CLAY The Museum of Ceramic Art, Denmark – by Jane Boughton, Ceramics Collector
CLAY, Museum of Ceramic Art Denmark, at Middelfart is two hours by train from Copenhagen, plus a 15-minute walk, an easy day out from the capital. Its home is Grimmerhus, an 1857 dower house, one of the first villas built in Denmark, a striking red painted brick with an orange pan-tiled roof.
The new 1,500 m2 galleries are quite invisible from the entrance as they lie chiefly beneath the surrounding grass, dubbed sculpture park. Set by a wood on the Little Belt shore, on the ‘middle’ Danish island Funen, in sight of the high road bridges over to mainland Jutland, it is a quiet place, yet easy to reach by main road.
On the ground floor of the villa are the ticket office, cloakroom, small shop and a licensed cafe. One part of this floor is to be developed into a study area (for the important collection of donated archives) and a library.
Founded in 1994 by Danish members of Clay Today in order to collect, present and mediate contemporary ceramics art, craft and design, CLAY received in 2010 a donation of about 55,000 pieces of porcelain, stoneware and faience from Royal Scandinavia A/S, a group representing leading Danish manufacturers: Royal Copenhagen, Bing & Grøndahl and Aluminia.
This is the largest gift ever given to a Danish museum; staff have spent four years working to catalogue and display it; this work is almost complete (autumn 2015). The works are mainly historical, for example striking art nouveau Bing & Grøndahl pieces that were sent to the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle et Internationale.
The ‘Treasure Chamber’ displays a copious selection of these wares behind glass and has one wall of text telling the story of ceramics in general and royal Danish porcelain manufacturing in particular. In this room are pieces from the famous Flora Danica design, although 90% of the original set is owned by Queen Margrethe, and pieces from the chief Bornholm makers from the late 19th century onwards.
The main gallery is light and airy through the use of light boxes and one window set into the slope of the shore. The largest section is the current exhibition space, devoted to an in-depth comparison between arts and crafts maker Thomas Bindesbøll and contemporary potter Peter Brandes, the title being translated as ‘Bonds and Breaks’ (differences and similarities).
More than a century separates their work yet Bindesbøll’s work looks surprisingly modern. He also designed bookbinding, silver ware and embroidery for upholstery (which can be seen in Design Museum Denmark in Copenhagen).
The rest of the main gallery displays selected masterpieces of chiefly Danish ceramics dating from the late 19th and mostly the 20th century. This includes names familiar to us in the UK: Gutte Eriksen, Bodil Manz, Inger Rokkjær, Gertrud Vasegaard and many more. This gallery had stunning examples of their work. Here I felt very much at home among pots of a high standard belonging to a distinct tradition, yet not so very different from UK 20th-century work.
Despite the richness of the collections and the charming setting, I cannot recommend a visit at present unless you read Danish. There are no notices in English except ‘don’t touch’. Not even the individual labels include a translation of the title.
Discussion with the new director, Pia Wirnfeldt, revealed that providing translations for wall texts and labels is high on their list of priorities. As ever, the museum needs more time, staff hours and resources. The English part of their website is very brief and basic too. They do provide a D/L in English with introductory information and a floorplan.
The only new building above ground is made of glass panels clad with vertical steel frames containing clay blocks which can be swiveled to control the light, shade and the temperature inside the building.