Puls is honored to present work by Carmen Dionyse, one of the world’s most revered and honored ceramic sculptors. All are pieces she withheld from the public for her personal collection. They span her entire 56 year ceramic oeuvre. Also on offer are works from her private collection of ceramic artists she admired. These include among others Claudi Casanovas, Ewen Henderson, Alev Ebüzziya Siesbye, Lawson Oyekan and Merete Rasmussen.
“I grew up in a bookish environment, in a family of publishers and book, magazine and newspaper distributors. I was a lonely child, conceived accidentally and unwanted by my mother. ‘You are nobody and you will never be anybody,’ she repeatedly told me. That left it up to me to prove to myself that I was somebody. This I did by watching, listening, and reading—always in silence. I have read history and mythology—the twin mirrors of humanity—all of my life. I was captivated by the world of gods, prophets, singular desert dwellers, anchorites, stylites; the solitary and isolated people searching for meaning and redemption.
From an early age I was engrossed in drawing, cutting, carving and gluing. I collected dry bones, stones and colored pieces of cloth and assembled them as animals, devils, flowers or simply creatures from my imagination. I began creating my art, my universe; my own world of meaningful objects.
In 1935, I began my formal study of drawing and painting and began playing my beloved JS Bach on the piano. I subsequently attended the Royal Academy of Art rather than Royal Music Conservatory, in part because my music practice was called irritating noise at home. From 1938 until 1946, as a woman I was only allowed to study two dimensional art: drawing, painting, etching and graphic design. I was confined to these by the Academy faculty and yes, Gestapo agents who would periodically enter a classroom and remove a student who was never seen again. In 1947, I married an artist. While I felt that two painters in a family would not work out well, I was already unsatisfied with the art of that time and began three years of study and work in the newly founded ceramics department at the Royal Academy. By 1958 I was even more frustrated and disappointed with the craft approach to clay.
With the encouragement of my husband I decided to strike out on my own path. I was guided only by my own ideas, my materials and my discoveries about those materials. I began to find my own ceramic voice. Virtually no one accepted this work however. Most found it too rough, too rude, indeed, too unnerving. In 1962, I was invited to take part in a New Realism and COBRA exhibition with international artists including Louise Nevelson, Jean Tinguely, and Niki de Sainte Phalle. However it was not until 1976 that my work was broadly accepted internationally.
Since 1958 I have explored reoccurring themes: metamorphosis, resurrection, aloneness and nature. Among the mythological figures, I chose the victims rather than the heroes: the Cyclops rather than Ulysses, Orpheus and Eurydice, Alcyone and Ceyx, Hades and Persephone, Daphne, Echo, Janus, the Sybils. I also chose the outcasts—the desert people and their seers. I always created my figures and my objects for myself; no one else. They were my only children.
Because my materials are the ancient elements of earth, water, air and fire, it has been a lifelong fight to resist the label of potter. I am a ceramic sculptor. Even today there are still those who would call my work mere craft because it is fired clay and glaze. This is a title I utterly reject!”
Both as an artist and a teacher, this tiny woman was ferocious. Many found her prickly and difficult to get along with. Others found her the very soul of gentleness. She was—without exception—as demanding of others as she was of herself. She had a long life (born in Gent in 1921 and died there in 2013) yet time was always of the essence. For those who would look at her work and truly try to see, those who would listen to her song and truly try to hear at least some of the music, she was a colossus. For them she was ready to give everything she had in her power to give. As for the rest, well, she knew from the very beginning she would never have enough time to find all of the answers she sought or even time to frame the right questions to ask. She wasted none of it on superfluous activity or people.
Though there are many recurrent themes in the work of Dionyse, she never began a piece with a particular subject in mind. “I had to wait for the clay to tell me what it must be.” Inevitably, the elements with which she worked spoke to her and the result is some of what you see before you today. It is her almost total mastery of all of her alchemical materials that set her apart from virtually all other ceramic artists.
The cycle of life was her lifelong study. Her shapes, both abstract and figurative, speak to us. Some in their stone-hard silence and others with eyes that force us see all of our own secret thoughts. Often thoughts we wish to resist confronting. But look closely and you will discover something you like. And liking is not a trivial thing. It tells you who you are; hopefully someone curious, who is also looking for answers or beauty or simply something that makes you consider what you may have previously been unconsciously afraid to embrace.
The sculptures of Carmen Dionyse are about mortality, the beauty of being alive and the search for understanding.
In 2002, the International Academy of Ceramics honored Carmen Dionyse as one of the world’s three seminal ceramic artists of the 20th century. A comprehensive slide show of her oeuvre and her all too brief remarks received a standing ovation and left few dry eyes in the audience. The IAC is the only association devoted to the medium of clay that functions on an international level. It combines ceramists, potters, artists, designers, authors, collectors, gallerists, conservators, restorers and curators as well as a panel of prestigious institutions and museums.
“Carmen Dionyse is to ceramic sculpture what Picasso is to modern painting.” Tony Franks, until 2007 President of the IAC