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Even Rie’s artworks could seem British in their severe reticence, withholding exuberant expression in favor of stillness. Her creations could appear to be concise artistic summations, offering concentrations of entire cultures and civilizations. Sophisticated and refined, Rie’s work played with Asian as well as Near Eastern prototypes, using intricately labor-intensive designs, sometimes stretching the clay extremely thin for ethereal effect. While often using restrained earth shades, Rie could also splash around color, including burnished bronze, gleaming yellow and exquisite turquoise.
Unlike other potters of her era in England, such as the ultra-famous Bernard Leach, Rie rejected the notion of ceramics as a rustic occupation or a return to rural ideals. She was very much a city potter, and what she produced reflected the modern urban architecture of her youth in Vienna as well as postwar abstract art styles. Rie was privately outspoken about her likes and dislikes, such as her admiration of Freud and dislike of his grandson, painter Lucian Freud, the latter perhaps because of his notoriously bellicose behavior as much as for his blunt, coarse-brushed painting.
But as for Sigmund, whether sitting on his knee as a girl or receiving his thoughtful words of consolation after her father’s death, Rie considered the founder of psychoanalysis to be a tactful and understanding family friend. After Rie received an Order of the British Empire insignia in 1968 — she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1991 — she returned home, complaining about the “standard of conversation at Buckingham Palace.”
Rie’s own conversation could be enigmatic, especially when the subject was her own art. In the 2000 book“Modern Pots: Hans Coper, Lucie Rie and Their Contemporaries,” by Cyril Frankel, she was quoted as saying:
There seems to the casual onlooker little variety in ceramic shapes and designs. But to the lover of pottery, there is an endless variety of the most exciting kind. And there is nothing sensational about it, only a silent grandeur and quietness…. Art theories have no meaning for me, beauty has. This is all my philosophy. I do not attempt to be original or different. Something which to describe I am not clever enough moves me to do what I do.
Despite such apparent modesty, Rie could be outgoing and energetic in defending friends, especially Hans Coper (1920–1981), a German-born potter whose Jewish father was driven to suicide in 1936 by Nazi persecution. Coper fled to England in 1939, and after internment as an enemy alien and deportation to Canada he finally returned to London, where he greatly inspired Rie with his sculpturally exuberant pottery. The two would create many works in tandem, and Coper became one of a series of men who were emotionally important to Rie after her short-lived marriage to a Jewish businessman, Hans Rie, failed. Always alert to promote Coper, Rie wrote a letter to an art critic around 1980, slating a catalog essay about her friend; she pointed out that Coper had arrived as a refugee in London “before the war not after, you make him a Nazi with your wrong dates, He is rather anoyed [sic] about it — and I with him.”
Such plain speaking was the most un-British element of Rie’s personality, and a review of the United Kingdom edition of Cooper’s book accused Rie of being “dauntingly rude.” Even so, Rie will surely be remembered as a major artist who, passionate about pottery, drew on her Jewish cultural background to achieve modernist design innovations to express new possibilities with clay.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.