Portrait of a Potter: New biography of the iconic Lucie Rie

Published this month Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter by Emmanuel Cooper investigates the life and legacy of the brilliant and elusive potter Lucie Rie. Today we take a look at this lovely new biography, as well as Rie’s elegant, modernist, utilitarian and decorative work.

Lucie Rie (1902-1995) is one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated and iconic potters. Though perhaps not a house-hold name, her distinctive aesthetic has been enormously influential, combining a delicate and acute understanding of modernism with the skills of her chosen craft. During the course of her sixty-year career, she continually honed and refined her work, developing new shapes and surface effects that were distinctly her own. Her delicately shaped bowls, bottles and other vessels reflect her commitment to simplicity and clarity of form, earning her both critical and popular acclaim.

Rie is the subject of a fascinating new biography from Yale University Press that delves into the life and legacy of this influential and fascinating figure.

Born in Vienna (then Austria-Hungary), Lucie Rie had a liberal upbringing, the youngest child of Benjamin Gomperz, a Jewish doctor who was a consultant to Sigmund Freud. Rie studied pottery under decorative artist and sculptor Michael Powolny at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule, a progressive arts and crafts school associated with the Wiener Werkstätte (the Vienna Workshops). In 1925 Rie set up her first studio in Vienna and gained valuable exposure by exhibiting at the prestigious Paris International Exhibition (the exhibition for which Pablo Picasso painted Guernica). Over the next decade she gained the acclaim and respect of the artistic community, eventually winning a silver medal at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937.

In 1938 she settled in London after fleeing Nazi-controlled Austria. During this period she provided accommodation to another Austrian émigré, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger (probably best known for the Schrödinger’s cat paradox). During and after the war, to make ends meet, Lucie Rie made ceramic buttons and jewellery, some of which are now displayed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Rie’s small London studio was at 18 Albion Mews, a narrow street of converted stables near Hyde Park. She invited many people to her studio and was renowned for giving her visitors tea and cake. However, Rie was reluctant to reveal anything about her working methods or the ideas that informed her thinking, and equally if not more evasive about her private life. Her studio remained almost unchanged during the 50 years she occupied it and has been reconstructed in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ceramics gallery.

Lucie Rie is probably best known for her bowl and bottle forms, which have been described as cosmopolitan, architectural, delicate and distinctly modernist. Her pottery is still displayed in collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Rie’s pots are best summed up by Emmanuel Cooper in his introduction to Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter.

Lucie Rie’s pots are remarkable for their sense of stillness and inner strength, often appearing a great deal larger than they actually are. This great serenity of form, body, decoration and glaze unite in a completeness that is quiet, restrained and controlled. This control is well demonstrated in Rie’s use of line, whether scratched through a black-brown glaze in patterns that follow and reflect the shape of the pot or incised into the surface and filled with clay of a contrasting colour. Minimal and spare, the line animates and energizes the form.

Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter

Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter

Cooper’s comprehensive new biography Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter follows Rie’s life and artistic development from her birth into the Austria of the Habsburgs to her studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, and finally her years in Britain following her escape in 1938 from Nazi Austria.

Emmanuel Cooper, a distinguished potter who knew Rie, interviewed many of her friends and acquaintances to produce this complete and detailed account of Rie’s life and work. Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter is illustrated with copious photographs of her friends and family as well as images of her fine pots. Cooper was given unrestricted access by the Rie estate to previously unpublished letters and other material, which provide fascinating new insights into her life and work and have allowed him to reevaluate Rie’s creative output within the broader context of modernism and the emergence of the studio pottery movement in Britain.

A cross-disciplinary book, Cooper’s fascinating biography will be an essential addition to the collections of pottery lovers, design enthusiasts or followers of the modernist art movement in general.

Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter is available now from Yale University Press.

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