Bodegón: Portrait of the modest vessel (A collaboration)
Spending quality time with a hand crafted object can help us to reflect upon many things; the time and care that the maker has invested in it’s creation, the tangible physicality of its material, form and surface and also the social and historical context in which it was made. Potter Martin Bridges introduced me to the language of clay through his infectious enthusiasm and extensive knowledge of the material. As a painter, I had previously only examined the material through the study of paintings that depicted ceramic forms, presenting the appearance of handmade objects most commonly in a still life painting. This knowledge of ceramics from two very different research directions prompted a fascinating collaboration, which took us into Europe to view some breath taking examples of still life painting.
Bodegón is the 17th century tradition of Spanish still life painting depicting modest, utilitarian objects usually connected to eating and cooking. According the 1611 dictionary definition of the term, it referred to the lower entrance to a wine cellar (bodega) ‘where those who did not have anyone to cook for them were provided with food and drink.’ 1.
Artists including Francisco de Zurbaran and Diego Velasquez painted some powerfully evocative and beautiful Bodegones, which seem to communicate the very essence and individuality of these hand built vessels, imbuing them with characters of their own.
The Water Seller of Seville by Velasquez 1620 is a great case in point. Gifted to the first Duke of Wellington by King Ferdinand VII of Spain in 1816, it hangs in the Waterloo Gallery at Apsley House where it can be viewed comfortably as a reminder of the painter’s extraordinary skill and aptitude. Sketching the work on site, we remarked how the sparkling drip of water running down the full belly of the pot had for us become the ‘character’ in the painting rather than the three figures depicted using the objects. Martin became fascinated by the challenge of deciphering the clay type, firing temperature and glaze recipe that may have been used to create those famously depicted ceramic pots.
Back on the potter’s wheel, he set about bringing the beautiful objects back to life, throwing the specific pots that are featured in our favourite Bodegón paintings.
I began collecting shaped mirrors with a view to work directly onto the wooden back of the object. Using the reverse of a mirror seemed appropriate for me to paint on, having examined so many paintings that offered the viewer a theatrical glimpse into the past.
Rather than looking to the glass for a reflection of the here and now, looking into the reverse side of the mirror we are invited to look back at the crafted pots built by un-named skilled makers. Taking the pots out of their original context has enabled me to study the pure form of the pots in their own right. Drawing with my hands in charcoal to shape the pots, I have been able to ‘feel’ the form, the closest process I could get to actually making the objects, celebrating the subtle marks left by the hand of the maker, the seductive reflective glazed passages and the contrasting raw stoneware and terracotta surfaces. The challenge of curating an exhibition that unites the physical with the depicted is the next challenge. Although we aim to evoke the ghosts of the original paintings, these contemporary works are now sitting side by side as serious reminders of the importance of making. Reminders of learning the language of clay and paint, the language of throwing and painting and how we must continue to offer opportunity for artists and makers to develop their personal voices through the rigorous study and practice of art education. It is our hope that this exhibition will encourage others to look again at the unique properties of modest functional wares.
1. David Davies ‘Velasquez’s Bodegones’, Velasquez in Seville, National Galleries of Scotland, 1996
The exhibition Bodegón: Portrait of the modest vessel has been exhibited at Resistant Materials III, Black water Polytechnic September 2019 & The Naze Tower, Walton on the Naze, Essex from September 8th- October 31st 2018.
Martin and Jane discussed their project on BBC Radio Essex on 31st August 2018.
Jane lead a still life drawing workshop at neighbouring Essex Wildlife Trust Centre on September 22nd 2018.
Images: Jane Frederick & Martin Bridges 2018, Diego Velasquez ‘The Waterseller of Seville’ 1618-1622, Francisco De Zurbaran ‘Still life with Four vessels’ 1650
Photography: Ayesha Allen & Jane Frederick