Change can be one of the most difficult words for traditional craftsmen to hear.

For hundreds of years the city of Faenza has been Italy’s most famous ceramic center — so much so that “faience” earthenware is synonymous with ceramics around the world. From the time of the Renaissance to the mid-20th century, maiolica (majolica in English), the fine low-fire ceramic ware of Faenza, was the sole medium of expression for local artisans.

That is until Carlo Zauli came along, turning tradition on its head through a lifetime of experimentation and international exchange that transformed Faenza’s ceramics scene forever. “Carlos Zauli: A Retrospective,” showing till Aug. 3 at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, traces the Italian ceramicist’s explosive influence.

A native of Faenza, Zauli’s remarkable manual aptitude was already apparent at age 11 when he enrolled in the Royal Institute of Ceramic Art. Graduating with a degree in ceramic technology, Zauli (1926-2002) was practically preordained in the 1950s to become one of Faenza’s next majolica masters.

While his early works done with the city’s traditional material quickly won him local accolades, exhibitions at Faenza’s International Museum of Ceramics of the revolutionary forms of contemporary foreign ceramics by artists such as Picasso and Miro piqued his interests in the possibilities beyond majolica. By the mid-’50s, Zauli was experimenting with stoneware, a high- fire clay virtually unknown in Italy. In a town with a tradition as entrenched as Faenza’s, the shift was akin to sacrilege.

“In Italy, nobody used stoneware,” explains Matteo Zauli, Carlo’s oldest son and the chief curator of the Carlo Zauli Museum in Faenza. “His friends and other Italian ceramists said, ‘What are you doing? This material is too rough. These glazes are too poor, they are not refined.’ But some art critics understood immediately that this change was very important for Italy and all of Europe.”

As Zauli’s work in stoneware progressed, he not only abandoned traditional materials, he abandoned an entire ideology that dictated what ceramics could and could not be. At first this meant creating contemporary but functional forms, but later he forwent function altogether to explore sculptural forms that bore no resemblance to anything that came before.

Instead of ornate platters and decorative vases, his work seemed to have emerged from the earth itself, with organic curves, jagged edges, cracks and fissures that reflected the artist’s keen connection with nature. It was this passion for the natural world that made his work revered in Japan. Zauli first showed in the country in 1964 with the International Exhibition of Contemporary Ceramic Art that toured several top museums. Ten years later, he presented a large-scale solo show of 120 pieces that traveled through Osaka, Tokyo, Nagoya and Kyoto, putting his name on the lips of ceramic artists and scholars throughout Japan.

Heavily influenced by his experience in Japan, both traditional and contemporary Japanese ceramic forms weaved their way into Zauli’s artistic vocabulary. In turn, Zauli’s work also left its mark on a new generation of ceramic artists in Japan who were beginning to break with tradition themselves.

“His exhibition in ’74 had a huge influence on young ceramic artists in Japan,” says Tomo Hirai, an artist who has called Faenza his home since the early ’70s (see sidebar). “It was such a huge departure from traditional ceramics, one we couldn’t imagine. It wasn’t so much that his work influenced us in terms of style — it’s not like everyone here started making ceramics that looked like Zauli’s — but it showed us all new possibilities.”

Japanese artists started to visit Zauli in Faenza and take advantage of his open-door studio policy. Artists such as Yasuo Hayashi and Fukami Suehara, who would go on to carve their own indelible marks in the history of ceramics, both spent time at the Zauli workshop. But his appeal was not just limited to the Japanese. From the 1970s to mid-1980s, his work was a veritable beacon for contemporary ceramicists around the world, and innumerable inspiring artists gathered in Faenza.

“There were Japanese, Canadians, Americans, Europeans. It was really international,” says Hirai. “Everyone went to ceramics school in the morning and then to Zauli’s studio in the afternoon. It was a place for exchange. Artists from all over the world would stop by just to say ‘ciao,’ but ended up sharing something. That’s the kind of place it was.”

For all his international acclaim, Zauli always held a special place in his heart for Japan, so it is only fitting that his first retrospective be held here. Five years in the making, this show was realized through the exhaustive efforts of public and private organizations in both Italy and Japan. A few pieces are on loan from museums and private collections, but most of the work in the show was in the artist’s collection — some of which was not even known to exist before he died in 2002.

“My father hid a lot of his favorite work,” explains Matteo. “We found dozens in the attic after his death. He knew if he left them in his studio, someone would want to buy them, and he didn’t want to let go of certain pieces.”

This prudence on Zauli’s part turned out to be one of his great gifts to the world. The resulting comprehensive retrospective takes the viewer on a journey of an inspired artist’s prolific career, from his early works in majolica to the graphic tiles he designed for mass production. But the fleshy, earthy, coarse clay sculptures are Zauli’s true signature pieces and the real treasures of this show.

Works such as “Burst White” (1976) and “Winged Cube” (1976) still resonate with the energy of an artist intoxicated with a love for his material. The monolithic “Stele” (1986) and impossibly large “Nature” (1986) show the skills of a gifted sculptor and the virtuosity of a seasoned craftsman.

Today, Matteo Zauli’s pioneer spirit lives on through the Zauli Museum in Faenza that stands on the site of Carlo’s workshop. In addition to housing his oeuvre, the museum also offers residencies to young artists who are themselves trying to break the mold.

“His influence was so strong that a lot of young artists in Faenza were trapped by it,” says Matteo. “He was against this. He wanted students to make something different. He understood the importance of this, so now we, as a museum, are trying to encourage the same thing.”

“Carlo Zauli: A Retrospective” is showing till Aug. 3 at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (8 p.m. on Fri.). For more information visit www.momat.go.jp D.H. Rosen is a ceramic artist based in Tokyo. He welcomes questions and comments at yakimonos@earthlink.net

Call of Faenza leads Japanese to a life in Italy

In 1970, a young Japanese ceramic artist named Tomo Hirai went to a symposium on contemporary ceramics held at the Kyoto Modern Museum of Art. Throughout the symposium, artists from all over the world kept mentioning the same name over and over: Faenza.

“Don’t you mean Firenze?” asked officials at the Italian Consulate when he went to inquire about visiting. Hirai wasn’t interested in the popular tourist destination, though — he had his heart instead set on visiting Italy’s ceramics capital. That same year, he set off to Italy with the intention of visiting for a year and then returning to Japan. Thirty-eight years later, the veteran Japanese artist and his workshop are fixtures in Faenza.

After two years of studying with the famed sculptor Nino Caruso in Rome, Hirai made his way to Faenza to study under the pioneering ceramicist Carlo Zauli. Zauli had a life-changing effect on Hirai, both in terms of expanding the young artist’s ideas about clay and introducing him to an international world of artistic exchange that Zauli’s workshop spawned. The fruits of this nearly 40-year journey can be seen on display through July 4 at the the Instituto di Cultura Italiano in a two-man exhibition titled “Vento d’Occidente (Western Winds)” in which Hirai is joined by fellow Faenza-based mosaic artist Felice Nittolo.

“Vento d’Occidente: Contemporary Mosaic + Ceramic works by Felice Nittolo and Tomo Hirai” is showing at the Italian Cultural Institute, Exhibition Hall till July 4; open 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Entrance is free. For more information visit www.iictokyo.esteri.it

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