THOMAS DEPREZ FINE ARTS
19th & 20th Century Belgian works of art
PIONEER OF ART NOUVEAU CERAMICS
- A.W.FINCH -
PIONEER OF ART NOUVEAU CERAMICS
By 1890, Belgium, and more specifically Brussels, had paved the way for a new breeding ground for avant-garde decorative arts in Europe. Alfred William (Willy) Finch was at the forefront of this revival of applied arts and would go on to conquer the world with his deceptively simple utilitarian stoneware. Together with the likes of his close friends Henry van de Velde and Georges Lemmen, both collectors of his ceramics, Willy Finch defined Art Nouveau aesthetics in Belgium and abroad. Rare to come on the market, Finch’s characteristically minimal and very personal ceramics are readily recognisable and highly collectible. Simple yet refined, rich yet sober, these pots and vases are graced by the dots, the elongated and inverted S-shapes, comma’s and arabesques so typical of his style. Today such works can be admired in museums around the world, from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, to the Museum für Gestältung in Zurich. With their extensive and complementary collections, the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels and the Designmuseo in Helsinki could, together, effectively cover almost the whole of this artist’s ceramic production. Through important exhibitions, commercial platforms, magazines, social circles, and aesthetic and technical revolutions, his glazed stoneware has been an important (yet largely undiscovered) pilar in the definition of the Belgian Art Nouveau.
LES XX and The Belgian avant-garde
The yearly exhibition of the avant-garde society Les XX (“Les Vingt” or “The Twenty”) had attracted the best and the boldest of European artists to the city of Brussels since its inaugural exhibition of 1884. These artists rebelled against the prevailing artistic standards and outmoded academism. In the years to come, Brussels became the new centre of the European avant-garde, taking over the baton from Paris, and bringing about many important changes in the perception of the “beaux arts” as a whole. The salon style exhibition was supported by lectures, conferences and concerts, and was - unlike the official salons of the day - mainly attended by a growing class of increasingly wealthy nouveau riches who found their taste aligned with the modern art shown at Les XX. Albeit little known, it is a fact that Les XX played a huge role in the modernisation of the way these artists, and their art, were presented to the public. Steering away from the 19th century idea of so-called “salon hangings”, Les XX brought the way of structuring and organising an exhibition into the 20th century. Every artist was allowed an equal amount of wall-space, and no pictures were hung above others unless this was specifically the artist’s own intention. Hung side by side, with enough space in between them to be able to be looked at individually, these pictures were granted the importance which the conservative public of the day was unwilling to recognise. When the decorative arts started to make their appearance at the exhibition, they were being presented under the influence of the sculptor Paul Du Bois in the same way as a work of fine art, say a sculpture. As a matter of fact, the exhibitions of Les XX have to be regarded as the first exhibition of fine art embracing the decorative and applied arts as a whole. Upon its dissolution in 1893, after 10 years of revolutionising contemporary art and exhibitions, a successor was erected under the name of La Libre Esthétique. They would continue this legacy by placing the decorative arts at the forefront of their artistic program right from the start. Its inaugural exhibition in 1894 saw the presentation of a whole room carefully designed by the Liégeois designer Gustave Serrurier, and by 1898 the practical decorative arts on display (e.g. chairs, tables and pedestals) were no longer “presented”, but dispersed throughout the exhibition rooms in a logical and practical way, for the visitors to use and enjoy as they pleased. What role now, did Finch play in all of this and how did his pioneering art nouveau ceramics come about?
From painter to potter
A founding member of Les XX, Willy Finch started his career as a painter. Born in Ostend into an English family of expats, he had a very similar background to James Ensor with whom he studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels from 1878 onwards. The two soon became inseparable, and their close relationship was documented in many portraits made during the early 1880s. Together with another fellow student, Guillaume Van Strydonck, they would form the basis of a distinctively Belgian school of impressionism in which impressions were rendered with broad strokes, subdued (Flemish) colours, and the use of the palette knife. When Georges Seurat exhibited his neo-impressionist masterpiece “Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte” at Les XX in Brussels in 1887, Finch was so enchanted with this new technique that he broke away from the group and became the very first Belgian neo-impressionist painter. As a result, Ensor, who was decidedly against the new movement, broke off his friendship with Finch and went his own way.
Studious and inquisitive by nature, Finch devoted every waking hour to his neo-impressionist experiments and reading up on the different forms of colour theory. Not wanting to be a mere copyist of Seurat, Finch tried hard to get to the same results on his own terms and study, to fully understand, and altogether master this new style of painting. During his time with Les XX, Finch already found a close friend in Théo Van Rysselberghe, who would follow his example in the new endeavours of the neo-impressionists. When Georges Lemmen and Henry van de Velde joined Les XX as members in 1888 (both of whom were then still painters, and neo-impressionist painters to be exact), fate had decided a new course for the Belgian avant-garde. It is a peculiar fact that all of them would make an abrupt switch towards the decorative arts by the beginning of the 1890s, and it was Willy Finch who -once again- took the lead.
The early years (1890-1893)
As with neo-impressionism, it seems fair to say Finch was also the first of the Belgian avant-garde to take up a serious interest in the decorative arts. Not able to make a decent living as a painter, the artist had left painting almost completely by 1890 in order to dedicate himself to the study of ceramics, glazing and decorative painting. Interestingly the artist continued for a while to exhibit his pointillist paintings, while presenting at first some decorative panels treated with a close eye on the neo-impressionist colour theories of Chevreul, Charles Henry and Rood. The very first productions by the artist in the realm of the decorative arts can not be regarded as purely pottery, but ranged from such decorative panels made from ceramic tiles (Les XX 1891) to a “Table à thé” with an inlay of ceramic tiles (Les XX 1893, from collection of Mme Théo Van Rysselberghe).
Unfortunately the only record that is left of these early works is a -slightly illegible- black and white photograph, of a decorative panel composed of ceramic tiles, taken at the inaugural exhibition of the Association Pour l'Art in Antwerp in 1892. Willy Finch had already been consumed for years by the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris, who under the name of the Arts & Crafts movement laid the basis for what was to become the Art Nouveau. Art needed to be “in all and for all”, and didn’t limit itself to the applied arts but was to be included in the grander scheme of interior design, architecture and an overall way of life. The adversity towards machines and mechanical reproduction, and the glory of all things hand-made, created the new idea of the artist/artisan. It was exactly this new identity of the “artist/artisan” that allured to Finch.
With the help of Anna Boch (a fellow member of Les XX), Finch secured a position at her family’s ceramics factory Boch-Keramis in La Louvière. Here, the artist was registered as a decorative painter although it seems he mainly used the time on his own account to study glazing, oxides and ways of firing clay. Anna Boch was both an important a patron of the arts and an artist in her own right. And while the exact circumstances are unclear, Finch seems to have been largely free to work as he pleased. He made good use of the professional infrastructure at hand, and before long a real production of his own rustic pottery rolled out of the ovens. Finch exhibited his first decorative works alongside the crudely sculpted ceramics by Paul Gauguin at the exhibition of Les XX in 1891, effectively marking the first real showcase of decorative arts in a fine arts context. This fact also ensured Finch’s immediate association with Gauguin as a “primitive”, and placed his ceramics firmly in the revivalist spirit of the fin-de-siècle.
Finch and the Belgian art world
In line with his central position in the Groupe des XX, Finch was well-connected within the European art world of the day. It is during difficult times that one knows his friends, and most of his career Finch had struggled to keep afloat. His many friendships proved honest and heartfelt, as the artist was greatly supported by some of the leading patrons of the arts in Brussels. When Finch left La Louvière for Virginal, he was received by the Olin family who ran an important paper factory there. The great Brussels art patron Edmond Picard was married to an Olin; and at the time his eldest son Georges-David lived in Virginal with his cousin Pierre Olin, where they effectively ran said paper factory. Having realised that this Brabant region was rich in heavy white clay which would make for the perfect base ingredient in his pottery, Finch shared a home with his wealthy peers. Aside from his major role in the organisation of Les XX and the avant-garde journal L’Art Moderne, the writer and lawyer Edmond Picard was personally involved in the careers of a small number of artists he supported. Picard was also quick to see the developments of decorative arts in Belgium and led a pioneering endeavour in commercialising them. Even though the artist had left painting for pottery in order to support his family, Willy Finch still wasn’t in the best place from a financial point of view. With the help of other influential writers, collectors and patrons, like the poet Emile Verhaeren and lawyer Octave Maus, s.a. L’Art was founded and soon followed by the groundbreaking gallery for fine and decorative arts La Maison d’Art. Through his close friendship with Picard’s son and under the patronage of Picard himself, Finch was involved in these projects from the very start and was meant to find a certain financial stability and a commercial outlet for his ceramic production.
At the end of 1895, the artist/artisan moved to Forges, a hamlet near Chimay, where traditionally an important production of popular utilitarian earthenware was located. By the time Finch arrived there, little was left of the once renowned Forges ceramics. The main reason, however, for this location still remained: a local, heavy, reddish clay that suited the production of ceramics very well. Having realised the importance of taking into consideration market demand and cost effectiveness, Finch devoted himself to fulfilling the socialist ideal of “art for all”. His production grew to serious scale. When Siegfried Bing famously modelled his own gallery L’Art Nouveau after the example of the Maison d’Art, he had chosen to take on the representation of several Belgian designer, among whom Alfred William Finch. This of course meant the artist had a second platform for his ceramics, and this in the heart of the European decorative arts scene, in Paris. Backed by La Maison d’Art and L’Art Nouveau, and gaining a serious reputation at important exhibitions such as La Libre Esthétique, Finch priced his ceramics to be affordable. This clearly set him off against a number of famous ceramicists in France at the time, who mainly produced with the idea of the elite customer in mind. As the Belgian decorative artist Gisbert Combaz noted: “From the point of view of the “arts du feu”, la Libre Esthétique contains some first class products. First of all there are the decorated and enamelled pottery of A.-W. Finch [...] The shape of Finch’s potteries is never ordinary, the manufacture is more careful than in previous years, their appearance is shimmering and their price is not exaggerated. This detail, petty at first glance, is not negligible, however, because it is as absurd to make pottery in a single copy or produced in very small numbers, and therefore at a high price, then to make paintings in a thousand copies.” (1)
Finch’s production in Forges is generally regarded as his most important, as by then he had mastered his craft to such a level that he was in complete control of his skill and able to convert the creative act and idea to a consistent and beautifully elegant product. In Forges, Finch carefully balanced the acts of growing production numbers and models, while also focusing on creating an artistic identity through singular and highly recognisable decorations. And while he scaled his output, he also complexified said decorations. Finch continued to experiment with different ways of firing, pushes the decoration to the background in order to let it shine trough layers of glazing and oxides, and simplifies the overall form in order to envelop the whole with a cloak of rustic yet sophisticated beauty. His aesthetic and technical innovations certainly didn’t go unnoticed as Finch’s exhibition at La Libre Esthétique in 1896 was a huge success! After selling at least 42 pieces, the press literally stopped counting! (2)
“The pottery of M. A.-W. Finch, for example, are, of all the works presented in the art object compartment, those which most exactly meet their destination. The shape is sober and charming. The enamels that coat them have a superb shine and colour. The ornamentation is original and in perfect harmony with their rustic character. See the decorative advantage that M. Henri [sic.] Van de Velde has drawn from it in his five o'clock room. M. Finch has entered an excellent path and we cannot congratulate him enough.” (3)
At this particular exhibition Finch’s potteries were amongst others included in Henry van de Velde’s “Five o’clock tea room”, where they were displayed as works of art worthy of decorating such interiors. Selling for between 3 and 25 francs, Finch’s potteries were priced at a tenth of the price of, say, ceramics by Alexandre Bigot.(4) But as the top-selling artist of the year, the numbers made up for it! The following year, Finch acted as the sole representative of the new endeavours of Henry van de Velde & Cie, and received a special showcase within the exhibition of La Libre Esthétique. It is clear that by then, the artist had earned a special reputation as an avant-garde potter working with the brightest and the boldest in the field and enjoying impressive critical reviews and press. Willy Finch’s reinvention of traditional Flemish pottery was complete. But what constituted this revivalist ideal of traditional Flemish pottery?
A modern vision on centuries old beauty
As Mario Baeck stated: “The rustic character of Finch’s production, together with the ‘honesty’ of the use of materials and the typical decoration, at that time, according to the art critic Octave Maus, met with a deep need of taste. With his sober utilitarian art, Finch placed himself in the long tradition of rustic lead glazed pottery in Flanders, with production centres such as Torhout and Poperinge, and in Northern France. As a result, Finch gave this traditional local pottery, with which he had probably already been been familiar since his youth in Ostend a greater prestige and thus laid the foundation for its artistic revival.” (5)
What Finch longed for was a modern form of popular glazed stoneware, which carried the hall marks of tradition while at the same time corresponding to the new aesthetics of the day. As such, Finch favoured traditional working techniques and processes true to the nature of the object, which he carefully combined with a modern sense of elegance in the design, shapes and decorations. By the beginning of the 19th century, traditional Flemish pottery was at an all-time-low due to it’s popular and utilitarian character which had fallen out of fashion with the increasingly wealthy middle class. Under the influence of Japonism, much into fashion with his friends and colleagues, Finch perhaps strangely turned to Japan in order to find the basics of what constituted this traditional Flemish earthenware. In the 16th century, Japanese taste turned away from elaborate decoration in favour of a rustic simplicity. This change in taste also corresponded to the introduction of wabi-sabi -a world view based on the acceptance of transience and imperfection-, which soon became central to traditional Japanese aesthetics. In abstract terms its characteristics are closely linked with Finch’s aesthetic. Elements such as asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and the appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes, are all recognisable qualities of Finch's ceramics. Due to the rapid rise of industrialisation at the end of the 19th century, the fin-de-siècle was characterised by a profound love for the bygone days of a simpler, more rustic way of life. This, of course, also gave way to a growing appreciation of flawed beauty as a counterweight to mechanical perfection. The almost always imperfect (yet beautiful and well-made) character of traditional earthenware, was going to bring back the appeal and elegance of this neglected art form. The irregularities, or faults even, which happened during the manual production process, were carefully retained and applauded as signs of this exact manual labour. Finch’s vision of the artist/artisan could therefore be found in the imperfect, rather than the perfect. It is interesting to note in this regard that, in Finch's footsteps, the revaluation of crude and often imperfect medieval pottery found other expressions in the ceramics of Omer Coppens and Arthur Craco, for example.
Two examples of irregularities as expressions of manual labour.
Technical aspects of Finch's ceramics
Ceramics by A.W. Finch are easily recognisable through their distinctive shapes, designs and decorations. While more technical research is still needed, it seems clear we can largely distinguish the ceramics made in Virginal from those made in Forges through the type of clay which was used. Further dating can be done cautiously, by comparison of the designs and decorations. Regardless of the type of clay, we have noted that the artist preferred to lay a first glaze in white or beige, as a foundation or base layer. The subtlety of this technique becomes evident if one compares it to the importance of such base layers in the early oil paintings of the Flemish Primitives. Painting in 'glacis' or thin, transparent glazes of colour, the white foundation was effectively used to reflect the incoming rays of lights back to the surface in order to stimulate both the richness of colour and the illusion depth in the painting. Finch's foundation has that exact same quality, and already exemplifies the subtle refinery of his seemingly simple decorations. For the basic colour schemes that define his Belgian ceramics, Finch mainly resorted to the most traditional oxides used for colouring stoneware: copper oxide (green), iron oxide (yellow) or manganese oxide (brown). Like most of the ceramicists active at the end of the 19th century and working in the Art Nouveau tradition, Finch liked his pots to be fired in open flames in order to produce those characteristic glazes and oxidations that organically change in colour. Referred to as “flambé” or “flammée”, they became a typology in themselves. Another typical element of decoration for Finch was the sgraffito technique, or “a sgraffiato”, which involves simply drawing a linear design by incision into the clay. Extremely popular in architectural schemes of the Art Nouveau, the basic idea of sgraffito had also a longstanding tradition in ceramics and counts amongst the very first techniques used to decorate earthenware. Finally, and arguably the most refined technique favoured by Finch was the use of “engobes” and “slips”, which are a sort of liquified clay that was used to create a relief design (with slips being of a greater consistency than engobes) on top of the bisque. The thinner engobes could be painted with the brush, which grants it special character and made it a favoured technique for the painter/potter. A particular difficulty resorted in the use of the ticker slips, which being applied on top of the bisque sometimes resulted in baking errors, with the added clay for example chipped or burned off in the kiln during the second firing. While at first glance these ceramics are deceptively simple, it is in some of his most distinguished ceramics that all these elements were carefully combined in order to further unlock the full extent of their potential. As such, it is clear that Finch’s subtly complex ceramics had effectively turned rustic utilitarian pottery into an art form.
It must be stressed that these techniques had all been in practice in Japan and China for hundreds of years prior, and were slowly being introduced to the European mindset at the time. Like the French ceramicist Ernest Chaplet, who is generally regarded as the father of modern pottery, Finch was highly involved in the rediscovery of these ancient traditions. Some distinctive shapes used by the artist for example, are literal copies of traditional Chinese vases, while the decorations adorning them are often sourced in the Japanese aesthetic.
Taking over the world
With his ceramics at the forefront of this new wave of appreciation for the decorative arts, and the many important figures defending Finch’s aesthetic vision, it is clear that the “incontestable key figure in the revival of the art pottery in Belgium" was about to take over the world.(6) The number of art magazines specialised in these decorative revolutions grew as rapidly as their audience, and by the end of the 19th century Finch had been highlighted in most of the leading illustrated magazines around Europe, such as The Studio, L'Art appliqué or l’Art Décoratif. It should therefore not come as a surprise that amongst the very first collectors of Finch’s ceramics we mainly find artists or art patrons part of this very revival. Some ceramics once owned by Georges Lemmen, have survived and are recorded as passed down into the family. Henry van de Velde on the other hand, played a major role in the representation of Finch on a commercial level: “[…] he supplied them to Victor Horta for the decoration of the Hôtel Tassel and to Toulouse-Lautrec who left from a visit to the Bloemenwerf in 1897 with a carpet made by Lemmen under his arm and pottery by Finch.”(7)
Finch’s real breakthrough can be narrowed down to one milestone year in his career. In 1897, at the height of his public success, Finch was personally asked by count Louis Sparre to lead the ceramics department of the IRIS factory in Porvoo, Finland. An artist himself, count Sparre had already been highlighted by The Studio in 1895, as the leading force behind the revival of Finnish artistic traditions. The choice for Porvoo, a small picturesque town somewhat east of Helsinki and seemingly untouched by time, was already loaded with that same revivalist ideal. Finch’s endeavours in the rediscovery and revival of ancient pottery traditions -brought into the modern world by slightly changing form, colour or decoration-, clearly appealed to Sparre, who envisioned the same for his beloved Finnish heritage. The whole idea was to make the IRIS workshops a profitable business by answering this search for a national identity with the production of typical Finnish ceramics, restyled with a modern touch. Like Henry van de Velde’s well-known efforts in modernising Westerwald ceramics, Finch’s modernity was exactly what was needed in order to reenvision traditional Finnish pottery. This adventure also meant a stable income for his family -finally-, and the carte-blanche he had in running an entire ceramics factory must have been a thrilling prospect. On a technical level Finch chose once again to work with the local clay, the red colour of which was already a defining decorative quality in the Finnish pottery tradition. Besides the red of the clay, Finch further exploited the colours typically used to make these traditional housewares, especially a charachteristic faint green and a dark blue. His forms and shapes adapt, to allow for the more common household objects to be designed with a modern twist. And by the turn of the century his distinctive decorations had changed completely under the pressure of the rapidly changing taste and aesthetic. Soon after Finch's arrival, the IRIS factory (which also produced furniture, textiles and glass) was represented on the international exhibitions of the day, and the fruits of his labour produced for all the world to see. Finch’s designs for IRIS were further represented by the likes of Julius Meier-Graefe’s La Maison Moderne, the third of these strongholds of avant-garde living, and suddenly found an entirely new public with amongst others the Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela as a devoted collector of Finch ceramics.
On the left: Two sides of a souvenir vase designed by A.W. Finch for IRIS, executed in sgraffito and showing the picturesque town of Porvoo (complete with the city's coat of arms) and a highly stylised flower in the Art Nouveau style around 1900. On the right: A typical set of housewares in the traditional Finnish colours, designed A.W. Finch and produced by IRIS, held in the Designmuseo, Helsinki.
When Iris went bankrupt in 1902, and Finch was about to lose his job, we notice again the importance of his many heartfelt friendships. With the help of several friends and the entire body of the Finnish Society for Decorative Arts, Finch was granted a teaching position at the Central School of Applied Arts in Helsinki. He took up painting again, and continued to produce an extraordinary body of ceramics, all while revolutionising the institution and academy of decorative arts from the inside out. “Finch's influence is passed on until the 1960s, through his successor, the ceramist Elsa Elenius, while the remarkable pedagogue Maija Grotell introduced his teachings in the United States.” (8)
1. Gisbert COMBAZ, Les Arts Décoratifs au Salon de La Libre Esthétique, in L'Art Moderne, 17th year, nr. 13, 1897, p. 98: “Au point de vue des arts du feu, la Libre Esthétique renferme quelques produits de premier choix. Ce sont d'abord les poteries décorées et émaillées de A.-W. Finch [...] La forme des poteries de Finch n'est jamais quelconque, la fabrication en est plus soignée que les précédentes années, leur aspect est chatoyant et leur prix n'est pas exagéré. Ce détail, mesquin à première vue, n’est cependant pas négligeable, car il est aussi absurde de faire des poteries à exemplaire unique ou tirées à très petit nombre, et partant d'un prix élevé, que de faire des tableaux à mille exemplaires.”
2. See: Petite Chronique: SALON DE LA LIBRE ESTHÉTIQUE. Première liste d’acquisitions, in L'Art Moderne, 16th year, nr. 9, 1896, p. 71. And following numbers.
3. La Salon de La Libre Esthétique: Les objets d’art, in L’Art Moderne, 16th year, nr. 11, p. 82: ”Les poteries de M. A.-W. Finch, par exemple, sont, de toutes les œuvres présentées dans le compartiment des objets d'art, celles qui répondent le plus exactement à leur destination. La forme en est sobre et charmante. Les émaux qui les revêtent ont un éclat et une puissance de coloration superbes. L'ornementation en est originale et en parfait accord avec leur caractère rustique. Voyez le parti décoratif qu'en a tiré M. Henri [sic.] Van de Velde dans sa Salle de five o'clock- M. Finch est entré dans une voie excellente et l'on ne saurait assez l'en féliciter.”
4. Comparitively through the recorded prices in the 1896 catalogue of La Libre Esthétique, as transcribed in: Pierre SANCHEZ, Le Salon des “XX” et de La Libre Esthétique: Repertoire des exponents et liste de leurs oeuvres, Bruxelles - 1884-1914, Dijon : L’Echelle de Jacob, 2012, p. 92 & 192.
5. Mario BAECK, From the Luxurious to the Rustic. Belgian Art Nouveau Ceramics Between Industry and Craftsmanship, presented at the: CDF, III International Art Nouveau Congress, Barcelona, June 2018, p. 5.
6. Jan DE PAEPE, Les artistes-céramistes: Finch (1854-1930), Coppens (1864-1926), Craco (1869-1955) et le renouveau de la céramique, in: Anne PLUYMAEKERS et al, Céramiques de l'Art nouveau en Belgique, Musée de la céramique d'Andenne - Museum Tohouts Aardewerk : 2009, p. 82.
7. Francoise AUBRY, L’Art Nouveau : un moment de renaissance des arts du feu, in: CLERBOIS et al, Céramistes de l’Art Nouveau, Anvers : Pandora, 1999, p. 3: “[il] s’occupait aussi de la vente des pièces de Finch: il en fournit à Victor Horta pour la décoration de l’hôtel Tassel et à Toulouse-Lautrec qui repartit d’une visite au Bloemenwerf en 1897 avec sous le bras un tapis de Lemmen et des poteries de Finch.”
8. Marianne AAV, A. W. Finch, Docent aan de Centrale School voor Sierkunsten van Helsinki (1902-1930), in: A. W. Finch (1854-1930), Brussel : Gemeentekrediet, 1992, p. 31.