ARTS AND HUMANITIES: McKissick Museum hosts arts and crafts exhibition

May 11, 2018 GMT

The Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the 18th century, made it possible for machines to produce items that had once been made by hand. This mechanized mode of manufacturing had a wide reach. Eventually a host of everyday objects, including glass and ceramic vessels, could be generated on a mass scale.

By the end of the 19th century, however, there was, in certain quarters, a sharp reaction against industrialized labor. Many thoughtful individuals were growing increasingly alarmed by the exploitation of workers in unhealthy and sometimes downright dangerous factory conditions; they yearned for a revival of hand-craftsmanship. In essence, those claiming this pre-industrial philosophy, including the visual artist, novelist and ardent socialist William Morris, wanted to replace what they saw as the worker’s enslavement to the machine with a return to the days of the independent, self-directed craftsman.

The Arts and Crafts Movement that sprang up in England and quickly spread across the European continent and to our own shores is the focus of a major exhibition at the McKissick Museum. Titled “Nostalgia for Nature,” the show features over 90 stunning examples of both art glass and art pottery handmade and hand-decorated by skilled craftspeople from the late-19th to the early-20th centuries.

Major arts and crafts practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic are represented in this show with pieces that signal a rejection of machine-facilitated labor in favor of the individual’s personal reengagement with the natural world. This was the time of the “new art” or art nouveau, featuring simplified forms inspired by nature.

For some of these pieces, the inspiration is confined largely to embellishment. A glass vase from the Daum studio founded in Nancy, France in 1878, for example, is adorned with the image of freesias presumably to echo the real flowers that will one day be displayed therein; in yet another piece, a diminutive glass vase by noted French designer Emile Gallé, a beautifully rendered orange poppy spirals up the sides.

As in the case of the Gallé vase, however, and an iridescent Tiffany lampshade, there are objects in the exhibition that are not only boast vegetal imagery but also replicate in their shapes various natural forms. The Gallé cameo glass vessel resembles an elongated trumpet flower, and the Tiffany shade looks like a fanciful bottle gourd.

Accompanying the precious glass and ceramic objects in the current show is a host of explanatory material, including details regarding a variety of decorative processes. Next to the Tiffany shade, for example, is information on how the craftsperson responsible for that particular item achieved the sense of depth evident in the finished design. The placard describes the use of millefiori or colored glass rods whose tips were applied to the surface of the glass to add dimension to the floral designs. In a separate display case nearby, visitors can also examine a small Rookwood ceramic vessel from 1904 whose subtle gradations in surface color in the floral decoration were made possible by Laura Fry’s invention in 1884 of a mouth-blown atomizer.

Additional print material offers information about individual designers and decorators. It is evident from this text and from the vintage photographs of craftspeople who worked in some of the major arts and crafts studios of the period that men and women often fashioned these wonderful pieces side by side under conditions that approached creative equitableness.

Indeed, female artists played a prominent role in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Consider the case of Maria Longworth Nichols, who established the award-winning Rookwood pottery in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1880 or the many talented women who were the creative force behind Newcomb pottery in New Orleans. One of four pieces of distinctive blue Newcomb ware in the current show was, for example, molded and decorated by Sadie Irvine, who became, after her graduation from the Newcomb College for Women at Tulane, an “art craftsman” in 1929 and eventually an art instructor.

Most of the works on display at the McKissick are not, however, ascribable to a particular individual. Many of the talented craftsmen and craftswomen responsible for the beautiful objects in this visually compelling and educational exhibition may never be known by name, but the contributions that they made to the revival of handcrafted glass and ceramics serve as an inspiration to today’s independent potters and glass artisans.

The exhibition runs through June 2 at the McKissick Museum on the campus of USC in Columbia.