John Bauer was born to a middle-class family in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, and he enjoyed a conventional upbringing until 1983, just before his sixth birthday, when both his mother and grandmother, were run over and killed by a drunken driver. This shattering bereavement cast a shadow over Bauer’s childhood and youth, and later inflected his oeuvre with a permanent sense of yearning and loss. During his early twenties, the wound was reopened by the murder of his surviving grandmother. The culprit was never brought to book, and the crime infused Bauer with a fierce passion for justice and a loathing for all aggression.
In 1985, Bauer’s father, an academic, decided to put unhappy associations behind him, and the family started a new life in Newlands, a Cape Town suburb with oak-lined streets and mountain vistas. Bauer attended Westerford High School where his severe dyslexia remained undiagnosed, and the resultant academic difficulties induced an enduring aversion to reading. Loath to participate in organized sport, Bauer started pottery classes in the afternoon when he was thirteen, and his talents were soon recognized by his teacher.
Whilst still at school, Bauer consolidated an ongoing friendship with the minister of the local Presbyterian congregational parish, and the church and pastor exercised a strong formative influence, imbuing him with a highly idealistic and humanitarian streak. Essentially spiritual by temperament, the artist’s reverence and piety impart a tender intimacy to everything he touches,
After matriculating, Bauer realized pottery was his vocation, and, after overcoming his father’s objections, he studied with a variety of local potters before striking out on his own. Despite initial financial problems and very real privation, his commitment to the kiln remained absolute, and no subsequent hardship has ever deflected him from his course.
John Bauer has devoted his career to investigating the nature of porcelain, and exploring its full potential as an artistic medium. He ceaselessly experiments with the chemical composition of his clay, and tries out new moulding and firing techniques, glazes and colouring agents. Imperial Chinese porcelains of the Sung Dynasty (960-1,279) have always been the principal influence upon him, setting the lofty aesthetic and technical standards he has always striven to maintain. In the course of his researches, he invented a secret process for executing incised ornament that greatly accelerated his rate of production. His prolific output is purely once-off, and consists of highly decorative, yet functional, pieces. There are two mainstreams.
From 2000 to 2004, Bauer produced over 4,000 small porcelain bowls. Each carries exquisite, low-relief, incised decoration portraying lovelorn, winged beings engaged in the romantic quest to find the ideal lover and soul-mate. The entire suite was signed, dated and numbered, and the sum total formed a continuous narrative, a visual diary, recording the ups and downs of the artist’s daily life, his thoughts, dreams, hopes, and numerous, but never casual, love affairs. Although the quirky motifs and endearingly misspelt inscriptions are often playful and achingly funny, the artist never shied away from the big issues. Bereavement, loneliness, disappointment and the search for happiness, number amongst his themes, and the melancholy undertow is offset by firm faith in divine providence.
These bowls established Bauer’s reputation, and he continues to produce them, though in far smaller quantities. From 2005 onwards, he started to diversify his wares, and capitalize on his virtuoso illusionist skill in simulating basketry, knitwear and textiles in plaques, tiles and bowls that run from the miniature to the large scale. His sources range from lace, crochet and doilies, to netsuke, cameos, oriental lacquer and the relief ornament on coins, medallions and leather.
In his practice, Bauer commemorates the traditional hand skills and folk art that are so rapidly dying out, and the artisanship of pre-industrial world is a perennial fount of inspiration. Many pieces pay tribute to the feminine crafts, and honour past generations of women who spent their leisure making objects to embellish the home and enrich domestic life. An adoration of women and their old-fashioned virtues informs his entire oeuvre, which glorifies the ‘eternal feminine’ and the redemptive power of love.
John Bauer was named an Emerging Creative at Design Indaba 2009. The South African Museum hosted a John Bauer retrospective in 2012, and both the Slave Lodge (formerly known as the South African Cultural History Museum) in Cape Town, and the William Humphreys Art Gallery in Kimberley, have acquired numerous examples of his work.