Beatrice Wood (1893–1998) — or Beato, as she signed her works — was heavily involved in the American Dada movement in 1920s New York City. From an affluent family in New York, she moved to Paris as a young woman to study fine arts. Her work often shared a similar humour and aesthetic language as her artist friends Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray among others in her orbit.
In 2022, the Estate of Barbara McGivern donated a piece by Wood to our Permanent Collection. At first glance, the shape of this vessel seems unusual, possibly a fruit bowl with a tall foot. The functional piece seems to almost have the wrong proportions with a wide, open-mouthed bowl atop a narrow stem. The piece is too shallow and wide to be used as a cup while the height of the narrow stem would make it impractical to use as a bowl. The most striking aspect of the piece is the lustre finish. The piece has an iridescent metallic glaze of greens and yellows that mimic a slightly tarnished metal vessel.
Wood is most famous for her lustre glazes, a practice she learned in the late 1940s. Lustreware is a ceramic technique that uses metal salts and other compounds to create a metallic finish. Beatrice Wood was far from the first to use the technique, but her work helped popularize it again in 1940s North America. The technique possibly originated in Iraq and likely dates to the early ninth century. Some contemporary research suggests that the technique originated in modern Iran (formerly called Persia).1 It was during the Medieval period that the practice was adopted in France and England, where it remained popular in Europe. Wood practiced this technique until she determined how to achieve the result she wanted in a single glaze firing.²
Beatrice Wood’s formal fine arts education at Académie Julian (Paris, France) and her connection to the artistic community would have provided her with the knowledge of historic vessel forms. I believe it is here that we can find answers for the bizarre aspects to Wood’s piece. The tazza form may have been a shape she was familiar with. These historic drinking vessels were made across Europe and are defined by their wide shallow bowl atop an often-skinny handle. Historically, tazza were made of cast-metal and, later, blown glass. Metals, being expensive and valuable, means that few examples survive, but depictions of metal tazza can be seen in historical paintings across Europe, like in Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with Tazza from 1636. Some surviving vessels are found in collections like the Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection in New York City.
Wood’s use of lustre glazes on a historically metal vessel form is a play on art history, and a reflection of dadaists’
humorous transforming of art culture. The dada movement sought to break rational and order of society with abstraction. Dada dismantles art historical conventions by playing with tradition to create humour and jokes through visual language. This piece may be a clever nod to art history while also a way to show off her technically impressive skills in ceramic glazing. Although intention is impossible to determine in this case, there’s strong evidence that Wood used lustre techniques as a play on visual signifiers, as she did in other cases. The use of lustre glazes to decorate a vessel shape historically made from metal displays Beatrice Wood’s playful sense of humour.
¹ For further reading on the debate about the origins and the international popularity of the technique see, Jeri
Dodds, and Francesca Leoni, “Lustreware Across Borders: An exploration of the lustreware ceramic technique
through the ages”, Ashmolean Museum, https://www.ashmolean.org/article/lustreware-across-borders
² Rachel Denniston, “Beatrice Wood: the Alchemist & California-Cult Artist Turning Mothballs into Gold”, California Art Review, https://www.californiaartreview.com/journal/beatrice-wood-the-alchemist-the-california-cult-artist-turning-mothballs-into-gold