ceramics, the bread of art

Henrique de Melo

Ever since time immemorial and across all latitudes, human beings have devoted to transforming whole cereals into Bread.

To the pioneer drive of the early artisans, whether individual persons, groups of kin or communities, the high universal status and entrepreneurial nature of the culinary art must be credited, the latter understood as the preliminary preparation and subsequent transformation of foods from raw to cooked, resorting to the controlled handling of fire.

To link sequentially all the tasks that compose this process of transformation – from the selection of the cereals available in the surrounding nature and deemed the most suitable for the purpose, through the employment of the means and instruments necessary to grind the grains in order to make flour, knead the mixture of flour and water, allow it to ferment, and finally complete this process by baking the dough – is up to today the essential series of steps involved in making Bread, all the other culinary activities pertaining to the elaboration of cooked foods building upon those same principles.

Bread, on which the sensibility of the person making it has from the onset conferred special appealing features and distinctive flavours that meet the diverse tastes and preferences of the various human communities, a cornerstone of the culinary art.

The millenary art of Bread-making, always renewed in each period and region of the globe, has granted this foodstuff a prominent place at the tables of every people and, in Biblical terms, the universal ethical symbolism of sharing, highest expression of human solidarity.

An identical procedure – as far as period, location and processes are concerned – took place in the sphere of Visual Arts, when Man, relying on firing, began to transform clay, initially into terracotta and, after learning how to glaze, into ceramic.

Also in this respect and since the early days, Man stumbled upon and elected clay as a prime raw material for the modelling of the objects he had in mind creating, objects in which he then proceeded to draw streaks, scratch lines, inscribe symbols and other records, and which he ultimately painted and fired.

Millennia after, we are still uncovering whole pieces or sometimes merely fragments. In any case, they are dated testimonies that prove the fact that clay has always been the raw material of choice for Man to make objects with his own hands, leaving in them the mark of his aesthetic conceptions, satisfying the longing to conveying to the “other” his capacity to dream and to idealise concepts, to reflect on the need to create objects to address daily life challenges and to materialise that very need.

These creative procedures involved were carried out in compliance with the imagination and aesthetic sensibility of each artisan/artist, whether they were geometric, mythical or naturalistic figurations, identity symbols of a community impressed on clay plaques, or tridimensional utensils serving a variety of utilitarian purposes.

This early preference is testified by the countless terracotta objects, preserved whole or simply fragments, found together with human bones in several locations from East to West and North to South of the globe, many of them dating back to the early days of mankind.

The surviving fragments resisted destruction due the peculiar features of their raw material and the transformation processes it underwent. Clay, after being mixed with water, kneaded and fired (in an earlier stage, perhaps through accidental and persistent exposure to the sun) is transformed into terracotta, a material whose texture, consistence of shapes, capacity to retain colour pigments and durability is so remarkable and admirable, namely for its Art.

The archaeological collections clearly show evident aesthetic motivations on the part of the artisans behind these objects, thus warranting the unique and unparalleled status of clay comparing to any other raw material used by Man to convey his early artistic expressions.

Ceramics are the offspring of the perfect marriage between the natural characteristics of clay, plasticity and thermal resistance to firing, with the human capacity to understand its adaptability to artistic creation, intrinsic features that have always been a reference to other materials and forms of visual expression.

Knowing how to reinvent itself through the centuries, enabling it to accompany and even lead new aesthetic trends, was the “secret” that resulted in ceramics being the preferred choice by many artists of all times while continuing to stand, nowadays, as a vital feature in fully satisfying the demands of contemporary art.

In Portugal’s particular case, either due to the originality of its harmonious engagement with religious, military and civil architecture, or to the diversity of themes addressed by the artists that have elected it to embody their creative outputs, ceramics have acquired a prominence that enables them to be justly acknowledged, both at home and abroad, as a great – if not the greatest – and original exponent of the Portuguese visual arts.

In Portugal, the first ceramic covering imported from Seville (in the fifteenth century) only tiling, did not allow itself to be constrained by the narrow boundaries of a decorative art secondary to architecture; on the contrary, it often revised the terms of that correlation, achieving for itself the primacy of the artistic merits of the buildings (religious, military, civil, …), and leaving to near invisibility the quality of the architectonic structure that supports it.

Although having built and consolidated a marked individual identity in the domain of tiling, ever since the beginning of tile manufacture within Portuguese borders, in the early sixteenth century, ceramics have always been regarded as a product of the crossing of the cultures, civilizations and lifestyles of the peoples that, in the Iberian Peninsula, shared common or contiguous spaces with our country.

A cultural and artistic contribution that, since its inception, is entwined, in various ways, in Portuguese ceramics, and was reinvigorated in subsequent centuries with the strengthening of our social and cultural contacts and commercial interchanges with the Far East.

This acculturation was especially mirrored and enriched by the “discovery” and wonderment elicited by the sophisticated manufacture, decoration, painting and modelling techniques of Chinese porcelain.

Portuguese ceramic art, since late nineteenth century and highly encouraged by the technical and artistic revolution introduced by R. Bordallo Pinheiro, also kept its position in the first line of response to the enormous challenge imposed by “modern art”, acquiring, particularly after the 25th of April, 1974, a new dynamics and conceptual breadth that persists until the present day.

An “aggiornamento” involving adaption to new techniques, to sizing and volumetry of the clay plaques different from the ones employed in traditional tiling, to themes and forms of expression which, without sacrifice of their sui generis features, have enabled Portuguese ceramics and ceramists to accommodate, to reinterpret and to exchange influences and teachings with cultures of different origins, thus honouring their reputation as “fine art” in the context of Portuguese visual arts.

This phenomenon of globalisation can be observed in the works of ceramists who, in our country and abroad, are placed in public and private spaces and premises, important museums and prestigious private collections.

Teresa Cortez’s extensive body of work, especially as a ceramist, portrays well the background of the artistic path she has developed for the last four decades, which somehow reflects some of the transformations that Portuguese ceramic art has undergone.

An example of that is the plethora of thematic options which can be found in the ensemble of the showcased works; Teresa Cortez’s taste for such disparate metric scales, from small sculptures to mural panels modelled in large-sized plaques; her relish in handling the clay directly; the fact that her practical training began with a work experience in a factory environment.

These references not only constitute evidence of the diversity of forms of artistic intervention allowed by working with clay but are also impressive curricular marks in the lineage of Portuguese ceramists who emerged with “modern art”.

Perusing the whole of her opus, one is also drawn to pivotal dates in her artistic progression, namely the specific periods when her work was accomplished, the influences exerted by other forms of visual expression, her initiation in the field of sketching and painting on paper in order to be able to carry out maquettes of ceramic panels, the use of those techniques that later on stirred in her a taste and penchant for developing autonomously that dimension of hers as a visual artist.

In line with what we observe throughout the history of ceramic art, Teresa Cortez, in her creations, has always known how to reinvent herself in the elaboration of shapes, themes and colours.

An artistic restlessness of which the Retrospective now presented at Fundação Oriente offers us an excellent panoramic view.

© 2020 - 2023, Teresa Cortez