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  • Adrian J. Boas

On the Silence of Unknown Artists


Walters Art Museum [Public domain, CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)]

In an essay in his 1957 book Mythologies, Roland Barthes made the delightful comparison of a car (specifically of the 1955 Citroën D.S. 19) to Gothic cathedrals, both being "supreme creations of an era, conceived in passion by unknown artists." Some might argue with the car as the object of comparison, and of the Citroën as the choice of car, but a beautiful car does indeed have the ability to stop the observer in his tracks, as certainly does the Gothic cathedral.


But what caught my attention in reading this short essay, was the phrase "conceived in passion by unknown artists". We live in an age when celebrity falls on the manufacturer of a particularly colourful homemade "slime" for children, the producer of a video showing someone having a nasty fall, or the author of an inane two-line statement on twitter. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that in the past, most of the creators of objects of great beauty, whether Gothic cathedrals or the countless objects that we might regard for their purpose as prosaic, remain entirely unknown to us.


As a student I was involved in a study of medieval ceramics, specifically those that were imported into the Latin East from neighbouring Muslim countries, and vessels manufactured in the crusader states or in Eastern Mediterranean countries. I became aware of the excellence which the medieval ceramicist was able to achieve with the simplest and most utilitarian of objects. Under the influence of the Far East, and with the desire to imitate the imported porcelain, the anonymous potter (the term seems entirely inappropriate for these master craftsmen) took the craft to an entirely new place, in form, decoration and technological achievement. Indeed, these objects, at their best, are no less sensual than the 1955 Citroën D.S. 19, and equally deserving of a play on words (if only I could think of one) as clever as the D.S. -Déesse - `Goddess`. For they are, to borrow yet again from Barthes, an 'exultation of glass' (in this case, glaze).

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