Arnold Annen (born in 1952) is a guest in the Marianne Heller Gallery for the second time since 2014. This time, Annen is accompanied by Violette Fassbaender (born in 1958), with whom he shares his life and his workshop. At first glance, a viewer of works by these two Swiss artists primarily notices their differences: Arnold Annen’s translucent, thin-walled, seemingly floating white bowls and objects are made of porcelain; Violette Fassbaender’s exciting, self-contained bodies consist of porcelain and stoneware. But closer and repeated observation reveals their affinities. Both artists present us with erratic boulders from the realm of the invisible, seemingly made only of light; highly fired and very hard porcelain membranes; sculptures resembling single-celled organisms reminiscent of our oceanic origins; relics of the Earth’s history composed of Matterhorns and moraine landscapes of the imagination: perfect, ingenious craftsmanship in the service of great art.
These objects take shape at Violette Fassbaender’s Basel parental home in the immediate vicinity of the historic city center. Music (her parents were professional musicians), painting, architecture, landscapes, especially the landscape of Lake Constance, where she spent many holidays and, of course, the Alps, all left their marks, which are visible in Fassbaender’s sculptures. But the decisive factor was her experience as an exchange student in Japan, where she first came into contact with pottery and instinctively knew that she had found the subject of her lifework. She remained in Japan for eight years and learned every aspect of the ceramist’s craft, first at the renowned Tekisui Institute in Ashiya, then as assistant to the artist Takako Araki until 1986. Violette Fassbaender’s goals in Japan were to achieve inner peace, fearlessness, spontaneity, humility and harmony of soul and body in the tradition of Zen and through direct spiritual contact between teacher and student.
Each of the exhibited objects radiates one or more of these qualities. Made of porcelain and manganese clay, the pieces are fired unglazed in a reducing atmosphere at 1,260° Celsius. Only apparently heavy, the bodies are hollow and preserve their equilibrium even on uneven ground with a self-explanatory expressiveness that strives toward crystalline heights from an amorphous “foundation.”
Arnold Annen was born in 1952 in Gsteig, a village in the Bernese Oberland. The son of a family of mountain farmers, he began an apprenticeship at the pottery workshop in Saanen at the age of 17. After spending a year as a journeyman with Jean-Claude de Crousaz in Geneva and three years working with Pierre Mestre in La Borne, he met Violette Fassbaender during a study visit to Sakakibara in Bizen (not without impulses from Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book”). After fully absorbing the spirit of Japanese aesthetics and mastering the necessary artisanal techniques, Annen subleased space in the home and workshop of the ceramist Barbara Nanning in Amsterdam, where he finally found time to work freely and to experiment with porcelain, a material that had long interested and fascinated him.
The vessels and sculptures that earned fame for Arnold Annen have been created since 1989 in the workshop he shares with Violette Fassbaender. Liquid porcelain mass is poured into a parabolic plaster mold, where it remains for one or two minutes. The molds are then inverted and the still-pliable bowls that fall out of them are turned on a potter’s wheel into line segments, decorated with slurry, and heated with a gas burner to blast fragments off their surfaces. The result is an extraordinarily delicate structure with a wall thickness of a mere two millimeters. The vessels are then fired in a reducing atmosphere at 1,330° Celsius inside a natural-gas-fired kiln designed by the master himself. The objects are unglazed and translucent.
This sober and objective description of a handcrafted technical process does not even begin to convey an idea of the effect of the finished “bowls.” Their color is white, the sum of all colors, but they “comment” on all the changes that light undergoes during the course of the day and night, responding to these variations with incomparable shades and nuances. And they are not only media of light refraction, but also resonant bodies, singing bowls which Annen likes to chime by gently striking them. Perhaps someday they might inspire a contemporary composer to create a “harmony” for alphorn and Annen’s bowls.
Text: Dr Joachim Utz
Galerie Marianne Heller