The Royal Academy of Arts announced on Monday that Edmund de Waal is to curate a show this autumn in the gallery’s Library and Print Room exploring the significance of the colour white. His choice of theme is hardly a surprise: he’s famous for his strikingly simple installations of pure white ceramic vessels. But where does his fascination with the colour stem from?
Now almost as well known as a writer (for his family memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes) as a ceramic artist, De Waal has been making pots since he was five years old, after persuading his father to take him to an evening class in Lincoln. By the time the family moved to Canterbury, where his father was appointed dean of the cathedral, De Waal’s primary excitement was that the potter Geoffrey Whiting was teaching at the school there: ‘By the time I was 12, I was spending three or four afternoons a week with him.’ It was Whiting, a disciple of Bernard Leach, who introduced De Waal to the oriental tradition, skewed as Leach’s view was towards the pots of Japan and Korea. Although Whiting had never been to Japan, he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the famous Japanese kilns. ‘We would discuss the relative merits of different tea bowls over milky coffee,’ De Waal remarks. By his teens, De Waal was often visiting the ceramics galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and it was here that he encountered Chinese porcelain: ‘Not just the celadons and the fluted bowls and the bottles with their vivid gestural cuts through white slip, but the late austere porcelains from the 18th century with their almost clinical profiles.’ He spent so much time looking at the objects that ‘I can still see one specific bowl next to its neighbour’.
The first summer after leaving school, De Waal went to Japan. It was, he says, obvious that ‘Japan was the lodestar’. He spent a month in Kyoto at a traditional arts summer school – learning Noh drama and the tea ceremony. He stayed with his Uncle Iggie in Tokyo, the great-uncle whose collection of Japanese netsuke was to provide the inspiration for The Hare with Amber Eyes. He spent time in Bizen and Tamba, sites of two of the six remaining medieval kilns in Japan, and in Mashiko. Here, Bernard Leach’s friend and colleague Shõji Hamada had begun to make pottery in 1924, according to the principles of mingei, the Japanese folk craft movement. Visiting this sacred ground confirmed De Waal’s sense of mission. ‘I came back completely on fire to make authentic Leach pots,’ he says, laughing at himself. For the next seven years, through a two-year apprenticeship with Whiting, through his English degree course at Cambridge University, through two ‘bloody awful’ years on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme making pots in rural Herefordshire, De Waal held true to the earnest principles of Anglo-Japanese pot making: ‘It was all about modesty. Not a lack of ambition, but modesty of intent, to make pots for as many people as possible, of real beauty, austerity and function. Everything was brought back to that core belief.’ Far from his beloved ethereal Song celadons, he made brown stoneware casseroles.
Looking back now, De Waal acknowledges that ‘it was that kind of muddle of being trained in the Japanese way, the Leachian way, but really caring about the Sung dynasty pots – for their austerity and clarity and concision – and not knowing how to connect the two things.’ He goes on: ‘It actually took an incredibly long time to work out how to make them, how to remake them, in relation with the other things that I cared about, like John Cage or Agnes Martin or Malevich or whatever.’ The break came when De Waal moved to Sheffield and won a Daiwa Scholarship to travel to Japan and study Japanese. During his year there, he researched the Bernard Leach archive in the Nihon Mingeikan, the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum, studying the writings and correspondence of Yanagi Sõetsu, founder of the Mingei Movement, and those of the young Bernard Leach. He traced the evolution, through their conversations, of the rigid orthodoxies he had grown up with, nagging at the ‘disconnect between what I had been told I should be making and what I wanted to make’.
The result of his research eventually became the groundbreaking and controversial book, Bernard Leach, published in 1997. In it, De Waal dismantled Leach’s authority, exposing, among other things, his limited understanding of Japanese culture. Along the way, De Waal confronted the legacy of Japonisme, the passionate and often creative misreading of Japanese culture by the West, which had dominated thinking about Japanese arts and crafts for a hundred years.
Meanwhile, first in a ceramics studio in Tokyo, and then, in his new studio in London, he started to play with porcelain, as he puts it in his book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, ‘gently pushing the sides of my jars and teapots after I’d taken them off the wheel’. As De Waal acknowledges today, this was a momentous breaking of a taboo: ‘I was self-consciously adopting porcelain and saying, actually, I want to try again, this life but with a different material.’ He continues: ‘Porcelain is the material that in its bones, in its DNA, connects [different] kinds of Chinese aesthetics and a particular strand in modernism. Through white, there is a language there that can be explored without having to go to other kinds of ceramic language.’ It is this language which has proven so potent to De Waal ever since.
‘white: a project by Edmund de Waal’ is at the Royal Academy Library and Print Room from 26 September 2015–3 January 2016.