Artist Talk: Edmund de Waal, York Museum

I was unsure what to expect.  De Waal‘s influence on the status of contemporary ceramics is undeniable, but I haven’t enjoyed his articles in Ceramic Review – they read as if he’s taken criticism lessons from FR Leavis. However, I found Edmund de Waal to be a practiced and engaging speaker, displaying a gentle, often self-deprecating humour. For him, words and pottery cannot be separated, which I’ll return to later.

Micaela and I were hoping for a day of crafts, ceramics and art before the talk, but everything we’d like to have seen was closed on Monday. So we stocked up on supplies at the Mackenzie Smoke House in Blubberhouses, and spent a pleasant few hours touring the house and grounds of Ripley Castle, where we had lunch, and exchanged pleasantries about the weather with the owner, Lord Ingilby. Then on to York where we took our seats next to Matthew – second row, well done Matthew!

The focus of Edmund de Waal’s lecture was the subject of his book The White Road, in which he explores the history of the ‘obsession with porcelain’ – the world’s obsession and his own.  This Guardian review The White Road by Edmund de Waal Guardian Review provides a good summary, or see a version of the complete lecture:

He passed round several pieces of porcelain, one similar to the shard above, 1000 years old, which he picked from a mountain covered in such shards in China. Through the shard he connected to the porcelain potters through time.

De Waal sees porcelain as essentially broken.  The ‘staggering’ beauty and ‘purity’ of the porcelain object conceals a history of violence, poverty, deceit, illness and death. Coveted by tyrannical emperors, manufactured in a German concentration camp, the subject of ruthless business practice, this obsession for porcelain had decimated landscapes and destroyed the health of the people who make it.

His response to this is evident in his current exhibition in Stockholm’s Artipelag Gallery, which includes work spanning the last 5 years.  Many of the pieces are arranged in vitrines which are suspended from the ceiling, out of reach and awkward to view.  One must literally see porcelain from a different perspective. Others are ghostly images behind obscured glass. The pristine nature of translucent porcelain is interrupted, mutable. Objects are seen but not seen.

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Edmund de Waal at the Artipelag, Stockholm

For my own practice, I am interested in the meditative qualities of making, and de Waal’s notion of the synaesthetic nature of pottery.

In the Artipelag exhibition, his ceramics are shown alongside those of the Italian still life painter, Georgio Morandi. In fact, several of de Waal’s works are in direct response to Mirandi’s quiet paintings. From the 1920s Morandi concentrated on Still Lifes, using the same range of bottles, jars and pots, arranged to create balance and to catch the light.

Morandi: Still Lifes from the last two decades of his life

There is something in the repetition, the careful placing of objects, the linear composition that unites the two artists.  But more than that, they both find a meditative quality in producing their work, in contemplating the simple objects, and reproducing them again and again, combining them into unique artworks. I hope I’ll be able to find this in my work.

Morandi and Edmund de Waal (2016-2017)

The influence of Morandi’s groupings is evident in de Waal’s works above.  Apart from the large black installation, which is influenced by the rhythm of poetry.

I’m not sure how where this is taking me, if anywhere, but I have been considering the link between ceramics, visual arts, performance arts, music and literature.  De Waal talks passionately about the synaesthetic nature of ceramics and poetry in this short video:

‘It’s all the same,’ he says.  This may be an interesting avenue to explore in my work – the link between ceramics and art, ceramics and music, ceramics and literature.


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