Belgian porcelain artist Piet Stockmans recently launched a major retrospective exhibition titled The Archive. Stockmans’ oeuvre uniquely combines his commercial ‘applied arts’ work with the artistic, free flowing expressionist creations. In 1987, he founded Studio Pieter Stockmans, specializing in the production of handcrafted hard porcelain, working with international Michelin-starred chefs, such as Sergio Herman, Alain Ducasse and Lanshu Chen.
His practice has been extremely wide based, ranging from extensive research into finding the perfect shade of blue, to urns and jewellery in porcelain for precious keeping memories alive, and the iconic ‘Sonja’ cup, which he designed for the Maastricht factory Mosa in 1976 – A design that would go on to sell some 30 million cups in its first decade alone. Stockmans has exhibited in prestigious museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. This retrospective exhibition offers a unique insight into his life and work, and gives an overview of Stockmans’ contemporary art practice from 1963 to the present.
I speak with Flemish ceramist Piet Stockmans on the sides of his exhibition at his studio in Belgium.
Rahul Kumar (RK): A retrospective of six decades is something not many artists can boast of. As you look back at your creative life, what are the significant milestones and departures?
Piet Stockmans (PS): My life has been a series of initiatives to achieve the result I have today. For example, the choice to enter the industry after my higher art education has been essential for the work that has come into being as a result. The starting point in my work has always been the material, the research that I do and the actions that arise from that. The results then follow organically. I have been creative in my research and sometimes something personal and valuable comes out of it that tells something about me.
Rahul: In an attempt to ‘look forward’, you designed your own coffin. Why is it important for you to examine the idea of death? While inevitable, is it not more important to celebrate the life at hand, instead?
Piet: To be concerned with death is the same as being concerned with life. Life is the time between birth and death. It is one cycle. When you reflect on death, life becomes more meaningful.
Rahul: You have pushed the boundaries of your medium, porcelain. It is said that you underwent extensive research to find the perfect shade of blue once! Please recall that experience for us.
Piet: As soon as I had my own porcelain kiln in 1979, I started to research hundreds of raw materials. Naturally, blue dyes were among them. The blue color that I use and that enthusiasts have named Stockmans Blue was chosen from hundreds of color tests. These show that raw materials for blue give very good results at the high temperature (1400°C) at which porcelain is fired. From these, I chose a blue that has become very recognisable.
Rahul: What has been more satisfying – your artistic endeavors or designing for function?
Piet: The starting points are different but I do not distinguish between them. There is a mutual fertilisation between the different types of work. It is the same person who makes everything. For the sake of clarity, the art exhibition is divided into various aspects of my work. I have to unravel it in order to paint a clear picture for the viewer. In practice, my experience is that people lump everything together. Many a functional piece of porcelain moves from the cupboard to the shelf as an object.
Rahul: Please talk about the three sections of the retrospective exhibition.
Piet: The exhibition had some general themes. Because of the confusion about ceramics and porcelain, I first provided information about the various types of ceramic products.
Then I explained the history of porcelain from the Far East to here. I also tell about my background. Then I explained what I designed as an industrial designer and who I worked with. Then there was a chapter on collaboration with companies in other materials, such as crystal, and finally, collaboration with artists who have worked in porcelain.
All this was a prelude to the presentation of the designs for our studio, which were presented in a dark blue 25m-long corridor. Then my free-form work was presented in seven corridors in which my entire oeuvre is gone through. This ended with my last work in the large exhibition hall. In an additional presentation, all the work I have done over the years was shown. These have mainly been small series of which I have kept one piece.
In 1988 Stockmans was awarded the State Prize for the Visual Arts. In 1995 he was a Cultural Ambassador of Flanders and a year later he received the prestigious Red Dot Award. In 1998 he accepted the Henry Van de Velde Prize for his entire oeuvre.
The Archive is on view until the end of February 2022 on the first floor of Studio Pieter Stockmans in Genk, Belgium.