Introduction to Sun Ae Kim’s research and interest in the ceramic figurine

by Sun Ae Kim

I was introduced to a new world of ceramics when I first visited the Ceramics galleries in the V&A in 2009.  I was overwhelmed by the vast number of collections on display, which filled the ceiling-high glass cabinets, from top to bottom. While observing these collections, I was able to imagine the frenzy surrounding this European porcelain ware and the figurines when they were popular in the past. Moreover, I was intrigued by some of the scenes captured in the figurines. Before then, my understanding of figurines was purely as decorative pieces for the house, and therefore drinking, fighting, scenes of crime and love affairs seemed inappropriate for display. In my first encounters with European figurines, I experienced a cultural disconnect and surprise, as the notion of ‘figurines’ does not exist in Korean history, and comparable ceramic figures differed tremendously from their European counterparts. It must have been a great surprise to Europeans when they first encountered the beauty of porcelain from Asia in early as the thirteenth century. In Korea, ceramic figures were mostly made for ceremonial purposes or for burials, and were also limited to water droppers or incense burners for daily use, and held purely decorative value for scholars. Even in Asia, the philosophy of ceramics in art was developed distinctively in each national culture; unlike in Japan and China, whose ceramics were first introduced to Europeans, the art form was developed differently, with less emphasis on colour.Initially, this prompted my research into European figurines. My earlier works, A Marriage Lesson (2009)(Fig.1) and Since Eve ate Apples, Much Depends on Dinner (2010)(Fig.2) were a result of this interest during my MA. Taking European porcelain figurines of the eighteenth century, and their socio-political significance and artistic form, as a point of departure, I created ceramic works that explore issues in contemporary marriage.

Fig.1, A Marriage Lesson

Fig. 2, Since Eve Ate Apples, Much Depends On Dinner

My general interest in European ceramics was developed more specifically during my experience of working at the design studios of the Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Royal Albert and Minton, and at the Wedgwood factory in Stoke-on-Trent in 2010. For the production of Since Eve ate Apples, Much Depends on Dinner (Fig.2), which was a theatrical dinner setting piece, I had the opportunity to make the centrepieces of this collection at the Wedgwood factory. Prior to the factory experience in March 2010, I was situated in the design studio of Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Royal Albert and Minton for my work placement. This was just a few months after Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton company (WWRD Holdings Ltd.) had fallen into administration in early 2009. During my stay, I was able to learn about the changes that had taken place since the takeover of the factory and design department by an American company, KPS Capital. As a long-term visitor (I was resident for over a month), I sensed depression and anxiety at the major redundancies and uncertainties of the future. In the factory, most of the lines had already relocated to China and Indonesia; only the prestige lines and some of Jasper Conran range were still manufactured at the English site. However, some enamel-painted figurines and commissioned pieces were still being produced. Two plate liners who have worked for the company for around forty years, shared their photographic catalogue of what they had previously produced for private collectors. Unfortunately, I was unable to meet any figurine-makers. Interestingly, I was told that designers in the UK sometimes preferred figurines made in Indonesia since they were of better quality, and ceramics are now being manufactured outside the UK.This move can be connected with the history of Victorian china fairings, which were manufactured by Conta and Boehme in Germany in the late nineteenth century for the British market.

In collectable figurines today we see a continuance of the subject matters and styles of the past. For example, in the current Royal Doulton Pretty Ladies series (Fig.3), it is evident that the subject matter of the figurines has not changed dramatically since Royal Doulton was highly popular in the late nineteenth century. Even though the female figurine wears a modern-style evening dress, it bears a strong resemblance in terms of composition and treatment of the costume to historical figurines of female figures. (Fig.4)

Fig.3, Pretty Ladies Collection

Fig.4, Pretty Lady Figures From the HN And M Series

This continuity is also manifest in the ways in which contemporary ceramic figurines also reflect the social and economic trends of the times. For instance, nowadays most ceramic figurines manufactured in large European ceramic firms such as Lladró take as subject matter not only memorable moments in life, but also new Oriental traditions, with its iconography of wealth, reflecting the emerging market for figurines in the Middle East and Asia.  Often these are idealised portrayals of beauty and an idyllic lifestyle, and are removed from everyday reality. Considering that figurines have functioned as one of the ways in which people’s lives were documented, the tendency to idealise became an issue I wanted to address in my work.

Fig. 5, Look at Mommy

Fig. 6, Sunset At The Pier

My experience with the traditional European ceramic figurine art form and observations of changes taking place in the contemporary ceramic industry informs my research for this MPhil research thesis.

2. OVERVIEW OF CERAMIC FIGURINES

(1) A DEFINITION OF THE CERAMIC FIGURINE

‘Ceramic figurines’ in this thesis indicate small, moulded statuettes of human beings, deities and animals made of clay. Although it is unknown when the term first appeared, the term ‘figurine’ emerged in the mid-nineteenth century to refer to small porcelain statuettes that were first made in the eighteenth century in Europe. In England, the production of porcelain figurines emerged from a commercial agenda, to be sold as highly fashionable items for high-profile patrons. These were normally expensive, limited in number, and exclusive to certain markets. For example, Josiah Wedgwood actively targeted potential customers for his ceramics. He encouraged wealthy women to visit his shop by invitation only, or to come during their season in town to meet with friends, in the hope and expectation that they would tell their husbands. Wedgwood sometimes tailored his work to specific markets, including individual commissions; for the armorial trade, for example, he would print or paint the patron’s coat of arms.

However, these quickly became popular among the working class as more affordable figurines appeared on the market. By the end of the nineteenth century, small porcelain figures, ‘Victorian china fairings’, were readily available to the public, as they were sometimes given away as souvenirs in fairs, hence the term ‘fairings’. In my thesis, the term ‘ceramic figurines’ include these china fairings as well as more expensive lines, as they followed a similar procedure in terms of production.

(2) DEFINITION OF THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CERAMIC FIGURES AND FIGURES IN CONTEXT

The majority of books and articles refer to ceramic figurines as ‘figurines’ or ‘figures’. The origin of the word ‘figurine’ comes from the French and Italian words figurine and figurina as a diminutive form of the Latin figura. It is unknown when ceramic statuettes began to be called ‘figurines’. ‘Figurine’ seems to have been more prevalent verbally, while  ‘figure’ seems to be preferred in written text. The ‘–ine’ from ‘figurine’ might suggest that they are smaller versions of ‘figures’.

In the wider context my artworks could be seen to fall into the wider category of ‘figurative ceramics’.  However, my intention for this practice-led thesis was to place my works in the field of contemporary ‘figurines’, which in my view has a direct engagement with English historical figurines.

(3) THE SUBJECT MATTER OF CERAMIC FIGURINES: OVERVIEW OF EVERYDAY LIFE SCENES IN CERAMICS

In the eighteenth century, the subject matter of figurines varied widely, from popular theatrical scenes, actors, actresses, Greek myths, Chinoiserie, Turks and sportsmen to pastoral subjects, family, courtship, children, animals and the seasons. On the other hand, the majority of nineteenth-century Staffordshire figurines originated from the copying of the porcelain figurines that were available on the market: marked, however, by much more diverse interpretation by the makers. The themes also differed, focusing predominantly on portraits, social issues, pastimes and pastoral subjects. Ceramic figurines captured and reflected people’s social habits and issues. Unlike Wedgwood figurines, which dealt with classical subject matter from the Greek and Roman periods, scenes from everyday life in England were the predominant theme in Staffordshire figurines. While Wedgwood products were produced for a minority of wealthy consumers, figurines became more widely available for purchase by a broader range of customers in the nineteenth century: importantly, earthenware figurines became accessible to the working class. Ceramics was highly popular at that time, like social media today in the way the work functioned as a channel or tool for observation and commentary on contemporary society.

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