Dom Juan or the Feast with the statue - Interview with Daniel Betoule
SET DESIGN MADE OF PORCELAIN AND DIGITALLY-WOVEN AUBUSSON TAPESTRIES
AN INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL BETOULE, DIRECTOR OF LES PORCELAINES DE LA FABRIQUE
Interview conducted by Eugénie Pastor
Eugénie Pastor: How did you meet Jean Lambert-wild and came into contact with Théâtre de l’Union, if these two events happened at different times?
Daniel Betoule: I was familiar with Théâtre de l’Union before meeting Jean Lambert-wild. The Théâtre dates back from 1911, and it was first a cinema: the Cinéma de l’Union. Its aim was to offer access to culture through cinema. When we celebrated the Théâtre’s hundredth anniversary, in 2011, we wanted ceramics and porcelain to be a part of it. We took part by making little candleholders for the Théâtre façade, with little lights behind them, in collaboration with Christian Couty. Christian had approached us about this, and it made sense for him to do so since his great-grandfather created Théâtre de l’Union. Of course, we agreed to comply with his request and to do so for free. In acknowledgement of that, when Jean Lambert-wild arrived as Union’s new director, he gave our employees tickets to see a show: The Great War Cabaret (Le Cabaret de la Grande Guerre). After that, we worked on Richard III and collaborated with Christian Couty and Porcelaines de la Fabrique to create the legendary body armour. That project was unbelievable, as well as a great success, which I think exceeded our expectations… And as soon as Richard IIIwas over, Jean Lambert-wild launched himself in a new challenge with The Feast with the Statue! Since he arrived in Limoges, four years ago, Jean Lambert-wild has really shown a desire to gather the whole local economy through culture: porcelain, of course, but in The Feast with the Statue, there is also an Aubusson tapestry, which is really exceptional… And it is thanks to the endowment fund we co-founded that these collaborations happen.
Are you used to working with porcelain towards the making of an artwork, or is it something new for you?
The common denominator in all these projects is Esprit Porcelaine and Christian Couty. Esprit Porcelaine is made of artists: it is over 35 years old, and it is an organisation of makers, so you can imagine that they are more than used to working with artists. The Manufacture has been a part of this for over 20 years now. But it is the first time we work on an artwork intended for the theatre.
I imagine that building a body armour, intended to be worn on stage, requires a different approach than building candleholders which are immobile, affixed to a building’s façade… How did you take this into account?
First of all, we have great confidence in our material, this fine luxury ceramic: this is what I like to call it. We trust it. There is also a link between ceramics and the origins of Théâtre de l’Union, which was intended as a place where people could have access to culture… As the Manufacture’s director, I think it is the same: I think about the people who work on pieces such as the body armour… Richard III’s dress rehearsal was for them: on this occasion, the Théâtre de l’Union closed to the public and opened for Porcelaines de la Fabrique’s craftspeople and their families. For our craftspeople, it was a moment of pride: to see that, using the same material, the same porcelain they work with every day, they created something different. They also experienced how to work on something other than the tableware they usually make. I think it is brilliant. So this is also what makes me take part in this. Another example: in The Feast with the Statue, Jean Lambert-wild is going to be wearing porcelain shoes. That’s audacious, isn’t it! Porcelain is supposed to be fragile, but you will see: it is definitely not! Jean is going to jump and gambol, he is even going to climb a 24 steps porcelain staircase. For us, it is captivating to discover in this way how resourceful our craftspeople are. It is also a way for them to sit in a theatre and see the rewards of their work. And for me, it’s a way to give them pride of place.
As you say, this allows connections, you give them a chance to see their work put on stage and used in a new way…
It builds bridges, and through their participation in these projects, they are given the confidence to go to the theatre.
Is working with artists, such as Stéphane Blanquet on this project, who designed the product you created, something you are used to doing?
We are more than used to it, even with our more ‘traditional’ clients: tableware, interior design evolve… I’m currently working with creators of form – I prefer this expression to the term ‘designer’, which for me doesn’t mean much, I find the term a bit barbaric – creators with whom I have to be in a conversation, because in the end, porcelain doesn’t adapt to everything. An artist can have as many ideas as they like, porcelain remains a fine yet rebellious material. It has to be cuddled. It never comes out of the process the way you would like it to, it rebels in every situation.
Does this mean that you have to manage expectationswhile also trying to bring the project to fruition, bearing in mind that you know the material and you know what is and isn’t possible…
Exactly. We are porcelain experts, we know it, there are several things that we have to anticipate. We know that it can be in a bad mood, that there are ways in which it doesn’t like to be used… But we also know how it can be cajoled, how it can be made to be more docile. It is a very complicated material. It is ultra-fine, ultra-contemporary, despite the fact that it has been used for thousands of years – the origins of pottery, of ceramics, and especially of porcelain, is the year 900 in China – but in spite of all this, we can’t make it do what it doesn’t want to do.
After the initial phase where you share ideas with the artists, what are the different stages leading up to a finished piece? Can you explain them briefly?
In a few words: after it has been fired at 1400 degrees, the raw material has a shrinkage rate of 14%, so it is imperative to build a model, usually using plaster. After that, we build a sample mould, as the technique used is slip casting. The raw material is a slurry, which is called ‘barbotine’ in French. This slurry is poured into the mould, it is given some thickness and it is fired a first time at 970 degrees. Then we glaze it by dipping it into a glaze slurry, made of minerals. It is then fired a second time, at 1400 degrees, and this time it warps, due to the 14% shrinkage rate. This means that, for example, a straight line can become twisted, and that the final product is 14% smaller than the model, in a homothetic manner, which means: in all its dimensions.
How important is porcelain for you: what heritage does it represent, especially in the region where you work?
It’s particularly meaningful to me: 2019 marked 30 years since I first came to the Manufacture on a work placement. I fell madly in love with it, and today, after climbing every step, I am its director. I come from an old family of ceramicists. I am from Limousin, and ceramics, more specifically terra cotta, have always been a part of my life. It is a very strong part of my DNA, I can’t imagine doing anything else. But I am also conscious that I am lucky enough to be at the head of a factory, and so I want to make things happen with this white gold… Nowadays, only experts are able to recognise evidence of French manufacturing. You can buy tea cups at Ikea for 3€… I think that to keep developing our expertise and our employees’ conscientiousness, we must be passionate. This is what I am talking about: my passion, the respect I have for the material, and around me, these craftspeople who are as passionate as I am, if not more for some of them. This collaboration with the Théâtre, this daring yet safe challenge is brilliant. I have everything I need to be happy.
Is it important for you that there is porcelain in this show? You have started to answer the question already, speaking of a revival, of your desire to share yours and your employees’ passion…
We are working with a material that is over 2000 years old, but we are giving it a modern dimension… We’re told that porcelain is fragile: and that is how people have whole porcelain sets in their cupboards that they never take out! It is never the right time, they are frightened they might break them! Then when people die, nobody wants these sets, even on flea markets, they aren’t worth anything. I think it is time we democratise this and show the very modern aspect of the material. Because nothing compares to it! It is hygienic, it can be used every day… To see someone walk in porcelain shoes is going to change people’s perspectives! People will tell themselves: we can eat in our porcelain sets every day!
Is it important for you that such an adventure takes place in Limoges?
It is more than important! I think that porcelain is synonymous with Limoges, or the other way round!