Danish Ceramics in the 20th Century*
Possibly no other European country has enjoyed a ceramics tradition as rich as Denmark’s. From the first pots created along the Jutland Peninsula more than 4000 years ago to the delicate porcelain produced at the Royal Porcelain Manufactory in Copenhagen, Denmark has established itself at the forefront of ceramic design and production.
During the 20th century – the golden age of Danish stoneware – “studio potters” were born. So called because they typically owned and worked in their own studios rather than at factories, these potters attempted to branch out beyond traditional Greek- and Norse-inspired vessels and commercially-minded wares of Royal Copenhagen and other large concerns. During this period, Japanese art, the English Arts and Crafts Movement, and Scandinavian Romanticism provided inspiration; potters flourished individually and as part of newly formed collectives.
The most influential collective for ceramic arts – which would become the training ground for a generation of Danish potters – was Saxbo, founded by Nathalie Krebs (1895-1978) and Gunnar Nylund (1904-1989). Saxbo potters sought to master their art form and produce the very best ceramics. They worked in basic forms and specially formulated each glaze to conform perfectly to each vessel. Saxbo’s influence was far-reaching. Artists in the Museum’s collection who worked at Saxbo include Johannes “Jais” Nielsen, Eva Sonne Bruun, Gerd Bøglund, and Axel Salto.
Saxbo’s influence can be seen in the work of one of the century’s definitive Danish potters, Arne Bang (1901-1983). During the 1930s, Bang produced a series of rigid, streamlined forms in a style described as “Neoclassical machine age.” He reinvented himself constantly throughout his lengthy career; only his glazes remained constant. Three of his pieces in the Museum’s collection represent this dynamic period. Other potters like Lisbeth Munch-Petersen (1909-1997) and Gerd Bøglund (1923-1987) created work that was more decorative, with basic, organic Danish motifs such as wheat, barley, corn, and grass. Munch-Petersen carved, stamped, or sculpted pots with natural designs.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the influence of Japanese and Chinese ceramics became more pronounced in Danish works. Many of Denmark’s studio potters lived and studied in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other Asian countries to learn their ceramic traditions. Among the Asian influences reflected in Danish ceramics during this time are shapes such as tea bowls and the use of the Japanese raku technique. Though many scholars regard Edith Sonne Bruun (1910-1983) as one of the most purely Danish potters, Asian influence are readily apparent in her work. Inger Thing (b. 1924) also studied ceramics in Japan, and her work reflects her experience in Asia.
Most studio potters in Denmark worked in stoneware, but not all limited themselves to it. Erik Reiff (1923-2006), a largely self-taught ceramicist, mastered the underglaze technique in both porcelain and stoneware. On his pots, Reiff used a slip inlay technique to create organic, floral forms reminiscent of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.
Many Danish potters practiced raku, which involves firing pots in wood-burning kilns at low temperatures, removing them while still hot, and plunging them into a bath of cold water to cool them very quickly. Anne Lise Bruun Pedersen (1931-2004) is one of the few Western potters to fully master the technique and to successfully adapt it to Western styles. Today, Jens Hostrup (b. 1945) creates classic, lightweight, and thin raku forms in colors ranging from blue and turquoise to neutral glazes with prismatic surfaces.
Today’s Danish pottery fuses antiquity, formalism, international influence, and postmodern artistry. Ceramicists like Malene Müllertz (b. 1949) distinguish themselves as exceptional, multifaceted artists. Müllertz often incorporates detailed geometric forms on her work. Bente Hansen (b. 1943) explores vessels’ potential, from thick-skinned, ornately painted forms to tall, graceful orb-like ones. She achieved her distinctive, orange peel-like surfaces through saltglazing, a technique first used during the 14th century. Other contemporary potters, including Lis Ehrenreich (b. 1953), Ulla Hansen (b. 1944), and Mette Augustinus Poulsen (b. 1945), explore the potential of alternative processes. Poulsen’s
hand-thrown and traditional forms – which combine Denmark’s native red clay, a reduction kiln, and glazes made from spruce ash, birch ash, borax, and iron – are subtle and understated.
The Museum’s collection makes it an international destination for the study of ceramics. In addition to a world-renowned collection of Wedgwood pottery, it maintains and displays extensive holdings in English and European, Asian, African, and Pre-Columbian ceramics. The Museum’s collection of 20th-century Danish ceramics pays tribute to a country that has distinguished itself in the ceramic arts. The Danish modern style remains as popular, stylish, and innovative as it was more than a half-century ago.
*Adapted from Tradition Transformed: Danish Ceramics in the Twentieth Century by Nicole Jordan (Birmingham Museum of Art, 2011)