Monaco’s artistic potteries

from the garden to the sea

Did you know that in parallel with Vallauris and Menton, the Principality was producing artistic ceramics as early as the 19th century? We zoom back to 1914 and the wares linked to the boom in tourism.

Potters at work in the Principality. / © Jacques Enrietti / Archives Monte-Carlo SBM

To understand the emergence of tourist ceramics in Monaco, you have to look back to the end of the 19th century. “We are in the early days of modern industry before electricity and petrochemicals. Countries are all trying to outdo each other in inventiveness at world exhibitions, genuine showcases for national savoir-faire,” says Agnès Roux, research associate for the Unstable Artifices: Stories of Ceramics exhibition. A context in which Marie Blanc, wife of the Société des Bains de Mer founder, would play a determining role. Having created the Société Industrielle et Artistique de Monaco, she had eucalyptus essence, orange blossom water, powders and ointments sent for the Monegasque Pavilion at the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair. She also joined forces with Charles and Marie Fischer to produce ceramics referred to as Poteries de Monaco. Pieces made by the couple in their pottery studio in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. It came as quite a surprise when the exhibition jury awarded medals to both essences and pottery, expressing their wish to pay the creators a visit! Marie then convinced the Fischers to come and live in Monaco. The Casino Gardens clay proved to be suitable for pottery. In 1874, the Poterie Artistique de Monaco opened its doors, even if, ironically, the jury did not drop by in the end.

Agnès Roux, Exit Paradise, 2019, céramique et art culinaire. / © Patrick Massabo

An Eden of flowers and woven baskets
What remains from this small industry born under Charles III, and which survived until 1894, are glazed potteries in the characteristic shape of woven straw baskets, with high relief ornamentation: branches, leaves, lemons, grapes, roses, peonies, butterflies, and snails. “This was the period of Monaco’s enchanted gardens,” continues Agnès Roux. “Themes linked to the history of the Grimaldis, who contributed to agricultural innovations and set up acclimatisation gardens as early as the 18th century”. While the spa resort’s privileged classes were spending summer in the mountains and winter by the sea, these high-end decorative pieces – blends of fine arts and craftsmanship in the style of the Arts & Crafts movement – brought the garden into the home. Vallauris entered its Massier period, and the Saïssi factory in Menton specialised in architectural ceramics, their blue pillars adorning the beautiful mansions on the Riviera. It was also a period of collaboration and great movement of specialised workers between the three towns.

Poterie artistique de Monaco, style Fischer (1871-1889), detail. /© NMNM / Damien L’Herbon de Lussats 2020

Curios, artistically designed objects
A new page was written with the construction of the Deuxième Poterie Artistique de Monaco in 1907 under Albert I, on today’s  Avenue d’Ostende. Management was entrusted to renowned master potter Eugène Baudin, who produced colourful stylised vases from the kiln. “The great oceanographic discoveries and marine life inspired a whole part of this creativity. We are witnessing the marriage of art and sciences”, adds Agnès Roux. With the development of summer seaside tourism, Baudin was working on smaller objects that customers could more easily take home with them as a souvenir. Baudin Monaco curios became very fashionable. Less attached to producing a Monegasque style than the Fischers, the French ceramicist firmly anchored himself in Art Nouveau. However, less successful than in the previous period, Eugene’s son takes over, then the pottery closed its doors in 1914. At this time, the foundations of modernity were laid for the arrival of more Art Deco lines. Whereas plastic spawned a lot of derivatives, ceramics remained fragile and many factories closed down. The craftsmanship survived, particularly through the manufacture of mass-produced tourist objects, with strong competition between Côte d’Azur towns from the 1950s onwards. Alongside this culinary pottery, artistic ceramics, for its part, became increasingly oriented towards individual production. By ceramic artists.

Unstable artefacts, history of ceramics
Ron Nagle, Coitis Mortis (2013). /© Don Tuttle, courtesy of the artist
Ceramics covers a multitude of techniques: terracotta, earthenware, stoneware, porcelain, and contemporary materials. Until 31 January, the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco is presenting a selection of 120 pieces, from local to international, in a scenography halfway between workshop and curiosity cabinet. You will come across here the floral-decorated pottery of the Première Poterie Artistique de Monaco (1874-1894) alongside the work of George E. Ohr, the surreal works of Eugène Baudin belonging to the second period (1907-1914) as well as those of Picasso in Vallauris, plus Ron Nagle’s small fetishes and Johan Creten’s organic forms from today. An exhibition revealing a multiplicity of approaches with one thing in common: the fragility inherent in wcreating each piece, due to the randomness of the firing process and fixing colour on ceramics.
Glazed pottery with polychrome sprigs, Poterie artistique de Monaco, Style Fischer (1871-1889). / © NMNM / Damien L’Herbon de Lussats 2020

Creativity today at Logoscope
Founded by Agnès Roux in 1997, Logoscope is a multi-media research laboratory. Based in Monaco, it launched the Moines Kaolin programme in 2018. Patrimonial research into the history of ceramic production in the Principality, on the back of which creations, meetings and exhibitions have developed. In this spirit, sculptor JP Racca Vammerisse, fascinated by the night, explored the theme of sea mythologies. And Agnès Roux created her Office des Menus Plaisirs, crossing ceramics and culinary arts. Artists tapping into local history to reinvent wares from current perspectives.