Lessons from the Museum

Yesterday we got to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s a wonderful resource, but among the many treasures there, two rooms seemed particularly relevant to what we are trying to do on the ITE.

First off, the Brancusi room. This is just about the best collection of his sculpture anywhere outside Paris, but here they are perfectly displayed and easy to really look hard at. Brancusi famously took the motifs and approach of the peasant carving of his native Rumania and let it be the heart of his art. There’s ‘skill’ here, but only as much as any piece needs, it’s more about the ‘ judgement’ of knowing how much and how little to do. Some parts are left fresh from the chisel, some with the ‘found’ texture of the reclaimed wood he mainly used, and sometimes sanded, but never excessively so. It’s raw meets cooked, natural meets civilized, through the intelligence of the artist’s hand.

And then there’s the Japanese teahouse in its compound upstairs. So different, from such a different tradition, but remarkably consistent values. The Zen approach values an object for its appropriateness to the context, and for the freedom it embodies, not the costliness or rarity of the material used, or the time or even the skill of the maker. Every single thing in the ensemble, from wooden roof shingles to the calligraphy hung in the alcove is skilfully and appropriately made without excess. Wood is planed but unvarnished, the walls bare plaster of a beautiful colour. Everything direct from the hand of the artisan with a minimum of intervention or elaboration, a minimum of distracting fuss.

Both these spaces have the beauty of a mathematical equation (the simpler, the more elegant), but it’s a very real, here and now, seeing and touching kind of beauty. It’s the kind of beauty we are looking for both in our approach to making, and in the things we make.

Oh, and this afternoon we are off to see David Ellsworth, the great man of American turning. It’ll be fascinating to see his workshop and way of working…see how this relates too.

Malcolm and Gaynor

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