The old argument about whether or not there is any difference between applied and fine art is raised again by a current exhibition of decorated glassware.
Clearly in much traditional tribal art there is no difference at all.
Votive statues are placed in museums spotlit on stands or behind glass cases and we are invited to regard them, divorced from their purpose and meaning, as plastic sculptures and high art — every bit as beautiful as works by, say, Rodin, Maillol or Epstein. As indeed they are.
Utilitarian objects are often treated in the same way. Bowls, stools, combs and spoons, admired for their figurative decoration or their purity of form are offered to us as pieces of art and not simply as practical items on which to sit, or to hold food or stir it.
It is no coincidence that European artists borrowed and in some cases blatantly copied these African icons, which they then offered as their own original creations.
Sir Jacob Epstein’s carving The Sunflower was based on a Kota reliquary from the DRC, one of the faces in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso was taken from a Mahongwe mask, also from the DRC, and Henri Matisse’s 1913 portrait of his wife echoed the Shiru-Punu white-faced masks from Gabon — just three examples that spring to mind. (All three artists were avid collectors of tribal art and that was no coincidence.)
So what differentiates the decorated glassware by Naomi Van Rampelberg, showing at the One-Off at Rosslyn to the west of Nairobi (until April 25) from, say Damien Hirst’s dot paintings — yours for $1.7 million — or to take better known and certainly better loved examples, the paintings of the French Pointillist George-Pierre Seurat?
Apart from the little matter of fame and stratospheric prices, it is tempting to think it is probably just a matter of the medium — canvas against glass. And it would be tempting to argue that in this case, it is not the medium that is the message, it is the creativity of the artist.
Tempting, but not quite the case.
For Seurat did not only decorate bolts of canvas with painted dots, he created an entirely new way of looking; capturing figurative scenes through the use of endless spots of pigment, building structure, tone and form through their constituent colours.
The critic Robert Hughes put it brilliantly, as he put everything to do with art: “Stippled side by side, the dots grew by the millions like coral polyps and coalesced into a stuff deposit, a composed reef of form.”
The reef on show at the One Off is composed of some 34 lampshades (singly and in multiples of three and four) three decanters, six large vases, plus numerous wine glasses, bottles, flasks, candle holders and small bowls, all placed on stands around the walls and in two rows, sentry-like down the centre of the gallery.
For this show, called Aglow, the gallery windows have been painted over and the walls finished in a matt mid-grey that both absorbs some of the light from the lampshades and provides a neutral backdrop against which the delicate colours of shimmering unlit pieces can resound.
The basic glassware has been bought in, as a silversmith or goldsmith buys in findings, which are then transformed over days, months and years of exacting work with glass paint and brush into lucent objects that sparkle with beauty.
Patience would have been as good a name as Naomi for this artist, whose endless and precise care can be seen on every glass.
Her dots swirl around the form of the glass, march regimented down the sides of vases, fan out like sunbeams, criss-cross rounded bowls, and run diagonally across wine glasses.
This is a virtuoso performance of confidence and professional skill — with prices to match. Two of the sets of lampshades (Classic and Opera) are priced at $1,400 a piece, and the cheapest pieces on show are a pair of small bottles at $150. These are the prices you pay for art, not to shade a bulb that lights a dark corner of your room.
And so we return to the fine art/applied art argument.
I think really it is not a matter of fine v. applied, but a matter of quality. We should try asking ourselves not if it is utilitarian or decorative or if this is art that is searching for truth, but if we think the finished canvas, glass or whatever possesses excellence.
Has it been well done? Is its execution sound? If the answer is Yes, then it will find its own level in our hearts.
At the end of the day, the dots on Van Rampelberg’s glassware are indeed decorations — painstaking and shimmering with light, adding excitement and glamour to existing forms but nonetheless decorations — certainly no less, possibly a little more.
Do these meticulously dotted vases, bottles, flasks and lampshades add to our knowledge and understanding of life? Do they meet John Berger’s definition of the purpose of art; do they help us to know our rights?
I think not.
But it is perfectly possible to regard this glassware as a functional canvas, and these fastidious pieces certainly do enhance our lives by lifting our spirits and bringing joy to our hearts — surely two of the great attributes of any of the arts.
Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts consultancy based in Nairobi