A museum of crockery?
We sometimes hear the Musée Ariana described as the 'crockery museum'. In reality, it is so much more: a museum devoted to the history and arts of ceramics, glassware and stained glass. Its collections cover a period of 1200 years, from the 9th century to the present day. The exhibits themselves come from Switzerland, Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.
Ceramics, glassware and stained glass, sometimes referred to as the 'fired arts', are notable for their intimate relationship with the four elements. The earth and sand below our feet provide the raw materials. These substances are then filtered or softened using water. Next, the kiln’s fire, fed by air, causes the materials to undergo a permanent transformation.
The close link that ceramics and glass have with nature explains not only their long history but also how attractive these materials remain in the present day to artists and industry alike. They connect us to nature. So, as you can see, the Ariana is much more than just a museum to the humble cup and saucer!
A story of travel, between East and West
The arrival of Chinese white porcelain, first in the Middle East and then in Europe, caused one of the biggest upheavals in the entire history of ceramics. Until the early 18th century, the secret behind porcelain production remained a mystery to Europeans, and the continent’s potters resorted to alternative materials and techniques (such as slip-coated earthenware, faience or soft-paste porcelain) to compete with or imitate this precious 'white gold'.
Porcelain reached Europe’s ports by boat, at the end of a long and dangerous journey. These ships were chartered by European traders, particularly the powerful Dutch East India Company. All being well, it took a minimum of 18 months to make the round trip and return safe and sound.
The motifs that decorated the items, which were inspired by the codes of East Asian painting, were not always understood by European 'long noses'. As a result, over time they were adapted to the Western taste for florid, gleaming decorations. After all, market forces sometimes get the upper hand over mutual understanding and respect.
To increase demand, merchants ordered specific shapes and decorative designs from Chinese porcelain makers, even going as far as to provide them with their own 'Oriental' motifs.
Cobalt and kaolin: blue and white ceramics
Blue decorative elements on an immaculate white background are archetypal of Chinese ceramics. This is the most frequent colour pairing among all the collections at the Musée Ariana.
From the stonepaste of Persia and the faiences of Delft, to Meissen porcelain and the printed designs on English creamware: East Asian influence dominates and cobalt blue is omnipresent.
The fashion for all things blue and white has survived the perilous journey through space and time to the present day. It illustrates the wealth and diversity of the cultural and commercial exchange between East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Numerous contemporary artists contribute to the endless process of reinterpreting and reinventing this traditional combination of blue and white.
Cobalt oxide has been used with great success to stain or decorate ceramics and glassware. Its powerful colouring capacity makes it an economical choice, and its resistance to the highest kiln temperatures is a valuable asset. Whether it’s a bright blue, a purplish blue or a blackish blue, the result sometimes reveals the region in which the precious ore was mined. These days, cobalt is more often found in our mobile phones or in the batteries of our electric cars.
Helvetica: does Swiss culture have its own identity?
Multilingualism, diplomacy, banking, cheese, watchmaking, mountains and chocolate often enter the minds of those who try to map out the cultural terrain of the land the Romans called Helvetia, nestled in the heart of Europe.
Swiss history has long maintained the image of a nation of farmers and mountain dwellers uniting against the enemy to save their independence, or of a rich adoptive country offering sanctuary, where people live in harmony with nature. Outlooks and ways of life differ greatly between city and countryside, Swiss natives and immigrants, and between German speakers, French speakers and Swiss Italians. Situated at a junction between multiple influences, and nurturing sobriety and good workmanship, Switzerland is a complex country.
The Swiss arts of ceramics and glassware, from the 14th century to the present day, reflect that contrasting and pluralist Swissness. Earthenware frying pans and crockery from Winterthur, slip-coated earthenware oven dishes and roasting trays from the countryside around Bern, enamelled glass bottles from Flühli, porcelain tableware from Nyon, creamware plates from Carouge or groups of porcelain figurines from Zurich: the array of forms, techniques, decorations and styles is astonishing and, in many cases, relatively unknown.
Ceramics and glassware: the art and industry take on the challenge of profitability
The changes brought about in the 19th century by the Industrial Revolution also affected the mass production of ceramics and glassware. From the origin of raw materials to technological research, from improving kilns and fuel to distribution of the finished products – all stages of the production process were optimised with a view to streamlining them but without losing sight of quality.
Right up until the present day, the production of ceramics and glassware on an industrial scale has continually fluctuated between economic and artistic priorities. Two factors threatened European manufacturing: competition from East Asian markets and changes in attitudes to dining. The switch from the traditional Sunday lunch – served on fine porcelain tableware with crystal glasses – to the tray of food gulped down in front of the TV was not without its consequences.
In Switzerland, the porcelain factory in Langenthal (1906) and the glassmaking workshops of Saint-Prex (1911) came to represent the turbulence that gripped the tableware industry in the second half of the 20th century. The way the story ended was often inescapable: Langenthal was relocated to the Czech Republic, and Saint-Prex gave up its artistic production, limiting itself to industrial jars and bottles.
Contemporary creation…freed from limitations
Long considered a type of craft whose output was largely utilitarian, the status of ceramics rose during the 20th century. Various artistic movements in Europe and the United States sought to treat ceramics as an art form in its own right. Craftsmanship was temporarily pushed into the background in favour of freedom of expression. Non-ceramicist artists like Lucio Fontana and Pablo Picasso began to work with the material, which offered infinite potential, and in doing so, artistic disciplines became intertwined and opened up.
In the 1980s, the Musée Ariana took up a position strongly supportive of the wide scope of contemporary expression through ceramics and glassware. It developed close links with artists, schools, gallery owners and collectors, organised exhibitions, created publications and regularly expanded its collections in this area.
In the 21st century, artists living in Switzerland find themselves in a pluralist environment, with three professional training centres in Geneva, Vevey and Bern/Biel laying the groundwork for the future: not bad for such a small country!
Glassware and stained glass: more than just hot air
Glass is as magical as a soap bubble: starting with a mixture of sand, soda and lime heated up in a crucible, the master glassmaker blows or shapes a viscous, red-hot material. This process results in containers, sculptures and sheets that are smooth and resilient, transparent or coloured, and that capture the light.
The development of this fired art in Europe, from the Renaissance to the contemporary era, involved an almost infinite array of techniques and master craftsmanship: glistening lead-rimmed glass used to create stained-glass windows in churches, engraved and filigree glass created by craftsmen on the island of Murano, glass painted with multicoloured glazes in Flühli in the canton of Luzern, overlaid layers of coloured glass made by Art Nouveau masters or contemporary glass reinterpreting all kinds of techniques.
Whether it’s turning up on tables, incorporated into architecture or erected in the form of a sculpture, glass is always with us, enhancing our daily lives.
The Ariana and looted art
The issue of looted art during the period of National Socialism (between 1933 and 1945) affects a lot of museums. The Musée Ariana has carried out research to identify and document pieces that could fall into this category.
It is often difficult to precisely trace back the history of objects in the field of ancient applied arts. Indeed, sometimes multiple copies of the artworks are produced (for example, Meissen porcelain figurines); only the decoration allows them to be formally identified, which is impossible unless there are photographs. In addition, ceramics and glassware are only very marginally concerned by the issue of looted art, which primarily affects the fine arts.
Lastly, we must emphasise that, for our institution, the issue of items looted by the Nazis is not the only concern related to the origin of the collections. Wrongful possession of objects, notably as a result of seizures during searches conducted at the places they were produced or used, must be verified carefully. As such, the acceptance of new pieces into our collection is now subject to a strict acquisition procedure.