San Francisco

“English Pottery, Swedish Folk Art”

120 pieces of early English pottery from the Frank P. and Harriet C. Burnap collection housed in the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and the Atkins Museum of Fine Arts in Kansas City, and over 500 items of Swedish folk art in an eight-part exhibition from the Nordiska Museum, Stockholm.

The new policy lined out for the de Young Museum by new Director Jack R. McGregor, does not eliminate the showing of contemporary art, but it evidently aims at curtailing it, which has its unfortunate side. However, such historical and educational exhibitions the de Young’s program, and some validity to the argument that this important museum, easily accessible to the ambulatory public by virtue of its location in Golden Gate Park, should maintain a generous attitude toward ethnological shows. Perhaps with an enlargement of facilities, a properly balanced program will be maintained.

The value of the Burnap Collection, which contains more than 1000 pieces, lies not in its size or rarity, but in the excellence of the types it includes. The de Young selection presents a pageant of English earthenware from the 17th through the 18th century, after which machine industry ended the work of the individual craftsman. It traces the rise of a rude craft to a fully accredited art.

It is the functional 17th-century Slip Ware with its clumsy simplicity and crude strength that holds the attention here. The bold designs, integrated with the vessel they embellish, are wonderfully harmonious. Like the contemporary Vallauris pottery, English slip ware gains much of its charm from its faithfulness to the very nature of the clay.

This is an historical exhibition, objectively reflecting the variable tastes of the English people. It reveals their periods of vulgarity followed by, and sometimes contemporaneous with, a sophisticated regard for ceramics of exquisite design and workmanship.

The inventiveness and craftsmanship of Josiah Wedgwood are impressive, even in the small selection of his works included here. One delights in Wheildon’s agate ware, yet has more clinical than esthetic interest in his “cauliflower ware” with its strange taste-association. The fine green glaze developed for this pottery is especially notable. Tea trade with China stimulated a further development of the salt glaze process, and a method of bleaching the local clays, in order to produce a white high-fired semi-vitreous clay to compete with Chinese porcelain. Some of the most expressive of the zoomorphic pots and figures are in this group.

It has been said that folk art represents a degeneration from the art of the leading groups of society. True enough, in that the folk-art craftsman, living among the common people and working under poorer conditions than the leading contemporary artists, naturally has less skill and contacts in the more sophisticated fields of art. Yet this very naiveté and close connection with the traditional life of the common people frequently results in an interesting variation between different cultural regions of the country. The de Young show of Swedish folk art makes this abundantly clear, while offering an opportunity to re-evaluate one’s point of view on this manifestation of the creative urge among people whose lives are often lived under grim circumstances.

Folk art is one of those several terms used to identify types of art that do not fall into the usual classification of fine art. In areas where society has been traditionally grouped for centuries into upper and lower classes, and where the leading class has been responsible for the new trends in the history of art, the term “folk art” is an apt and valid description. It frequently is characterized by its relation to the art of the leading group, which can be variously described as modern, upper-class, stylized or fine art.

Perhaps folk art could be considered as the sum of those esthetic and decorative values that belong as a rule to every family within a local group. And it is generally made within that group. It is an art for living, applied to objects in daily use, or for special use on festive occasions within either the family or the group as a whole. Traditional in form and decoration, folk art employs the same artistic elements and techniques that have been used for centuries, particularly in remote regions. With the arrival of new influences, folk art blends the old forms and motifs with the new. Thus it has a significant social value within the group, especially when supernatural beliefs and values are attached to specific objects.

Little Swedish folk art survives from before the 17th century, but appreciation of it at its highest development, about 1750 to 1850, is fortunately possible because of objects still in possession of families, and from museum collections such as this one. After a century of greatness, industrialization spread over the country and cheap industrial products entered the homes, with a consequent curtailment of production and use of home-made things. Folk art declined, with the exception of the production of textiles, which was preserved in the southern part of the country where it was absorbed by the handcraft movement.

The de Young show stresses that aspect of Swedish folk art which has the character of applied art in the sense that it is applied to objects of practical use and utility as well as decorative textiles and wall hangings. Some of the abstract patterns here stem from sources far removed from Sweden, as with the A and M monograms that are found on the pendants of Scanian and Lappish jewelry. These symbols, like the “Ave Maria” have been found woven into what is known as the “rolakan” technique, which generation after generation of women weavers have reproduced without having any idea of its significance. Some motifs obviously have found their way into the folk art from the Flemish tapestry weavers, especially the millefleurs, greatly enriching the local expression.

Elizabeth M. Polley