La Beauté du Geste

The Artisan's Touch

October 23, 2019By Heidi EllisonExhibitions
Finishing a piece by hand in the Grand Atelier at Sèvres. © Coyau. Wikimedia Commons
Finishing a piece by hand in the Grand Atelier at Sèvres. © Coyau. Wikimedia Commons

One of Paris’s oft-forgotten treasures is the Sèvres National Ceramics Museum and Manufactory, where precious Sèvres porcelain is still made and a collection of centuries’ worth of ceramics from around the world is on show. To inaugurate its new Savoir-faire Gallery and the École de Sèvres (a school with classes for both amateurs and professionals), and to draw attention to its exceptional assets, the museum is now holding an exhibition called “La Beauté du Geste” (“Exquisite Skills”) through August 31, 2020

The purpose of the show – which is especially pertinent now that ceramics is becoming increasingly popular as a medium for fine artists – is to explain how porcelain is made from start to finish and to illustrate the process with graphic and audiovisual presentations and some of the museum’s most beautiful pieces.

“Coupe Omnisport” (1971), designed by artist Roger Vieillard. Photo Gérard Jonca/Sèvres–Manufacture et Musée Nationaux
“Coupe Omnisport” (1971), designed by artist Roger Vieillard. Photo Gérard Jonca/Sèvres–Manufacture et Musée Nationaux

The works on show are truly exceptional. One of the most elegant has to be “Coupe Omnisport” (1971), a trophy designed by artist Roger Vieillard and glazed with the famous “Sèvres blue,” made from cobalt. This satisfyingly deep shade of blue was perfected at Sèvres along with the hard-paste porcelain-making process, invented by the Chinese in the 10th century but only understood and used in France since 1778. Since 1975, the cup has been presented by the French president to the winners of such sporting events as the Tour de France (I wonder if Lance Armstrong still has a row of them).

"Vase Étrusque à Rouleaux" (1813), showing the arrival in Paris of artworks looted by Napoleon’s army in Italy. Painted by Antoine Béranger.
“Vase Étrusque à Rouleaux” (1813), showing the arrival in Paris of artworks looted by Napoleon’s army in Italy. Painted by Antoine Béranger. Photo RMNGP (Sèvres, Cité de la Céramique)/Tony Querrec

Along with elaborate historical pieces like the “Scrolled Etruscan Vase,” commissioned by Napoleon in 1810 to commemorate the arrival at the Louvre of artifacts looted from Italy by his army, there are equally complex recent works made with very different techniques that appeal more to the modern eye.

“Odore di Femmina” (2004), designed by Johan Creten.
“Odore di Femmina” (2004), designed by Johan Creten. Photo Gérard Jonca/Sèvres–Manufacture et Musée Nationaux

One example is a sculpture of a woman’s torso, “Odore di Femmina” (2004), designed by Johan Creten. This piece was made with an 18th-century technique called pastillage and is covered with hand-sculpted biscuit-porcelain flowers attached to a molded form.

Another striking exhibit is the “Élysée Blue Dinner Service” (2018), designed by artist Évariste Richer. Each one of the 300 white plates is printed in Sèvres blue with a detail of a 1913 architect’s plan of the presidential palace. When the plates, like pieces of a puzzle, are set side by side in the right order, the entire plan is visible.

The exhibition continues in the museum’s permanent collection, where particular pieces that illustrate its themes – the history of porcelain, firing, Sèvres blue, color, official dinner services, large vases and biscuit porcelain – are marked with blue-and-white signs. Pick up a copy of a special map at the beginning of the exhibition as a guide.

And make sure you check the museum’s website for information on workshops and guided tours of the fascinating manufactory, where the venerable gestures of the past are still used to make these pieces of great beauty.

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