‘Barbaric splendour is a phrase I read in Ernst Gombrich’s book A Sense of Order. It comes from Greek oratory: if somebody was a bit flashy and prone to theatrical language, the orators would frown on it, calling it “barbaric splendour”. They thought that speaking plainly was a higher achievement and looked down on other cultures that were more inclined to sensuous pleasures’
‘When we note how frequently, too, elements of his own biography appear – whether in his visions of sexual fantasy or in the repeated references he makes to his family, and to the people and places he has known – we can begin to see Perry’s works as maps of his own creative universe. Indeed, as much as any artist might be said to divulge something of themselves through the making of their work, Perry’s pots could even be taken for self-portraits of a sort’
Executed in 2003, Barbaric Splendour was included in Grayson Perry’s Turner Prize exhibition that year, where he became the first ceramic artist to win the award. It is a compelling example of his use of pottery as a vehicle for social commentary. Looking back to Greek and folk art traditions, the classical forms of Perry’s vases become contradictory vessels fused with contemporary narratives, documenting his own biography, sociological realities and current political issues through coarse, satirical humour. In Barbaric Splendour, the clustered housing and muddy puddles drying after the rain in a northern working-class town contrast against imaginary billboards promising the ‘Holiday of a Lifetime’ and ‘Dream Homes’. Crowned with a roadside memorial to his younger self, the teddy bears also allude to the artist’s own bear, Alan Measles, who acted as a protagonist in the fantasy world Perry created to deal with his childhood upheavals, and is a recurring motif throughout his oeuvre. Of this memorial, Perry says, ‘I was thinking about the emotional outpouring after Princess Diana’s death and the whole “Dianafication” phenomenon. It was seen as an example of barbaric splendour by the middle-class media: you can cry at the right opera, but to cry at the wrong thing like Diana’s funeral is “common” and misplaced.’ The roundels pop in bawdy pastel patterns, the only colours in the otherwise sombre palette of the work, which Perry describes as the ‘typical trashy dinner-plate motifs of the working-class wedding present’ (G. Perry, quoted in J. Klein, Grayson Perry, London 2009, p. 42).
Following the success of his first major solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 2002, Perry’s ceramics propelled him to public prominence as a member of the so-called Young British Artist generation. In the sense that Perry chooses to work independently, handcrafting his ceramics through laborious practices and without studio assistants, the artist remains an anomaly amongst many of his contemporaries. Though made using traditional coiling methods, the virtuosic surfaces of his ceramics deploy a complex variety of additional techniques – from glazing and embossing to incision, relief and photographic transfers – which frequently require several firings. Deliberately challenging pottery’s status as a decorative, domestic, and utilitarian craft, the medium itself adds an additional layer to Perry’s social commentary, encouraging psychological and sociological discussions in the manner of Hogarth’s works during the eighteenth century. While the work’s title evokes judgements of moral inferiority cast in antiquity, Perry explains, ‘That trend in western civilization has been continuous, from Puritanism and classicism right through to minimalism in our modern age, all of which are seen as somehow morally superior. To indulge in decoration, ornateness, previous materials, a kind of visual busyness or emotional excess, is seen as morally inferior. It’s because class is central. Restraint has always been seen as having a high moral value and being one of the premier middle-class “virtues”’ (G. Perry, quoted in J. Klein, Grayson Perry, London 2009, p. 42).