covering up a flaw in the glaze with a tiny fly is brilliant. And the balance between the royal blue glaze and the matt gold is magnificent – I’ll steal that! And, truth be told, Herman A. Kähler and Reistrup had themselves ‘borrowed’ the shape of the vase from Sèvres …
The English poet T.S. Eliot called it a misconception to associate tradition with the immovable; to think of it as something hostile to all change; to aim to return to some previous condition which we imagine as having been capable of preservation in perpetuity… Nevertheless, tradition has acquired a bad name in the modern world. Perhaps we would prefer to think that the world begins anew with every person, and view history as an uncomfortable presence – a burden we would rather forget? Sadly, the word tradition is often confused with the word convention. The whole point is that conventions are usually a bad thing, while traditions are typically seen as good. The constraints of convention, the notion of doing what we do because we should, and because no other way would be permissible, can feel like shackles – both in social life and in art. But tradition is also the opposite! It is a place we can visit to ask others – both living and dead – in the same circumstances as us, what they did, how they went about solving their problem. Or we can simply nick their ideas. As Picasso said, good artists copy, great artists steal!J.F. Willumsen, who was himself an able ceramicist, argued that if a work was not able to look five hundred years back in time, there was little chance that it would have much a future perspective. Respect for tradition, plain and simple – based on the notion that over time, forms, categories and model solutions have emerged that are largely comprehensible to all of us. What we sometimes call archetypes.
In our current view of art, experience and historical awareness seem to be viewed as detractors. If an artist draws on history, that is seen as ultimate proof that his own innate potential is perhaps rather limited. Thus, a young ceramicist shaped by a modernist perception of life and art easily comes to see tradition as the room that one should never enter, under any circumstance. Rules, norms and statutes can seem so limiting that they prevent us from expressing our individual freedom – and if it that is the case, what good is art? There is a catch, however, in that all communication, not least artistic communication, requires a willingness to acknowledge certain common references, lest the discussion take place solely on the artist’s terms. If we enter the room of tradition with this insight, we do not see limitations – only possibilities.
In this exhibition, Geertsen’s works are juxtaposed with works from the full range of the Kähler dynasty – including geniuses like Sven Hammershøi and Jens Thirslund. People who actually remained convinced their entire lives that what had been achieved in the past was far superior to anything they could ever produce with their meagre skills. Take this excerpt from Jens Thirslund’s diary, as he opened his kiln after a firing: Misery and hell – we have fallen far indeed since the days of the Schleswig potters. The colour directly on freshly glazed Schmeltz. That’s what we should aim for!
This fundamental attitude is what motivated Kähler’s collection of examples. The Kählers always bought in abundance and traded with other ceramicists, collecting old ceramics from Denmark and abroad – each one a learning opportunity! Geertsen’s own collection of examples reflects the same fundamental attitude: With the things on display here, Chinese makers, Delft decorators, porcelain designers and Danish potters from southern Zealand have made their lasting contributions to the eternal aesthetic debate.
In any case: We are profoundly dependent on each other’s experiences – and, as Newton put it, if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. A concept, by the way, that he nicked from the 13th-century monk Bernard De Chartres.