Michael Geertsen – the history of form as material and theme
By: André Gali
When the American artist Mike Bidlo exhibited at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo in 2002, visitors met well-known paintings of Picasso, Pollock and Warhol in the exhibition. Iconic works in the history of art such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Marilyn Monroe, incredibly similar to the originals, but painted by Bidlo. In the catalogue, the director at the museum at the time, Gunnar Kvaran, wrote: “The models, or original paintings, are first and foremost a socio-cultural object, a motif or picture material that has achieved artistic or art historical significance.”̎
The exhibition, whose title was Not Picasso, Not Pollock, Not Warhol in order to indicate that this was not intended to be anything other than re-presentations, opened my eyes to a way of thinking about culture and art, a way that particularly American artists have employed since at least the 1980s, with Warhol as a role model, and Marcel Duchamp as grandfather
Appropriation art, as it is often called, finds its motifs in the existing culture of paintings and objects; it lifts them up in order to reveal the influence that the media, advertising, film, art and consumer culture have on our lives. It shows how all embracing that influence is and what concealed power structures shape the conditions of our lives.
Bidlo’s exhibition also demonstrated that the act of rendering, or recycling, an object or a painting is not a neutral action – it is both political and philosophical in nature. The project opens up for reflections over the processes that lead to certain works achieving high status, entering the canon in art history and becoming art works tourists travel far and wide to see, while others fall by the wayside and are forgotten. That a particular work is lifted up, while another is overlooked, is never purely incidental. Visitors at the exhibition are challenged to reconsider concepts such as mimesis, original and copy.
I detect an affinity here between the way that Michael Geertsen employs the history of ceramics and design, in this instance with reference to Nora Gulbrandsen, even though Geertsen does not limit himself to recreating a form or a motif as faithfully as possible. The affinity lies more in how the socio-cultural context is highlighted through repetition.
Geertsen researches our modern object culture with a perceptive eye for the history of ceramics and design and delves into the historical form of everyday artefacts. This is done with great knowledge and a feeling for the major and minor connections between ceramics in everyday use, culture and history.
The history of ceramics and of artistic crafts is extensive, reaching far back in time and covering a range of functions. From the earliest times, knowledge related to clay as a material and the receptacle as a form led to the development of agrarian cultures and the first city cultures arose. Clay is also linked to the first written languages, and consequently is linked to both mind and matter. At the same time, ceramics and porcelain have played a central role in the development of modern societies, interwoven as they are in trade, colonial history, consumer culture, and not least in sanitation and in relation to electricity.
In his book The Invention of Craft, the American art historian Glenn Adamson has interesting thoughts on how artistic crafts have contributed to the development of modern industry, though from a cultural viewpoint it is often claimed that they belong to a pre-industrial era and culture. In fact, that myth helps to sustain the idea that modern society is technologically innovative and future-oriented.
In his work Geertsen clearly demonstrates a keen eye for the many layers of culture and history that can be connected to ceramics, and simultaneously an ability to bring these layers into play by means of what might be called ceramic stage-setting. By drawing on motifs and models from Nora Gulbrandsen and Porsgrunds Porselænsfabrik (PP), he sets spotlights on a historical situation with our present-day eyes and shows how closely interwoven these forms and materials are with our time. He places Gulbrandsen’s models in a new framework while at the same time remodelling and reformulating Gulbrandsen’s form of expression. This sheds light on links to a range of historical, social, economic, mental and associative networks. By connecting up with the factory’s history as theme and materiality, and by using a collage-like method, Geertsen highlights Gulbrandsen’s historicity and actuality at one and the same time; our attention is drawn to the place held by Gulbrandsen, PP and applied artistsin Norwegian and Nordic social history.
By juxtaposing his own work and Gulbrandsen’s Geertsen opens up for a dialogue between different periods and their understanding of form. Concepts such as the decorative arts anddesign industryand the applied arts have had a historical patina for some time now, but many people today are perhaps unaware of their significance for modern society. From that viewpoint, Nora Gulbrandsen’s ceramics can almost be said to represent traces of a lost era, in the same way that old Greek vases do.
When Nora Gulbrandsen (1894-1978) was employed at the factory in 1927, she was the first artistic designer at Porsgrunds Porselænsfabrik to create her own form of expression that was not just based on recreating foreign models. Her expressive style was rich and varied, but she was best known for her more geometrical forms.
The art historian and Museum Director Alf Bøe observes, in a book he wrote in 1994 about Nora Gulbrandsen’s time at Porsgrund, that the names Gulbrandsen and Porgrunds Porselænsfabrik were tightly interwoven for 15 years and represented a new epoch for the factory both aesthetically and economically. He states that Gulbrandsen created “the factory’s repertoire, in so much as all the innovative models are her work alone.” And, according to Bøe, the critics were enthusiastic about Gulbrandsen’s expressive style, which often consisted of geometrical figures, tautforms, undecorated surfaces and straight lines: “Nora Gulbrandsen’s pieces struck the public and reviewers as being completely revolutionary. Reactions were positive everywhere.” Thor Kielland, who was conservator at Kunstindustrimuseet, and along withJacob Prytz instrumental in Gulbrandsen’s appointment at Porsgrund, wrote in a review that Gulbrandsen had “an intuitive understanding of the delicate material, combining it with well-matched colours and a fresh modern outlook in selection of motifs”.
Bøe provides the following description of Gulbrandsen’s expressive style:
“It is a form of expression that bears witness to the transition from Neo-Classicism to Functionalism, which in formal respects has been given a touch of Cubism, and where also ingredients from Austrian Wiener Werkstätte are combined with additional influences from French Modernism, which made an impact at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1925, and from China and Japan’s decorative art.”
According to art historian, Jorunn Veiteberg, who has written a chapter on Gulbrandsen in the book Hearts and Pines published in 2022, the fine art scene in Norway in the 1920s and 30s was only minimally connected to urbane, modern directions such as Cubism or Surrealism, as we know them from Europe. However, those directions gained a foothold in Norway through Nora Gulbrandsen’s and other applied artists’ expressive style, though not, it is true, in the art galleries and museums, but in middle-class homes. It was applied artists and design artists who were the avant-garde in Norway at that time, states Veiteberg, while painters and sculptors were by and large preoccupied with landscape motifs and worked within a national art tradition.
The 1920s marked a breakthrough for the applied arts in Norway according to Bøe, and the well-known mantra of the applied arts was “more beautiful household goods for ordinary people” (although “ordinary people” were initially the middle-classes). Here an unadorned style and a modern form were paired with functionality and efficiency, concepts introduced with parallels from the Bauhaus School, and looking back we can see that Nordic design for the last hundred years or so has been closely related to this paradigm, either as its heirs or its opponents. Artistic design in Norge, for example, broke completely with the ideals of the applied arts in the 1970s, at which time they were more oriented towards the fine arts scene. At the same time, as Bøe points out, forerunners to Functionalism are also to be found in the style in the antique period, which was characterized by symmetry, arches, circles, triangles and other geometrical forms.
When Geertsen with his deconstructive mindset explores Gulbrandsen’s characteristic forms, he brings with him this aspect of rich Norwegian and Nordic cultural history.
Geertsens project has links to an exciting tendency that we have seen in ceramics the last twenty years or so, namely that artists use the factory as a starting point and use the material there for artistic processes. PP and Kunsthall Grenland have coupled themselves up to this trend in a very direct way by enabling contemporary artists to interact with historical form models, Geertsen himself being an example of this. By reappraising the factory as an artistic subject and material, new connecting lines emerge between art, industry, the present day and history, thus helping to make the public aware of the factory as a “system”; this artistic method not least points to the fact that very many ceramics factories have closed in recent years or moved their production to a low-cost country.
Geertsen’s artistic strategy is to delve into a theme and a material which have possibly been largely overlooked as material for artistic treatment. Speaking of the decorative arts is, as has been mentioned, a concept that many people no longer use, likewise referring to the applied arts has become outmoded, and the role they have played in Scandinavian countries is perhaps unknown for a broad section of the community. PP and the applied arts are linked to a market for products intended for home use. The quotidian aspect and the applied aspect may have led to other qualities being overlooked.
However, as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes among others have demonstrated, you can turn an analytical, inquiring gaze on a seemingly trivial part of reality and draw out useful information. What an artist can do in addition is formulate a sphere of possibility for a contemporary, and a future, interpretation and relationship. Geertsen’s language for this lies in the concrete forms, the colours and the patterns he draws from Nora Gulbrandsen’s repertoire and how he juxtaposes these elements.
Glenn Adamson: The invention of craft, Bloomsbury Academics, 2013.
Alf Bøe: Nora Gulbrandsen på Porsgrund, C. Huitfeldt Forlag, 1994.
Mike Bidlo: NOT Picasso, NOT Pollock, NOT Warhol (exhibition catalogue), Astrup Fearnley Museum, 2002.
Jorunn Veiteberg: “Nora Gulbrandsen”, in Mats Linder, Catrine Danielsen and Andreas Rishovd (eds.): Hearts and Pines, Spriten forlag and Kunsthall Grenland, 2022.
Kari Skoe Fredriksen and Odd Fredrik Heiberg: Nora G. – Nora Gulbrandsens skisser for Porsgrunds Porselænsfabrik, No Comprendo Press and Kunsthall Grenland, 2015.