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Review by Bronwyn Williams Ellis


The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem:
Three Generations 1919-2003

by Nurith Kenaan-Kedar

167 pages, 140 colour illustrations

ISBN 965-217-217-0
Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, Jerusalem
Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem is exclusively focussed on and carries the flag for this group or school of Armenian ceramists whose work the author feels should be seen as an entity. She describes the social, artistic, practical adaptations and survival of the group chronologically: its leaving the ceramic centre of Kutahya in Turkish Anatolia in 1919 (at the 'Arts and Crafts ' inspired request of the British Mandatory government in Jerusalem) and arrival in Jerusalem where there was no current tradition of tile making, to work on a project to restore the Dome of the Rock (later cancelled) and on to the present through the work of its leading artists and their workshops.

The work of David Ohannessian, Megerdish Karakashian and Neshan Balian, Stephen Karakashian and Marie Balian is covered in individual chapters discussing specific commissions along with the roots of their iconography. They adapt Iznik and Kutahya designs combined with Armenian, Mameluke, Byzantine, Moslem and Jewish imagery, to produce work which is seen today as typical of Jerusalem and bought by all its three monotheistic religions; a process that modern politicians could possibly learn from.

The individual pieces of work, which are described in considerable detail and illustrated, are predominately tiles and tile panels, including fountains, wall panels and tombstones, with some vessels and plates. The pieces are largely discussed from the point of view of their imagery, their sources, symbolism and their variations within this small group of artists. This is clearly not a book for those interested in the practical side of ceramics, there being no mention made of the physical aspect of ceramics apart from a very brief early mention of problems of dealing with new materials in a new land. Given the author's interest in the chronological changes in style and image it is a pity that no connection is made between this and the impact changes in materials, processes, or firing temperatures can and do have on the finished work. This is particularly evident with the advent of highly refined modern materials, ready-made colours, glazes etc. and can be clearly seen in the illustrations used.

The ceramics themselves are discussed from a design point of view and the author would understandably like them to be seen from their position of continuity within an older Eastern tradition and not in terms of Western culture and its craving for originality, even though much that is produced is now being sold to and even made in the West. She does point out that change is evident from the initial move to Jerusalem. Despite the recent influences, deep roots in the vernacular tradition of Kuthaya can still be clearly seen, directly through composition, but also in the static, heavily outlined style of execution (the related Iznik style being much more fluid and fluent as well as less figurative, reflecting Muslim iconography more closely). The early pieces have a softer appearance characteristic of the use of traditional local unrefined materials and this gradually changes and hardens as the present is approached.

Mention is made of the importance of pioneering a photographic record of Armenian ceramics. In this the book is successful, using a combination of original black and white images of the main protagonists and studios with a large number of excellent modern colour photographs of the different studios' production (about 140 pieces, some of tile panels in their architectural settings, plus rather too few of sources).These are set out, again chronologically, in close relationship to pertinent text. This combined with good layout, graphics, quality of materials and printing makes the book a pleasure to look at.

The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem helps fills a gap in the publications on tile making history. It is written from an academic point of view with a particularity and clarity of details. Although at times somewhat repetitive, it has carefully attributed sources and contexts. Each chapter ends with crisp footnotes and a useful bibliography - excellent – but then to be a book of reference an index would be helpful. In English translation (from Hebrew) the language generally has a clarity and fluidity that recommends itself to the general reader and, owing to its excellent illustrations, particularly to those interested in the history of surface design on tiles and vessels in the Middle East.

However this may miss its primary significance, as a documentation of one aspect of the historical Armenian contribution to the arts of the Middle East; something which, for political reasons, is often hard to find. It would have been interesting to be given a broader view; to see the work in Jerusalem in relationship to other pertinent ceramic traditions, local or imported, and also to read more about the earlier roots of Armenian ceramics in the Ottoman empire; the tiles and other work produced both for the Armenian church and the Ottoman ruling class. But then that would have been another book

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Review by Bronwyn Williams Ellis • Issue 5