Upon entering the exhibition of Delft pottery currently on show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, one could be forgiven for thinking one had stumbled into an old curio or antique shop.
Immediately catching the viewer’s eye and housed in an expansive glass cabinet are a myriad of decorative Delft tiles, ceramic plates, vases and pitchers, figurines and other pieces of various shapes and sizes, all of which were made in the 17th and 18th centuries. The contents of the cabinet are a feast for the eye and is a lovely opening to a well-curated exhibition.
Delftware, or Delft pottery, originated in the Dutch town of Delft in the 16th century.
Manufacturers of Delft exported their wares throughout Europe in what became a thriving industry, necessitating a trained workforce operating in a fashion similar to a production line.
A typical factory incorporated several buildings and was a hive of activity, all geared towards making and completing ceramic wares on time for customer orders.
Clay had to be mixed and washed; wood had to be chopped to fire a kiln; and potters, painters and floor workers, as well as other specialists, all had a contribution to make.
Initially, Dutch potters were influenced by Chinese porcelain but later came to use their own designs and motifs, many of which can be seen in this exhibition.
As well as the traditional Delftware, Doron Lurie, the curator of the exhibition, asked 11 contemporary Israeli artists to create works themed around Delft in what should be interpreted as a “dialogue” of sorts.
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Lurie speaks about his interest in Delft and how he organized the exhibition.
“I’m very attached to Dutch culture and have liked Delft tiles for many years. My connection with Holland is strong. I studied there, and my mother was hidden in the country from the Nazis during World War II. I’d considered the idea of an exhibition for quite a while. It was mainly a matter of how I would present it,” says Lurie.
Although not considered one of the high arts, Delft and the applied arts as a whole have increased in importance over time.
Major museums such as the Metropolitan Musuem of Art in New York have created wings given over to displaying objects from the decorative arts.
“Delft is considered low art but is no less interesting for all that. Indeed, the history of tiles is fascinating, and I thought it would be worth showing one aspect of that world to the public,” says Lurie.
Lurie used his contacts in the art world and elsewhere to source works for the exhibition.
“All the pieces come from Israel. I located the tiles from descendants of Dutch families and a few collectors. I could have borrowed a lot more, but at a certain point you have to be selective. I was surprised at how much Delft there is in the country.
We were also lent some choice ceramic pieces from the Israel Museum,” he continues.
Regarding his concerns about curating the exhibition, Lurie recounts, “I thought about how to present the exhibition to the Israeli public. If it was purely academic, they might find it boring. They will say, ‘Okay, you are showing us 700 tiles and some plates. So what? If you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all!’” That is anything but the case, judging by the plethora of designs, subjects and patterns seen on many of the tiles and numerous ceramic wares in the exhibition.
Many of the ceramic pieces, some of which were created during the time of the Ming Dynasty in China, are encased in glass cabinets placed throughout the exhibit.
Rural and town scenes, biblical scenes, hawkers and tradesmen, musicians and fair entertainers, plants, animals and mythical sea creatures are just some of the pictorial representations depicted on the tiles, most of which are affixed to the walls in collected sets and series.
Occasionally the scenes form a tableau of village life. Some of the tiles show characters engaged in what would be considered unseemly behavior, men and heavenly creatures can be seen vomiting or defecating. According to Lurie this sort of “picturesque” humor was particular to the Dutch at the time, “mixing heaven and hell and high and low.”
Much of the Delft is painted in the traditional colors of blue and white, although there are some exotically colored wall plates, some of which are on loan from private collectors.
The contemporary works in the exhibition are cleverly interspersed with the more traditional pieces, to the extent that only the observant visitor might notice the change in style and period.
When Lurie asked local artists to create a work that would correspond with Delft, their reaction was somewhat bemused.
Lurie says the most common response was “Well, what do we know about Delft?!” “Yet,” Lurie says, “they took the idea in different directions and created things that are fascinating. We didn’t want the exhibition to be didactic but rather to create an experience for the public.”
The Delft aesthetic is apparent in many of the contemporary works, some of which will have resonance for Israelis because of the use of local features and materials.
Particularly successful are pieces by Ester Cohen, who uses the simplest of materials to create some of her works. In one of her three pieces on display, Cohen has drawn common Israeli plants and flowers in blue ballpoint pen on circular paper doilies, creating to lovely effect a likeness of Delft plates.
Elsewhere, Ilan Baruch has painted an olive tree and the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem stone; and Nurit Gur-Lavy depicts the topography of the Jabalyia refugee camp on plexiglass.
The contemporary works are not jarring, nor do they simply blend in. More noticeably, they prevent the spectator from indulging in any escapist tendencies created by the nostalgic charm of the Delft. Nevertheless, given the rarity of this exhibition, that nostalgic charm should be enjoyed for all its worth.
The ‘Blue and White Delftware’ exhibition runs until November 1 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. For more information, visit www.tamuseum.org.il.