I listen to your heart, city*
Quick repartee in front of the computer, on a Sunday afternoon in June.
Me: “Guido, you’re also sitting in front of a screen? We’re not normal.”
Him: “Luckily I also like to play with clay!”
De Zan is not just a potter, but a complex figure, an artist who uses multiple media, from drypoint to etching, from works on paper to photography, from oil painting to pastel drawing, and communicates with writings that express strong, emotional experiences, and with the publication of small, precious books. An artisan of clay, then, but also a refined intellectual: his background and his consistent path clearly explain, I think, his creative and operative philosophy/method, as well as his mood.
Using the hands
Educated ‘around’ that fateful year 1968, under the sway of Repressive Tolerance by Herbert Marcuse: the students were on the move (occupying the Catholic and State Universities in Milan), as were the workers (1969 witnessed the ‘hot autumn’ for the entire industrial triangle of the north), and so was design, which became radicale and found itself in a state of self-contradiction.
Born in 1947, Milanese, after having studied to be a geometer Guido enrolled in 1969 at the Department of Sociology in Trento: a key place and a crucial moment in history, not just of the university, and not just of the Trentino. We are at the outset of the decade of the 1970s, which in Italy – by convention, and not only here – begins with a date that became a slogan, ‘Sessantotto,’ and ends in 1979: in short, the ‘protest years.’ This time span contained intense experiences for De Zan: he didn’t attend lectures at the university, but he worked and studied to pass the exams, approaching the problematic discussion of established social and cultural models, carried along on a tide of experimentation and delving into themes of psychological deviance and inclusion in a sociological perspective. A search for new balances.
Already at the time, as an autodidact, he offered his very early creations at the by-now legendary alternative markets, during the festivals of the Communist Party (Festa de l’Unità) or extra-parliamentary gatherings. He made “simple things,” he recalls, leather bags, small useful objects, personal adornments. He was attracted by handiwork, manual skills. And if “the distinguishing mark of man is the hand,” as George Orwell wrote, “the instrument with which he does all his mischief,” for Guido – and others (!) – we might add that the hand can also be used to do good and even beautiful things. Immanuel Kant called it “the window on to the mind.” Precisely the hands enabled Guido to express himself, to narrate and tell about himself, always in terms of the ‘artfully done.’ Some verses by Eugenio Alberti Schatz focus on the hand, and precisely those of De Zan, in comment-captions published in La mano che guida (2016), accompanying pictures:
Man’s primary beast is the hand
which knows only how to flail about at first
it has to be tamed and instructed
like the prince of an island.
This was an elegant little booklet in an edition of 200 copies, where in the postscript the artist himself wrote about his “hands as dowsers”: “[...] When I start to touch the material with my hands I feel calmer, freer to continue. [...] without thought the hands cannot get very far [...] I feel that my work is marked by a strong need for freedom and that the hands have been the main tool I have used to reach it [...].” And he concludes: “I have always known that the hands are the true protagonists of my craft.”
Perhaps, he emphasizes, his approach and his increasingly deep exploration of the dynamics of clay came about by chance. He was fascinated first by the Orient and by Japanese culture. Starting in 1973 he was in close contact with Japanese friends, also because among the first students to frequent his workshop there were the sisters Michiyo and Jukio Murakami. And he was attracted by the raku technique, admiring its sobriety, which also permitted the making of symbolic objects, cups for the tea ceremony, vases and decorative panels. The various uses of stoneware and porcelain, which he approached above all starting in the late 1980s – materials that require very high firing temperatures and particular research on mixtures and the composition of the glazes, of which he follows all the cycles of the making, from the design to the finished work – sustained him in the creation of vases and sculptures in which to develop his experimental research. The clays are brought to the limits of their resistance, taking on particular, fascinating consistencies and colorings, and imperceptible deformations (the kiln is in charge!), shifting them towards the mineral and natural universe.
At the school of making
But when did De Zan really begin to come to grips with clays, entering the very vast, intriguing world of ceramics? On the Romagna coast for work, he had a chance to visit the artisans of the town of Montefiore Conca, a small settlement in the heart of Romagna that has always been a place where pottery was made. He was fascinated. Then came the more incisive experience of eastern Liguria, with Claudio Nobile, who from his native Tripoli (where he was born in 1938 and lived until 1954) had begun to practice the potter’s art in Norway, as the assistant of Jens von der Lippe (a teacher at the National Academy of Craft and Art Industry in Oslo), and then perfected the stoneware technique, opening a workshop in Framura in 1971.
In the meantime Guido read and studied, above all foreign books (the Italian panorama was very limited), and several texts by Nino Caruso – master of Italian ceramic sculpture, but also a teacher (he too was born in Tripoli, like Nobile, and approached this universe by chance) – including the essays published by Hoepli, like Ceramica viva (1979) and Ceramica Raku (1982).
In 1993 Guido De Zan, becoming a publisher for the occasion with the ceramist Enrica Negri and offering it in the Italian version, printed Il poema ceramico. Introduzione all’arte del vasaio by Daniel de Montmollin, that frère Daniel of the Taizé Community, in Burgundy – an ecumenical and international monastic Christian community founded in 1940 under the motto ora, lege et labora –, on one of the pioneers of research in the field of ceramics in Switzerland: Philippe Lambercy. This was Le poème céramique. Introduction à la poterie that had been published for the first time in 1964, which had been (and is), as De Zan and Negri emphasize on the back cover, “an answer to the many questions that arise for those who want to approach the world of pottery for professional reasons, or out of curiosity and interest in this ‘making’ that links expression and craft, tradition and research in a single bond.”
This was an important project/product, which should not be overlooked in Guido’s career. And it reminds me of my first encounter with him, back in 1983, for the exhibition I curated with Nanni Valentini – my extraordinary guide/mentor in the world of ceramics – in Casteldurante, at the Palazzo Ducale of Urbania, L’arte del vasaio. La ceramica d’uso fatta a mano in Italia (catalogue published by Paleani editrice, Rome). Guido was one of the 19 craftsmen selected from the various regions of Italy, with his Laboratorio Il Coccio, and an exquisite green majolica teapot with a bamboo handle: the caption said “Shaped on the wheel [...] raku fired in a self-built gas kiln [...] reduction glazed at 900-950° [...] brushed or graffito decoration [...] signed with initials.” There were many raku pieces in the show. In the short introduction, we wrote: “The ceramics of De Zan present a synthesis between modern taste and the great Italian pottery tradition, through forms made for everyday needs, inserted in a culture of an urban type.”
De Zan was also captivated by the magic of the potter’s wheel, the most ancient machine invented for the working of clay – a manipulation that is far from easy, the result of a discipline that requires great manual skill that is hard to master in adulthood – so much that he built a pedal-driven wheel himself, with the help of a mechanic uncle and various manuals! (Nobile had built his own kiln...). He sat down in front of it for the first time when he was already 28 years old, after having worked for almost a decade as an educator in a center run by the municipality of Milan for mentally disabled young people, after taking his degree in Trento in 1974: and he demonstrated his talent, acquiring/conquering a refined level of expertise/skill.
Precisely to learn the secrets of the potter’s wheel, he also enrolled in 1975 at the Scuola Cova on Corso Vercelli, a vocational training center founded by Irene, an outstanding ceramist who in the 1930s, being a woman, was unable to make a career except by teaching. But there were no longer artists like Valentini and Carlo Zauli there to teach him: he was disappointed, and had to cope with the jealousy of the mediocre teachers who particularly discouraged ‘adults’ from approaching this art.
In the early 1980s he played an active role, with a group of artisans, in the revitalization of the Italian section of the World Crafts Council, an international non-governmental organization founded in 1964 and praised by UNESCO for having “confirmed crafts as an essential part of economic and cultural life, for promoting solidarity among artisans in the world and providing them with help, encouragement and stimulation.” The national president was Lyda Levi, but it was around Gabriele Devecchi (silversmith, architect, one of the members of the Kinetic Art collective Gruppo T, and president of the Lombardy section from 1982 to 1985) that a group of artisans of Made in Italy gathered, around twenty craftsmen and artists including the textile designers Paola Besana and Paola Bonfante, Anne Marie Ciminaghi, Anne Backhaus, Franca Sala, the jeweler Davide De Paoli, the ceramist Enrica Negri and Pia Quarzo Cerina, member in charge of communication, a group that gave rise to encounters at via Gorani 8, in the historic workshop of Piero De Vecchi, with figures from the world of design culture like the designer Piero Castiglioni and the model maker Giovanni Sacchi, and to small exhibitions of works.
Home and workshop
The first De Zan workshop was on via Cermenate in Milan, in the Ticinese district, opened in 1975 with two friends who soon vanish from our story. In 1978 he moved his workshop to via Pio IV, a small pedestrian street featuring today colorful narrative murals on the left side of the basilica of San Lorenzo, between the Colonne, the best- known Roman site in Milan, and piazza Vetra. He still kept his kiln and fired his pieces in the country near Varese, at Azzate: raku requires open spaces, but in the city he was already using an electric kiln.
A peaceful space in a rather decrepit working- class zone that goes almost unnoticed (even today). This too was a choice, notwithstanding what has become the busy night life of the zone today, which might be thought of as the exact opposite of the essence of Guido. Il Coccio was the name of his shop/atelier, an intentional choice in all its multiple meanings, including “ordinary earthenware; crockery,” and “pottery for tableware and cooking,” as well as “fragment, shard or other object in terracotta.” A workshop/ haven where for 40 years now Guido has met with clients/collectors but above all friends, where students have come and gone (he held evening courses in 1979-80), some of whom became his assistants – we should at least mention Edith Morandi, who still helps him today with the assembly of the vases made with slabs of clay – from all over the world, welcomed and hosted with courtesy and generosity, stimulated to learn a craft that is not just a matter of manual skill. A heterogeneous audience passes through, of course. It is a small thoroughfare, but most passers-by fail to notice the workshop, which is dusty and luminous, a fascinating (especially inside) yet invisible place. And unfortunately it is also overlooked – culpably – by the students and teachers of one of the city’s art high schools, located in the nearby “Istituto d’istruzione superiore statale Carlo Cattaneo,” on piazza Vetra.
His home/studio/gallery, on the other hand, is at via Brioschi 26, at the edge of the historic neighborhood of the Baia del Re, now renamed Stadera. The southern outskirts of town, at the edge of the center, near Bocconi University: in what was once an industrial building, a cork factory. Overlooking a courtyard with the traditional plants, like a flourishing and productive persimmon tree, which in its bare, brown winter guise, during our most recent meeting in November, boasts orange fruit still on the branches, like original decorations for a Christmas tree.
Here Guido often organizes exhibitions, over the last twenty years, sometimes in duo shows with others, to send signals that join the many solo and group shows where he has been a protagonist. Here in 1998 he had a big party to celebrate his first twenty years of work, and also in the 1990s he hosted exhibitions of jewelry: pieces of his own making, and others by Monica Castiglioni and Natsuko Toyofuku, who share the fact that they come from an artistic background (the former as the daughter of Achille, the renowned architect and designer who always admired De Zan’s work; the latter as the daughter of Tomonori, an important Japanese sculptor who in 1960, after being invited to show his work at the Venice Biennale, decided to settle in Italy), and the fact that they create wearable sculptures, sinuous, enveloping works of enigmatic elegance.
In recent years De Zan held a show of fantastic, visionary narrations in 2015 with the artisan from Lodi Tonino Negri. In 2016, with the former student Tamami Azuma, who presented her particular donabe: terracotta vases and pots for cooking on the dining table with an open flame. In 2017, with Isabella Angelantoni Geiger, the show Cityscapes offered a comparison of their works on the skyline of the city, in ceramic and metal wire, in a stimulating dialogue on the new atmosphere that has been perceptible in Milan for several years now.
Photography and signs in the city
A “city creature,” an “urban animal” (we already wrote that in 1983!), every morning De Zan walks from via Brioschi to via Pio IV. As a proper hiker, for decades he has explored the city, documenting it first with a camera, then with a cell phone, and then at times reworking the shots with a computer.
“My passion for photography dates back to the end of the 1960s, when I bought a used Nikon,” he explained at the time of a show in 2011 at Fondazione San Domenico in Crema, where he also mentioned (see the catalogue with a beautiful calendar and agenda published with his photographs and ceramic pieces, commissioned by Umberto Cabini that same year for ICAS) that at first he concentrated on people, doing his own developing in a makeshift darkroom, but then began to pay closer attention above all to urban forms, because “in the buildings of Milan [...] the mixture of different types of architecture brings every building and its characteristics to the fore.”
He was obsessed by certain buildings, curiously studying them to be able to reproduce/re-present them in sculptures of stoneware and white porcelain, earthenware and biscuit, ‘landscapes’ of unusual beauty – this is halfway through the 1990s – that embody and suggest a particular interpretation of the city, based on the perception of volumes and bulk. Towers, above all, also included in a small book of the same name (100 copies, published in 2012), due to their “characteristics of power and force, but also of ideal ascent towards infinity” (Guido De Zan), pyramids, ziggurats, cathedrals and then the Torre Velasca (in porcelain in 2009, in stoneware in 2012) and skyscrapers.
He thus devoted an entire year of reflections and work (2010-11) to the Pirelli skyscraper – “a slightly high skyscraper” according to the definition of Bianca Tosi, in a plaquette published by Edizioni Pulcinoelefante – creating and presenting a selection of various material types on this theme: a hundred vases, small sculptures in stoneware and porcelain, but also works on paper, drawings and photographs, as well as the Tre Pirelli da viaggio, a limited edition of 200 signed and numbered copies, which reproduces the essential form of the building in three variations. It is a tribute to Gio Ponti but also to Bruno Munari and his travel sculptures made with paper. This research by De Zan returns later in his career: patient, daunting and refined, a matter of essential dissection of forms, often taking the form of an erudite game. In the early 1990s, in fact, Bruno Munari visited Guido and his workshop, accompanied by a mutual friend, the designer Marco Ferreri. He also hoped they could ‘do things’ together, and he left quite a few sketches. He wrote about Guido in 1994, with his usual sharp brilliance, emphasizing that “Guido is one of the few ceramists concerned to give his objects not only a form, but also a particular skin, a texture handmade by himself, in accordance with each object’s shape.”
These forms are simple and essential only at first glance, only apparently without decoration, glazed or left in a natural state so that the material itself can express its texture and color. They are found throughout De Zan’s production, from the useful object to the ‘art’ one-off, small thematic sculptures. “[...] Clay [...] when entirely smooth, this means that only the shape is of interest, but when it has a textured surface it becomes af greater interest still, since there is one more reason to observe it”, Munari wrote in Skin of clay, a slim monograph printed by Lucini. Two apt texts by Marcello Sèstito – an architect but also, like De Zan, a creative ‘restorer’ (in the sense of ‘restitution’) of portions of the city through drawings and multi-material sculptures – put the focus precisely on De Zan’s sign: “Archaic graffito marks on fluctuating, coarse- grained [that take the place] of words.” Signs that are almost graffiti, then, one after the other, engravings, delicate brushstrokes to suggest poetic references to trees or animals, intriguing craquelé arising from a thoroughly known raku technique, whose mastery permits reproduction of guided, intentional mishaps.
Signs and forms of use that come from the oriental tradition, above all from Japan, which the Milanese artist – a ceramist, here – revisits and reinterprets with intelligent independence. Sèstito mentions Shūzō Kuki, a Japanese philosopher, poet and writer, author of the theoretical text on iki – the ability to emotionally cope in tense situations, to merge spontaneity and artifice and achieve a level of supreme ethical and aesthetic refinement –, suggesting that the micro-architectures of De Zan (greatly admired on that faraway island) could clearly be seen as belonging to this creative concept/attitude. In this regard, we should mention Guido’s participation at Corner Craft of Daimaru in Fukuoka in 1993, as well as the solo shows at the Raimokukan gallery of Kurume in 1994, and in the elegant interior design showroom Idée in Tokyo, in 2016.
Contaminations of art
Looking at his micro-architectures, and other works, there is an immediate observation that stems from European/Italian art/culture: in his pieces we find echoes, suggestions, conceptual subtleties that link back to the avant-gardes, to Arp, Brâncuşi, Melotti, and a certain part of Nordic design. Ça va sans dire, De Zan constantly ventures into border zones. So how can we fail to discover the synthetic rigor of Morandi, the emotion of materiality, the clear achievement of the form in that object – again to use Sèstito’s words – that “goes beyond everyday domesticity to conquer an external space made of reflected shadows, slight cracks, fissures and connections [...]”?
His pottery is sculptural, relying on contaminations from abstract to conceptual art, on the mixing of multiple languages, shifting through grammar and syntax with total, silent confidence/expertise. The forms of use that define plates, large and small bowls and cups (with or without handles), teapots, small and large vases with different configurations and sizes, from the most historic to the most unusual, imitating figures and also appearing, thanks to graphic sagacity, one inside the other or in pairs, so flattened as to be aptly named ‘sole’ or so elaborate as to become geometrically angular, the linear, essential sign/decoration giving them a recognizable character, also take us back to the same creative, methodological and design mood.
Again, platoons of bottles, cylindrical, square, rectangular, in unusual positions, flank unexpected panels and boxes that enclose wings, figures, shadows: plastic, sinuous geometric compositions. All objects that besides being useful, functional, have an aesthetic-affective purpose thanks to their underlying narratives. And if “to begin with, I worked on rounded vases, thrown on the wheel” Guido says, “then there came the slabs and gradually vase and sculpture both took on sinuous or geometric shapes, no longer round but elliptical in section.”
Even his work of shaping with slabs – a very widespread technique that is simple to learn – leads to very interesting formal solutions, giving rise to anthropomorphic images, well defined in terms of physicality and physiognomy: soloists or couples, ‘character/figures’ in the widest range of positions that remind us, in spite of their plastic, monochromatic essentiality, of ceramic figurines with multicolored glazes, but also of fantastic animals.
“Figures joined with others to form groups,” De Zan comments. “Little theaters in which they could converse and be mutually supportive,” with silhouetted actors, where the protagonists are the volumes, the interlocks, the characters that present themselves in a dialogue of couples and small groups: “My characters have found an equilibrium, albeit a precarious one. I am pleased when peolple interpret this state as lightness and serenity, with just the right amount of irony to keep us alive.” Here, again, Munari comes to mind. But when these figures “have maintained their self-possession, they evoke urban structures which, taken together, form landscapes.” And we are back to De Zan, the urban animal.
The love of form, but also of materials. De Zan comes to grips with porcelain, at times contaminated/enclosed by wood or silver, or by wood and iron. We should not forget about De Zan the engraver, as seen in the Tavole, which Sèstito suggests we look through like the “pages of “Made rigid by the firing [...] they will not brook corrections [...] nor marginalia.” The Tavole made in the fall of 1993 for Alpa Magicla Edizioni of Alberto Rambaldi are particularly interesting, a research project leading to as many as 135 works in porcelain, each different from the others, all signed by the artist, belonging to a collection of book-objects that includes some prestigious names, from Munari to Giosetta Fioroni, from Antonella Ravagli to Gilberto Zorio, and would be shown at the International Ceramics Biennial of Faenza in 1993, at Arte Fiera in Bologna and Museo Pecci in Prato the following year. We can also see this aspect in the works on paper with marked or smooth surfaces, papers more customarily employed for the traditional techniques of art editions, or on cardboards of different origins, recycled!
His role as an artist is in constant evolution, independently taking on the most useful forms of expertise through which to express himself, driven by the passion for material – “The potter is one of the few craftsmen that still get their hands dirty,” he wrote (2016, cit.) – and for the object. A very personal path, a background that combines the initial and ideological preparation with an activity that over time has come to terms not just with very specific linguistic experiences of the avant-gardes, but also with that culture of design in which he was immersed, in the city of Milan, at the Colonne di San Lorenzo, the location of his workshop.
Design and architecture. Looking at his artifacts – I don’t like to call them “works” – one cannot help thinking of them as reflections that link precisely back to the city, and to that urban landscape De Zan also captures through lucid photographic shots that reveal his everyday routes, or those taken in search of the new. “I have the habit of always carrying my camera in my pocket, with which to capture any moment, object, landscape that interests me, wherever I go” (2011). And while his pieces are engaging for their forms, an additional, intriguing story is told by those surfaces/skin that contain/determine them: light, always different graffiti-like signs, as we have seen, marked by personal, essential geometries that do not indulge in decorativism, and unfold/ respond also to this fascinating role.
“Compared with artists for whom ceramics are a mother tongue, Guido De Zan is fortunate in having become a ceramist rather than being born one,” Flaminio Gualdoni wrote ten years ago, in 2008. “He has not founded his identity on the rethorical apparatus whereby every trait of research must centre on technique. Instead, he has simply added the extraordinary, virtually unlimited potential of technique, together with the thinking generated by material, to an intense intellectual appraisal which was previously applied to a much wider range of interests, rooted in quite different schools of thought.”
It is definitely true that this intelligently versatile, quiet and reserved personality, like other artists who experience ceramics from a critical perspective, ritually flees from what in any case is a well-absorbed technical background, seeking qualifying differentiations in the plastic elaboration and in his stories, which also take concrete form in the production of jewelry and adornments for the body: necklaces, rings, earrings, pendants, pins in porcelain and silver, made since the 1980s.
There are also miniaturized and minimalist Presepi (nativity scenes) in biscuit porcelain, mainly in white or black, with captivating opacity or a subtle gloss, where the tiny figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child (sometimes represented by a cradle) are witnessed by silent, light, airy contemporary characters, arranged around the protagonists or in a row, in movement, with automobiles taking the place of the camels... Secular and surreal crèches, contextualized in non-places, which De Zan began to create after a trip to Naples and a visit not only to Capodimonte but also to San Gregorio Armeno and San Biagio dei Librai. Marta Isnenghi has written about them, with the apt title of Le statuine volanti di Guido De Zan, in the fine volume on the fascinating history of nativity scenes in Lombardy, where the crèches of De Zan have been captured by the exquisite photographic sensitivity of Mario De Biasi (AA.VV., Natività e presepi. Nell’arte e nella tradizione a Milano e in Lombardia, Celip, Milan 2007).
The various but repeated typologies that can be seen across the decades of his activity, from the little theaters to the human figures that also inhabit them, the urban landscapes to the towers and the steles, the wall sculptures and still lifes to the abaci, the vases to the containers, all reveal an elegance that is undoubtedly aesthetic, but are also based on a profound ethic of making. In conclusion, we can read from another poem by Alberti Schatz:
The hand that transfers borders
of yesterday and tomorrow
in the silent hope
of transforming the world.
(*) The title of a book from 1944 by Alberto Savinio, which is a declaration of love for Milan and, in general, for urban civilization: streets, monuments, buildings, personalities, ways of being and feeling.