Art in clay

SHOULD art and culture change with the time? Do we try too hard perhaps to hold on to the old? The National Ceramic Factory at S`evres, France, answers emphatically ``Yes.'' S`evres is a suburb southwest of Paris, and the ceramics are principally porcelains. Determined to be ``of the time,'' the factory from its inception in the 18th century has invited contemporary artists to collaborate, and literally thousands have done so.

The actual throwing on of the clay and the closely regulated firing are generally left to expert technicians, but the shapes and their decorations are often the inspiration of painters, sculptors, engravers, designers, illustrators. All work together very closely.

The aims of the factory are, first, to satisfy the needs of the state (table services for official organizations such as the ministries or the 'Elys'ee Palace, diplomatic gifts, etc.), and second, to sell to collectors and art lovers in and out of France.

The Museum of the Factory, now affiliated with other national museums, has periodic special exhibitions. This year's, called ``Porcelains of S`evres of the 20th Century,'' presents work by a number of today's artists with international reputations.

There is Jean Arp of Strasbourg, France, with his lovely shaped, dreamily painted vases. They reflect the artist's early devotion to poetry, which is the essence of all his art. Beauty reigns, a delicate kind of beauty, smiling, with unexpected depths.

Present also is the American Alexander Calder, winner of the international prize for sculpture at a Venice exhibition. So closely is the Calder name tied to mobiles and stabiles, we expect the tantalizing forms on his plates to start moving about.

THE French sculptor Roseline Granet manipulated white plaster into a curious vase quite typical of her work. The pot (developed in porcelain) presents the head of a person asleep, serene, mysterious, silent, almost surrounded by large white leaves that have come tumbling down. Granet says she is never quite sure what happens. Exuberant, dynamic, full of fancy, she lets the personage and the ever-present leaves take over.

We see a number by `Etienne Hajdu, born in Romania, for many years a citizen of France, where he has been awarded a National Grand Prize for Sculpture. Already a recognized master of conventional materials like wood, stone, marble, and plaster, he became interested in metals, especially the latest techniques for working them easily. One of his porcelains is a vase he painted, adding six individually molded handles of spun aluminum.

Taking a quick look at the painters, we find Pierre Alechinsky, a Belgian, who profoundly shocked the factory with some of his famous whimsical cartoons; however, they make the show.

Many of the plates are in the flat model ``Diane,'' easier for painters who are understandably not accustomed to accommodating their style to a rounded surface. One of these bears a lovely linear abstraction by the Portuguese artist Vieira da Silva. Each brushstroke has its own rhythmic order.

Zao-Wou-Ki knows well both Chinese and Occidental painting. He has been called a lyrical abstractionist. His luminous scenes are certainly lyrical, but abstract? How can they be abstract when they live and breathe? Zao is one of the greatest of the great.

These are only a few of the artists who have porcelains among the 300 on display at the 20th-century exhibition. It is clearly evident how well one of the oldest arts is adaptable to modern concepts.

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