On a warm August morning, the French artist and ceramist Victoire de Lencquesaing opened the doors of her house-atelier which, hidden behind a typical façade of Lapa’s quarter, transports us to a place that could have been dreamed by the Mexican architect Luis Barragán.
The house, like all houses, is still under construction and develops around its garden where three elements caught my attention: the fruit trees, the colored concrete walls, and the Tagus river on the horizon.
Around me: are books, a flag, a large wooden table, different ground levels that divide the large outdoor space, and its luxurious vegetation. This garden grows under the hands of Victoire and her companion, Arthur, who walk hand in hand on the path of art. Hands are a constant in Victoire's work, as the name of her project “Main Edition” indicates, delicate, beautiful, and simple: a reencounter with creation.
A path of loose stones leads us to the two studios, separated by a tank, flanked by beautiful blue wooden doors.
In one of her notebooks, I found an excerpt from a poem by Paul Éluard “Et Moi les mains ouvertes/Comme des yeux” just like her blue eyes, attentive and curious.
What is your background?
Back in Paris, I started working as a photography producer in the fashion industry. I had a lot of work, a lot of stress, my life happened at such a crazy rhythm, that I had no time left to do any creative work. My sister, who knows me very well, enrolled me in a ceramics workshop saying “you have to seize time doing things, you have to learn again how to be patient”. I did this workshop and I immediately loved it. I decided to quit my job and started working in the studio of a very famous French ceramist – Fance Franck – in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Her studio was opening up its own gallery, not only to show France's work but also the work of other artists. I met wonderful people, fell in love, and those were my first steps as a ceramist.
Portugal was a big help because when you’re about to change your life so radically, you should do it in a completely new place, and Portugal was the place chosen.
Did it have anything to do with the tradition we have in ceramics? Namely Bordallo Pinheiro, Viúva Lamego, Aleluia, Vista Alegre…
That also. Here there is still a lot of tradition in ceramics, people are still using ancient techniques, which is something very present in the life of the Portuguese. And to me, that was completely new.
Why did you choose Lisbon?
Arthur and I wanted to learn a new language and live in a different European city. For us, it is of the utmost importance. We are French but we are, really, Europeans. And in Europe it is easy to move from one country to another, to learn about a different culture, meet new people, and that is so important in terms of creation and inspiration, that Portugal end up as something natural. We came for the first time in March and moved to Lisbon in April, on the day of my anniversary. We found a very charming apartment here in Lapa, and that’s how it happened. I love Paris, Arthur loves Paris, but we wanted to visit other places, live other realities. I had been offered the most incredible job in Paris and Arthur had just been deported from Russia because of the book he wrote and, at that time, we were both in Paris although that wasn’t what we really wanted. And Portugal was a choice we have done together, a place where we could be a “blank page”. Neither of us spoke a word of Portuguese. The weather and having the sea so close helped us decide (laughs).
What jobs have you done other than being an artist?
My education has nothing to do with ceramics or visual arts. I graduated in Marketing and fashion communication in London, in an Italian school called “Marangoni”, in East London - it is an area I simply adore! In the beginning, I started working for an advertising agency as an “art buyer”. That was an amazing experience because you are in the middle of everything, you are the one who makes the connections between everyone involved in creating an advertisement, and I ended up knowing all stages of creation. I adored doing it. Afterward, I worked for an American talent agency called “Art Partner” because I thought I would like to become a fashion photography agent.
Which artists do you most identify with?
I must say that, although I can’t compare my work with hers, I simply adore Georgia O’Keeffe, who dedicated all her life to art. It all started when I was doing research and found a piece that her companion - Alfred Stieglitz – made of her hands. I became interested in her work, and her life, and I found it curious that she was a great cook, and loved to invite people into her house, in New Mexico. Her house is absolutely incredible! It inspired the design of this house just like Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico. I’ve read “Diego & Frida” by Le Clézio, a great French writer. Paula Rego... I love these women and their strong characters.
That form an artistic pair with their companions, like you and Arthur.
Yes, they’re complementary. They push each other towards creation, towards art.
Are there any male inspirations?
Man Ray – like those hands you’ve just photographed. Do you remember that colorful mug on my work table? It was made by an artist that I like very much. He is part of the “Memphis” group, his name is Peter Shire. He’s completely free, he plays with colors and materials.
There are so many artists I like… For instance, Saul Steinberg, who was an American cartoonist who worked for New Yorker, also served as an inspiration for one of my hands.
Can you describe a real-life situation that inspired you?
My parents work with art and I’ve lived surrounded by art. They are experts in XVII and XVIII century art, and they work with art auctions. Apart from that, my mother is an interior designer, they form a pair that complements each other. My mother is always looking for furniture, and art… and I grew up with this reality.
What work do you most enjoy doing?
The primitive form. Because it is more spontaneous, it is freer. Although I find the process of glazing with color very interesting, in terms of technique, it is something I enjoy less than all the other steps of creating a ceramic piece. I prefer to think about a piece, make the piece, and change it during the process. Because, for me, one of the most impressive characteristics of ceramics is the fact of being malleable, and infinite. You can do practically everything with it while it is raw. On the other hand, glazing implies a lot of technique, and a lot of care, and the result can be catastrophic.
It’s a sort of a scientific formula that can go right or wrong.
Exactly. It implies a lot of attention to detail. It depends on a lot of factors. You never know, for sure, what the result will be, even if you follow the same steps you did last time. It is a test of your patience, your humility… These are things I still have to learn.
If something goes wrong you can always use that Japanese technique of mending and joining the broken pieces with gold.
Ah! The Kintsugi. I love that technique, especially because the Japanese say that you cannot break a piece on purpose to make Kintsugi, it has to be a mistake, either when the piece is fired or accidental breakage, otherwise all the spirituality is lost - the metaphor is lost.
What themes do you pursue?
Photographs can be inspirational. But at the current stage, I’m more interested in mastering techniques than in the themes themselves. For instance, right now, I’m training a technique that mixes two different types of clay, it is called “Nerikomi”. I discovered it in a book and, once again, it is a Japanese technique. Japanese are really the best! You can either make geometric shapes or organic ones, more natural, just like waves. And although you can add pigments later on in the process, the fact of using different types of clay gives the pieces different colors and shades. This technique uses clays that are 100% natural, which is something that attracts me.
Is nature important in your work?
Absolutely. The fact of having my atelier in a garden, looking out the window, and seeing the garden, is very relaxing, very inspiring. A garden is something that requires a lot of patience, it is something that is built with time, with care, with love… Nature is of key importance to me. I’m more and more concerned with what I leave behind, that is why I use predominantly materials that do not harm the environment. I try to recycle clay or I try to give pieces I don’t like a new purpose, or I give them to people who like them, people who don’t see them the way I do when I notice the technical flaws. It is important to make things circulate, that’s part of nature itself.
Not accumulating… not having lots of things at home.
Because that’s something that doesn’t agree with feng shui. When we started planning this house, I read a book about feng shui that said that it isn’t good to keep broken items and, in ceramics, it is obvious that there will be a lot of broken stuff. You have two options: doing Kintsugi or you have to make those pieces circulate. To move to a new studio was a good excuse to do a bit of triage.
Do you upcycle?
Not yet. I have a friend who integrates broken pieces in her new works, but I haven’t done it yet. I like upcycling my wardrobe. I would also love to do a collage with miniature hands. Plaster molds have a limited life span and, at a certain point, you can no longer use them in new pieces. When that happens, I use them to photograph my pieces, so that they are part of the setup, of the set design.
Are symbols meaningful to you?
They are very important to me and they are part of my day to day. For example, look, now it’s 11h11, I am always looking at the time and the fact of being two equal numbers. I have this necklace with a fingers crossed hand – it is called “mano figa” – and I like this symbol very much because, for Etruscans, it represented feminine power. It also represents protection, force, and fertility and it is a symbol that I used in my hands.
What about that bell over there?
I found this bell (“cloche” in French) in the smallest shop there is in Paris, it belongs to a man who sells bells of all the sizes you can imagine, from the tiniest one to some gigantic ones. This man told me that you should listen to the vibrations of a bell at least once a day so that you get positive energies.
What made you choose the hands as the central theme of your work?
I haven't thought a lot about it but it was probably my reconnection with creativity. I was completely disconnected from creation and when I started working at Fance Franck’s studio I thought “what am I going to do now?” and I said, “I’m going to pay tribute to my hands” to thank for the possibility of creating. It all started like this. Afterward, I found many other symbols but that was my first idea. And all hands of Main Edition are always drawn having my hands as the starting point.
Could you explain a little bit about that object you mentioned earlier, the “Gua Sha”?
The Gua Sha is a millennial object used in western Asia to do face and also body massages. I started doing Gua Sha for myself because I was fascinated by its minimalistic shapes. And then I started doing them to offer to other people. By improving blood circulation, Gua Sha helps renovate your skin, redefines your cheekbones, and defy gravity (laughs).
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
I like it when people realize that the ceramic hands were made having my hands as models, they are actually my hands. There is some sort of physical reaction that pleases me because the majority of people place my hands on the palm of their hands, so our hands touch each other.
As happened in rupestrian art - the hand was like a stamp.
Is the artistic life lonely?
It is a lonely life that I love. I started by sharing an atelier and, as time went by, I decided to have an atelier in my own house, to be able to make my own experiments, to create more…
I felt like I needed this isolated environment. But what happened, when I returned to Paris this winter, was that I shared a space with other people, and it felt right. It made me realize that I needed to have the experience of sharing again. Sharing is super important.
Solitude is important to create, but you also have to share moments of creation, moments of conversation, because that helps you to evolve, to improve. I think there should be a balance between the two in every art form.
Around the world, which was the most inspirational place you’ve been to?
It was a place and an incredible moment in Finland, in a little village called Tapiola, sketched by Alvar Aalto. It was winter and I had never experienced such a cold, not even in Russia. We were there visiting the village and the architecture and, suddenly, a man comes out of a building practically naked, and gets inside a swimming pool. It was - 20ºC! In that same village, we entered a church where the children's choir was rehearsing and it was a moving and inspirational moment. It was a moment out of time, almost like a dream.
What makes you angry?
Nowadays, my battles are recycling and wastage. I get really upset when I realize people don’t make a minimum effort to recycle. It is actually a very small contribution to the environmental battle.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“Suivre ton instinct” – follow your instinct. And if there is something that you like, you have to defend it and work with dedication so that it becomes true. If you don’t do it it is because it wasn’t so important after all. It was Arthur who said it. We make our journey together, hand in hand. We have the feeling that one can do anything as long as one works hard for it.
What role does the artist have in society?
To make people dream. To give soul to things and allow people who don’t have a place where they can create, to have access to beautiful things, collect, which, in a way, it is also a form of creation. Just like Calouste Gulbenkian who, by gathering all that beauty, was creating a legacy, not only for himself but also, for others. His museum displays the collection of a man who was really in love with art, who chose, himself, each piece of his collection between the pieces he gathered. One can tell that he was passionate about Persian tapestry, about Egypt… He is the opposite of Berardo, who has a kind of “checklist”, he lacks taste, love, and encounter…
Do you collect anything?
When I was small I was absolutely passionate about Egyptian and Greek mythology. My father knew about it and as he worked in art auctions when I was seven he offered me a few small Egyptian sculptures about three thousand years old. I have those sculptures, I also have an ancient hand with more than two thousand years, they’re symbolic, art is symbolic, and each of them tells a story.
… a Book
The book “Écrire” by Marguerite Duras, explores the idea of solitude. Marguerite Duras is very good, you have to read between the lines and she is very concise when writing. She knows how to play with the senses.
… a Song
The song “Não Identificado” by Gal Costa. I heard it for the first time in a film by Kléber Mendonça called “Aquarius”. I also liked his film “Bacurau” very much. He wants to expose violence and the consequences of capitalism in a very light way… he is capable of speaking about complex themes in a very simple way. He has a kind of poetry inside, which is a rare thing. Ah! And the song “Tia Macheta” by Berta Cardoso, marks a time when Arthur and I were starting to try to understand Portuguese and fado… I love to go to Mesa de Frades, in Alfama. It is magical. When we moved to our first apartment here we had a neighbor who sang Fado, she used to sing by the window, like in a movie. Magic. I have never seen her since… I don’t know if she is for real. Could it have been a dream? (laughs)
… a Film
"Les Tziganes Montent au Ciel” (Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven) by Emil Lotianu (1976), because of its poetry, images, colors… It’s wonderful. It is a story like Romeo and Juliet.
… a Work of Art
The Namban screens in Museu de Arte Antiga. I can spend endless hours in front of them. Seeing the stories there. I also love the Bosch triptych. Either of them reveals a maddened universe, with scenes you cannot explain and which raise a series of questions.
Being Portuguese means…
The tranquility… Maybe it is apparent tranquility, because deep inside, there is fire, a restlessness. But they are careful with confrontation. French say everything in a very frontal and direct way. Here, everything is more “cryptic”. I’m not saying this in a bad sense, I guess it is because the Portuguese are afraid of hurting others.
Find more of Victoire’s work here.
Interview and photographs by Maria Abranches.