Dame Lucie Rie is a name that is always at the forefront of a conversation on modern ceramics, but one that is often overlooked when talking about important artists of the 20th century. Yet the story of her career is one that deserves to place her as a great 20th-century artist. An Austrian émigré who was forced to flee the horrors of Nazi occupation, she flipped the landscape of British ceramics on its head. Her approach to ceramics turned it from a traditional craft into a high art form that you can often find gracing the floors of prestigious art institutions.
A master of glazes, she utilized clay in a manner that was unlike any potter before her, creating thin-walled vessels that were vibrantly colorful. Countless ceramicists have been influenced by her modern artistic approach but she is only now being regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Her story is one of hardship and perseverance that ultimately led her to being regarded as the Godmother of modern ceramics.
Early Life Of Lucie Rie
Lucie Rie was born in Vienna in 1902. Her father, Benjamin Gomperz, was a consultant to Sigmund Freud and he nurtured Rie’s artistic upbringing in the culturally exciting city that Vienna was at the turn of the century. She learned to throw at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule, where she enrolled in 1922, where she was guided by the artist and sculptor Michael Powolny.
Rie was quick to gain notoriety in her native country and across mainland Europe, opening her first studio in Vienna in 1925. She won a gold medal at the Brussels International Exhibition in 1935 and soon garnered increased respect as an exciting new ceramicist. With her pots inspired by Viennese Modernism and continental design, she was able to exhibit her works at the prestigious Paris International Exhibition in 1937, winning a silver medal. However, as her career in Europe was about to take off, she was forced to leave Austria in 1938 after the Nazi invasion. She chose to emigrate to the UK, settling in London.
Coming To Britain
When Rie came over to Britain as an exciting young potter she entered into a ceramic landscape that was dominated by one name, Bernard Leach. Leach and his pupils promoted the idea of ceramics as a craft. Looking back to an English past of handmade functional pots created for personal use, they aimed to move away from the mass-produced wares that were coming out of the Staffordshire potteries.
Leach also had a particular interest in the traditions of Japanese pottery, taking many of the forms and subtle decorations and translating them into his own work and teachings. This culminated in him forming the Leach Pottery along with his friend and associate the Japanese potter Shoji Hamada. Once established, the Leach Pottery was the prevailing influence on British modern ceramics during the first half of the 20th century. Yet for Rie, this was an approach that seemed far removed from her own pottery. With her work being heavily influenced by contemporary European design, it was clear that she was going to have to forge her own path if she was going to make an impact.
Forging A New Career In Britain
The Britain that Rie arrived at was also one ravaged by war, meaning that work and money was hard to come by. Luckily for Rie, a fellow Austrian who had also fled to the UK, Fritz Lampl, was able to offer her a role at his newly formed Orplid glass studio. There she was tasked with making glass buttons and this experience turned out to be vital to her development in her new home. Using the knowledge she gained at Orplid she decided to set up her own ceramic button workshop, based out of her flat in London. The button workshop soon became a lucrative venture for Rie, with her having to employ a number of assistants to keep up with demand. And although these buttons were primarily a way to make money, it did not stop Rie from experimenting with form and glazes.
Often quite large, the buttons provided a perfect base on which to showcase the different colors and effects she was able to achieve through her glazes. She developed a few designs that were able to be produced quickly through the use of press molds. With names such as Rose, Stars and Lettuce, her buttons provided stylish additions to the high fashion of the day. Rie’s first foray into ceramic work in her adopted home was certainly a success and demonstrated how she did not seek to conform to the Leach ideal. She was not looking back to the historic craft and aesthetic to influence her modern ceramics, instead using her training and experience to create accessories that complemented the modern couture market.
Her First British Pots
However, even though her button business was proving successful, her true passion still lay in pots. The first pots that Rie created in Britain received a lukewarm reception. Her fellow British potters saw her delicate and intricately crafted vessels to be at odds with the more solid and wholly functional wares that the Leach Pottery had influenced. Nonetheless, despite this early criticism, Rie stuck with her vision and continued to create works that displayed her artistic background in Europe.
As she began to become more prolific after the end of the Second World War she also began an important relationship with a fellow Austrian émigré, Hans Coper. Coper, who like Rie had fled Austria during the Nazi occupation and come to live in London, arrived at Rie’s button workshop penniless and desperate for work. Rie obliged and gave Coper a job as one of her assistants pressing buttons in her workshop. Despite Coper never having handled clay before working for Rie, his talent was swiftly noticed and it wasn’t long before Rie made him her associate.
Working With Hans Coper And Modern Ceramics
During their partnership, they were producing mostly domestic tableware such as their tea and coffee sets. These were sold at upmarket department stores such as Liberty’s and the chocolate retailer Bendicks in London. The wares were characteristically modern in their design with Rie implementing sgraffito decoration- thin lines scratched across the outside of the pieces. These wares were the beginning of what would become Rie’s trademark approach to modern ceramics throughout the rest of her career.
The delicacy of her forms was emphasized by the use of the sgraffito decoration, in the same way, that a column’s fluting draws the eye upwards. This imbues Rie’s pieces with a lightness that is rarely seen in ceramics. Over the next ten years, the pottery was regularly in business and the works were retailed at upmarket establishments in London and cities across the globe. Following this success, Hans Coper decided to go his own and would quickly make his name as a leading modern ceramicist. But as Coper went on to focus on producing single pieces that prioritized sculptural form over functional use, Rie still desired to find that perfect balance between function and beauty in her work.
Lucie Rie’s Later Career
Rie’s fascination with glazes did not let up as she entered into the 1970s. Through adding different colorants and minerals she was able to achieve different effects with her glazes. Her later career is one marked by vibrant color, utilizing pinks, reds, blues, and yellows in a manner that pushed what a pot was expected to be. By this point in her career and through into the 1980s, Rie focused on making one-off pots yet producing them in large quantities.
Although many decried this approach as being one that lacked true artistic vision through its repetitive nature, Rie did not see it that way. As Rie said herself “There seems to the casual onlooker little variety in ceramic shapes and designs. But to the lover of pottery, there is an endless variety.” And with the wide variety of glazes that she employed, it was certainly the case that her pots lacked any sense of repetition. Choosing to paint her glaze onto the unfired pot instead of dipping it into the glaze, her pots are characterized as being light and painterly in their finish. Whereas dipping provides a smooth finish across the glaze, applying it using a brush leaves minute differences in texture and thickness that act differently under changing light, as well as making the colors more vivid.
Rie retired from work in the 1990s and received a damehood in 1991 for her contribution to art and culture in Britain. She died in 1995 and left behind a career that was unrivaled in the world of ceramic art. Working in what was at the time a male-dominated medium, she was able to overcome prejudices and create a whole new approach to ceramic art. Many ceramicists since cite her as a major influence and her legacy can be seen in the works of Emmanuel Cooper, John Ward, and Sara Flynn. With her works spread across the world, she is truly a global artist and it is only right that she is now regarded as not only a great ceramicist but one of the most important artists of the 20th century.