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Going to the Source for Spanish Ceramics

Last spring, the surprise star of Casa Décor, Madrid’s massive interiors and design show house, was not a trend emerging from Copenhagen or Paris, but rather a roomful of artisanal Spanish crafts. They didn’t have to travel far, having been created in Castilla-La Mancha, the vast and sparsely populated region south of the Spanish capital where the fictional Don Quixote titled at windmills and manchego cheese is made.

Among the most talked-about features of the gallerylike room was a large mural of the sort one might find behind the altar of a cathedral depicting the apostles or the Stations of the Cross. But instead of saints, this one featured an archly humorous 21st-century portrayal of Quixote and his slovenly sidekick, Sancho Panza, that was almost graffitilike.

The tone may have been irreverent, but it was composed of hundreds of delicately painted blue and white tiles. Designed by the artist Roberto Ramírez, the tile mural was created by Cerámica Artística San Ginés, a ceramics studio in Talavera de la Reina.

The city of about 85,000, which stretches along the north bank of the Tajo River about 80 miles southwest of Madrid, has come a long way from its ancient origins — Roman and Moorish fortifications still wind through town — when simple pottery workshops (alfareros) produced humble clay kitchen wares and storage pots. It was in the 16th century, under Philip II, that the industry upped its game and professionalized. Highly skilled Flemish artists were brought in to teach and promote more refined glazing techniques and introduce painting styles from the Low Countries and Italy.

Soon Talavera was producing decorative pieces — colorfully glazed tiles, columns and urns — as well as elegant tableware that was quickly deemed fit for a king. With its proximity to Madrid, where Philip II was busily refurbishing palaces and building his monumental monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Talavera leapfrogged over other long-established centers of ceramic production to meet the demands of the court. And that reputation has lasted into the 21st century — and manifested in numerous opportunities for the ceramic-loving shopper.

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The story of the development of the tradition is beautifully told — in tiles, plates and platters — at the city’s Ceramics Museum Ruiz de Luna. Juan Ruiz de Luna was a pioneering early 20th-century ceramics impresario who revitalized the town’s reputation (and fortunes), which had been in decline since the 18th century. That business acumen made Talavera ceramic wares chic again — this time to an international clientele of belle epoque bourgeoisie. Along the way, he collected historic pieces so his artists could learn the techniques; those pieces form the basis of the museum’s collection.

Now a third wave of reinvention is underway as artists and artisans — many trained at the Talavera Art School, which offers specialized training and lures students from around the world — work to restore the luster to the city’s best-known industry.

The effort got a big boost in 2019 when UNESCO declared the techniques of the ceramics industry of Talavera de la Reina and the nearby town El Puente del Arzobispo, an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (Strikingly, the UNESCO designation also includes Puebla and Tlaxcala, Mexico, where Spanish colonists took the distinctive techniques; both tiles and the workshops that produce them became known as “talaveras.”)

Last year, Talavera’s 10th Ceramics Biennial fielded nearly 200 artists from 31 countries, and city officials are hopeful that the 2023 edition will be even larger.

“The UNESCO declaration has had a quietly revolutionizing effect on the ceramics sector,” said María Jesús Pérez Lozano, the councilor for tourism, commerce and craft in Talavera. “More people are visiting Talavera specifically for its ceramics — to appreciate the historic ones on view all over town and to shop for or commission contemporary products — and that in turn is motivating more artisans to open their workshops to direct sales and more experiential studio visits.”

Among the stops on Talavera’s contemporary ceramics shopping route is Centro Cerámico Talavera, which offers dozens of lines adorned with traditional Talavera patterns (typically updated by changes in coloring or the scale of the motifs), as well as designs created by graffiti and tattoo artists and other novel approaches to ceramic decoration. Popular items include a series of realistically scaled ceramic skulls (70 to 150 euros, about $82 to $177) painted with five centuries’ worth of Talavera designs combined in myriad mixes.

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Just around the corner, Cerámica Artística San Ginés is becoming internationally known for vast tile murals, but it also focuses on small-scale items, like a wonderfully varied collection of hand-painted ceramic Christmas balls (about ¢35 to ¢50).

Across town Cerámicas Santos Timoneda specializes in large-scale pieces — tile murals up to 50 feet long and larger vessels turned on a wheel. A 24-inch amphora with simple yellow and blue Italian foliate decoration starts at about ¢400.

Right where the old town meets Talavera’s more industrial district, Artesanía Talaverana offers a similarly diverse range of artistic wares, but has recently been busy making dish sets, which became must-have items when the pandemic kept Spaniards housebound. A service for 12 with a relatively simple decoration starts at ¢565, though prices can rise above ¢2,000 with more elaborate painted decoration. All producers embrace collaborations and special commissions from clients, and shipping is available worldwide.

While the name Talavera today is almost synonymous with tiles and ceramics, the city once also had a thriving silk industry. Those mills creaked to a halt in the mid-19th century, but some neighboring towns, such as Oropesa and Lagartera, remain famous for their textile traditions — especially colorful and complex embroideries adorning items that include clothing and tablecloths. Changing tastes among younger generations, who neither want to take up the needle and embroider, nor want the supercharged colors and designs have helped put these cottage industries in decline.

But there are efforts to help both industries — and even to present the juncture of the two. To celebrate the UNESCO declaration, Iloema, a small company working to revive and celebrate regional embroidery traditions in parts of Spain and make them known internationally, has begun a line of place mats and napkins inspired by the ceramics of Talavera.

“In the 17th and 18th centuries, Talavera artisans created a range of tiles that artfully incorporated or simulated the appearance of local embroidered textiles, tapestries and lace,” said Iloema’s co-founder Silvia Delgado de Torres. “We’re taking it in the other direction — borrowing emblematic-painted ceramic motifs from Talavera tableware and hand-embroidering them onto linen by women from the region.” A set of two embroidered linen place mats with matching napkins is about ¢315.

Spaniards can be dismissive of Spanish products — until they see that they’ve made it big internationally. But they are also deeply proud of and engaged with their regional traditions, and Talavera de la Reina is once again finding a way to satisfy both facets of the Spanish psyche.

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