Kat Murrell

Modern, timeless Rookwood vases at Villa Terrace

The exhibit, featuring works by the American company from just after WWI to the Great Depression, showcases inventive techniques and evolutions of form.

By - Feb 14th, 2013 11:39 pm

Vases may seem like rather utilitarian things, meant to hold objects of attention, such as floral displays. The pieces on view in Modern Rookwood: 1918-1933, however, are works of aesthetic beauty and delight in their own right.

Frederick Sturgis Laurence, “Pocket Vase with portrait of Fast Thunder,” ca. 1900. Courtesy of the Charles Allis Art Museum.

The exhibition features pieces from the collection of Riley Humler and Annie Bauer, augmented by a smaller display titled Rookwood Through the Ages. The latter brings together selected pieces from the collections of the Villa Terrace and the Milwaukee Art Museum, providing a thoughtful introduction to this historic American company. Originally founded in Cincinnati by Maria Longworth Nichols in 1880, Rookwood won international acclaim within a decade. The pieces from the company’s early period include a diminutive “pocket vase” featuring a portrait of an American Indian called Fast Thunder. He is regal in profile, with a headdress of pale feathers tipped in black cascading along the contour of the vase. His gaze looks to the opposite edge, illuminated as though by the sun. Other notable pieces include vessels with silver overlay, incised with delicate lines of floral patterns and nature motifs.

Rookwood Through the Ages is like an opening act, preparing us for the main event: Modern Rookwood: 1918-1933. From the post-World War I period to the dark days of the Great Depression, Rookwood’s artists pursued inventive techniques in glazes and lasting beauty in their decorative subjects. Floral designs are prominent in this selection of works, but the manner of representation varies from detailed, precise forms to abstract and expressive colors.

Installation view of the Züber gallery, featuring vases by Lorinda Epply, Lenore Asbury, and Arthur P. Conant. Photograph by the author.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the stroke of curatorial inspiration that paired the lush vibrancy of the handprinted wallpaper in the Züber Gallery with vases decorated by Lorinda Epply, Lenore Asbury, and Arthur P. Conant. Collectively, the color palette of the vases, filled with the whimsy of luscious flowers and pale blue skies, resonates with the decoration of the room’s walls. The effect is that the vases are placed like jewels in a harmonious setting, installed in a glass case toward the middle of the room. This arrangement entices one to admire the individual pieces from multiple angles. It is a recommended exploration, as a peripheral stroll unfolds the delight of detail, particularly in the subtropical settings that wrap around Conant’s slender vases.

The exhibition continues with comparatively large-scale vases, a number of which are showcased in pairs. These further illustrate the individualistic nature of the artists. One particularly lovely example is Harriet Wilcox’s Vase with Fruit, where branches of citrus, perhaps tangerines or persimmons, wind around a vase glazed in cream and blue. Delicate leaves and fruit appear frosted, as though brushed with the lightest breath of snow. It is a particularly evocative piece for its sense of space and atmosphere, as well as the deft handling of form as the plump fruits dangle alluringly on the vine.

Jens Jensen, Vase with Seven Nudes, 1933. Courtesy Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum.

The final gallery of the exhibition is rounded out with works from the 1930s, showing another side to Rookwood as it struggled through the Great Depression. The vases shown are smaller and display brighter, simpler glazes—some with dipped and dripped effects on their surfaces. There are also a few examples of figure painting, as nudes languidly accent the vases’ curved surfaces. There is a sense of modernist simplicity and abstraction, combined with nods to classical forms. It appears to be a moment that sums up the ambition of Rookwood to synthesize tradition with innovation, creating a reflection of its times in the ancient art of pottery.

Modern Rookwood: 1918-1933 continues through April 7, 2013 at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, 2220 N. Terrace Avenue. An informal lecture will be given by prominent Rookwood collector and donor to the exhibition, Riley Humler, on Thursday, March 7th from 6 to 7:30pm.

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