One Artist-Three Essays: Emile Decoeur
Essay #1 by Bernard Dejonghe
SPRING 1968. A CLASSIFIED AD IN THE JOURNAL LA Ceramique moderne: "Studio for rent, two wood kilns." I Phone up immediately and take the 194 bus next morning at the Porte d'Orleans, bound for 4 Rue Andre Sale] at Fontenay-aux-Roses. An old lady greets me at the door--Madame Decoeur. Until 1976 I worked in that studio, where I was able to carry out my first experiments with the kiln that had belonged to the person I gradually came to feel 1 was getting to know quite well. Each generation explores new paths and, as is quite normal, I struck out in other directions. But I've always remained fond of stoneware glazes and wood kilns. I like to think that there are meaningful encounters or connections between people or acts.
I see Emile Decoeur not as an isolated individual but as one of several makers in the development of 20th century ceramic expression. Two major exhibitions in the 1970s acquainted me with the work of the ceramists active between the end of the 19th century and the second half of the 20th. Some of them interested me, others not at all; I picked and chose. The Art of Pottery in France from Rodin to Dufy exhibition at the Musee de Sevres showed Carries, Chaplet and Decoeur, among others.
Chaplet at the end of the 19th century and Decoeur 20 years later had very much the same development. They gradually gave up decor and instead showed clean forms simply garbed in the beauty of stoneware or porcelain glazes, Chaplet firing at high temperatures and producing more spontaneous pieces, and Decoeur being more controlled and more of a perfectionist. This apparently straightforward evolution was actually very difficult and one assumes that both Chaplet and Decoeur had a sturdy character. During the Paris Commune in 1871 Chaplet commanded a section of the National Guards at Bourg-la-Reine; Decoeur closed his studio between 1940 and 1945, all through the Occupation and refused to light his kiln, though he was offered coal to do so.
The Masters of Contemporary Pottery at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in 1963 showed a few ceramists of the beginning of the second half of the 20th century, among whom I remember the Japanese Hamada, his friend the Englishman Leach, the Catalan Artigas and the French potters Jacqueline and Jean Lerat. In 1968, at the time I was beginning to work in Decoeur's studio, I learned about Voulkos, the Californian potter and I was also struck by the freedom of Miro's sculptures with Artigas. A thread connected all of these people, though their work was very different.
Madame Decoeur showed me a letter one day that Bernard Leach had sent to her husband. So they had been corresponding. Voulkos said that his first influences in Europe were Leach and Artigas. Artigas, who was a great admirer of Shoji Hamada's work, travelled to Japan to meet him. Jacqueline and Jean Lerat worked with Decoeur's gallery, the Galerie Rouard, at the outset of their careers; Jacqueline talks about Bernard Leach visiting them at La Borne in the early 1940s. I will always remember how excited I was at the Lerats' show at the gallery La Demeure in 1963.
These are the potters who impressed me during those first years of my work when I was firing with Decoeur's kiln. Like all of those who were involved in expressions of culture in the 1970s, I was searching for a form of freedom; yet I had every respect for the perfection of Decoeur's works.
In 1976, due to a property development scheme, I was obliged to leave the studio at Fontenay-aux-Roses. The house, the garden and the studio were left derelict for several years and were then bought up by the town hall of Fontenay and torn down without anyone giving a hoot. I had salvaged a few documents forgotten in a cardboard box in the back of the chicken coop, as well as Emile Decoeur's glazing balance, which I still use. The last time I fired the kiln, knowing that it was going to be demolished, was for the first exhibition at the Galerie Sarver in 1979. …