The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Edmund de Waal
Edmund de Waal's pots are nothing if not recognisable. That fine, smooth, celadon sheen. The classic shapes - cylindrical, circular. The subtle variations in surface, the occasional indentations or pinches, the dramatic differences of size and scale. This is the De Waal style that, not so very long ago, was taken as the height of modernist, minimalist chic. This is the style that has taken De Waal from his first solo show, less than a decade ago, to the top of the ceramicists' tree. He writes too, as well as making pots, and he champions those great twentieth century painters who turn to pottery as... Well, as what? As diversion, experiment, iconoclasm? Anything apparently, but the lonely severity of the single potter at their wheel throwing pots of austere beauty. And here there is surely a contradiction. For Edmund De Waal looks like a typical example of the refined tradition of ceramics. Yet in his writings he is identified and gloried in an entirely different canon of ceramic greatness - the Picasso/Miro/Gauguin school of rule breakers. In doing one thing, but praising the opposite, does Edmund De Waal reveal that tension between his hands and his brain that one critic at least has defined as a crucial piece of unresolved business? That's certainly one question to explore here in his studio in South London , surrounded by pots and clay and unfinished work. That's one question to explore, as is the matter of his basic training, the tradition that he came from in the school of Bernard Leach , and his later break from it including some stern criticism of Leach's shortcomings. So where does Edmund De Waal stand in the landscape of modernism and ceramics, and increasingly as a ceramicist whose scale, ambition and aesthetic are those of a sculptor?
Let's go back right to the beginning. What is the first pot that you remember liking?
The first pot I remember liking was a small white pot that I made myself. I was five, and I'd persuaded my poor father to take me to an evening class, to make pots, to throw. And I remember my first pot that I made on a wheel, and I was told by the adult education people that I needed to paint it and colour it in, and make it decorative, and I refused, and dipped into a white glaze. And in fact that was my first pot and I sort of rather stuck there I'm afraid.
Have you still got it?
I've got it, yes. Yes it's, it's, it's very very very heavy, and very very very white.
Were you thereafter brought up to look at ceramics?
Not really, but I do remember exhibitions. For some reason I was attuned to them, I remember going to see a Lucy Rie and Hans Coper exhibition, when I must have been about seven or eight, and I can actually remember the pots there quite clearly. So there was something going on about being able to recognise that ceramics were out in that environment, out in the landscape. And my family's not a making family at all, they're quite a talking and writing family, but I was rather regarded as being good with my hands and that was a safe territory for me.
But it does sound as if it really sprang from inside you. Nobody had nudged you or pushed you in that direction?
No there was no pushing going on at all, no, it was completely self-willed really.
You say your family was talking and writing, but there must have been some artistic, aesthetic background and interest?
Well there was the interest of living next to cathedrals. It was a clerical family and so we lived next to very very good gothic cathedrals. And I think part of my early experiences of wandering through buildings and feeling different kinds of spaces was very very important. I mean I do remember being startled by how beautiful and interesting and odd a lot of the spaces in those cathedrals were, and those are some of my very earliest memories. So perhaps that's something that sort of fed into my feeling for objects.
The spaces rather than the shapes?
Mm, absolutely. No the way in which you move, for instance, in Canterbury Cathedral, which is one of the places I grew up next to, from very high spaces into the crypt. You could descend into spaces, or get trapped in spaces, and then come out again into completely different volumes. And that sense of how spaces can change atmosphere and spaces can change your emotions, seemed to me something that was very interesting. And I suppose that is something that does connect to pots quite directly.
And of course at King's School, Canterbury , you were actually taught pottery by a rather good teacher weren't you?
By Geoffrey Whiting, who was one of the kind of very good disciples of Bernard Leach. He worked very much in Leach's tradition, which brought together Oriental ceramics, the ceramics of, in particular of Japan and China , with sort of mediaeval English ceramics. And Geoffrey Whiting was a wonderful teacher, he was an austere man who believed very much in functional ceramics and gave me a proper apprenticeship. I mean he gave me, you know it was make two hundred and fifty casseroles, make three hundred and fifty honey pots, and it was a proper grounding in functional pottery of that school.
Why did he think that making two hundred and fifty honey pots taught you anything?
Because there's a very basic level of skill which is only acquired through repetition. It's one of those truisms that is very difficult to get round in ceramics, because people make it into a great moral law. But it actually seems self-evident to me that actually the more objects you make of the same size, same shape, the more attuned you get to slight differences. Your eye and your hand become more carefully attuned to difference. So that's one thing - there's a sense of repetition. But it's a bit like doing scales as well - you'd never be surprised by a musician spending five years doing arpeggios, and there is the sense really in an ceramic apprenticeship that that's really what you're doing.
So by the time you went to university, to Cambridge , did you know that you wanted to be a potter?
Absolutely. I was very clear about that. In fact I took a couple of years out as apprentice and also went to Japan before I went to university, so I was very clear that pottery was my life. The pottery I was going to do, I was very much involved in the Leach tradition at this point, I was very determined I was going to be a good ruralist potter, I was going to make cheap domestic pots with good earth colours and they were going to be, in Geoffrey's terms, cheap enough to drop, part of everyone's everyday life, and that was my mission statement.
But you went to Cambridge and you read English. Was this the reading, talking, writing element of your background and family re-asserting itself? And of course you couldn't have read, you couldn't have studied pottery, so you had to do something?
Well, I could have gone off to art school I mean no I was, I've always loved literature, and writing, and reading, and it seemed to me bizarre to think that you couldn't be a potter who wrote, or liked reading poetry. And Cambridge seemed to me just a, it was obviously a very good and remarkable place to actually study. So even when I was reading English I was making pots, and spending time in Kettle's Yard looking at pots and looking at paintings, and the two things really went hand in hand. I was very lucky as well by the people who taught me, who seemed to feel that there was no particular problem in having a potter there.
Did your contemporaries think you were a bit odd? I mean did you have a wheel in your rooms?
No not quite, but there was a wheel in Cambridge I used every day practically. So it did really continue completely as the same time as reading.
So again like the musical analogy, this was your instrument, and nobody would suggest to a fiddler that he should stop playing the violin while he was reading English at Cambridge , so this was exactly the same thing - you had to keep your hand in?
Yes absolutely. And there's never been different parts of my life. I've never sort of put down pots and taken up the pen, or stopped reading in order to immerse myself in some dynasty pots or something like that. It's never been clearly differentiated. They sweep in from side to side. And I think one of the pleasures at Cambridge was discovering that, as I studied, a lot of the Leach inheritance that I'd got, this great dogmatic, didactic teaching from Bernard Leach about the proper conduct of the potter, the proper conduct of pots, actually by reading English that came under a much greater scrutiny for me. I read Orientalism by Edward Said for the first time at Cambridge , and suddenly realised that you could critique intellectually the Leach tradition.
Beyond that, that presumably, that experience at Cambridge gave you the beginnings of the intellectual apparatus to criticise and understand Leach fully. What is the actual chronology of your having major second thoughts and a revisionist approach of the Leach tradition?
After Cambridge I, I went and set up a pottery in the Welsh borders. I did the proper Leach thing, I went and built my kiln. It was of course a disaster, the whole pots I was making weren't very nice, they were very heavy and nobody wanted to buy them - partly because the Welsh borders is full of potters, making pots. And I sort of began to register that the kinds of pots I wanted to make and the pots I was actually making were completely different. And I was reading the literature around pots, mostly by Leach - because Leach was a great wordsmith and wrote fifteen books and endless essays - and discovering that there seemed to be huge lacunae, that Leach was full of holes. There were lots of kinds of pots that he didn't like talking about, or dismissed, and this sort of began to worry me more and more and more. And I had an opportunity from a Japanese foundation to go back to Japan to work in Tokyo , and it coincided with a commission to write a small monograph on Leach. What happened was that I had a year in Tokyo and I was doing two things simultaneously. I was researching in the great folkcraft archive there the papers and journals of Bernard Leach, and I was also working in a very metropolitan studio full of very avant garde potters, and so mornings in this archive discovering really how peculiarly etiolated Leach's life in Japan was, how few people he knew, the kinds of the pots he looked at were very few, and that kind of thing. So the intellectual structure of my understanding of Leach was falling apart.
And you realised that you had to put that together. You couldn't stay silent.
I couldn't stay silent, this was too big a story for me. But the afternoons were spent making a new kind of pot, and so curiously enough by researching and writing this book this allowed me to start making the pots that I really wanted to make.
It almost gave you intellectual validation for what instinctively you knew you needed to do?
Yes, they're completely connected. Writing the book, it's a very long-winded way of learning to make pots, the pots you want to make, but that's the way I did it. I mean learning Japanese and researching work on Leach allowed me to start making porcelain pots, relaxed porcelain pots.
Because obviously he did not speak Japanese did he?
He spoke it a little, but a very very little. And more importantly than that it's who he spoke it with, because the great myth of Leach is that Leach is the great interlocutor for Japan and the East, the person who understood the East, who explained it to us all, brought out the mystery of the East. But in fact the people he was spending time with, and talking to, were very few, highly educated, often Western educated Japanese people, who in themselves had no particular contact with rural, unlettered Japan of peasant craftsmen.
So did he make that bit of the tradition up?
Yes, he did. The folkcraft tradition which he espoused is a completely melange, a complete mixture of highly coloured rhetoric about what kinds of pots are appropriate pots, and very good examples taken from very very few people, mostly his friends.
Do you think he was, what we'd now say retro-fitting the experience he came from, and he wanted to find a respectable, distant Japanese, Oriental justification for what he felt he wanted to do in England anyway?
I think that's so. He's a classical Orientalist, he finds beauty, sensuality, mystery, in a place which doesn't connect with his English gentleman upbringing. So you've got an English upper middle class man of a particular age, Edwardian age, who finds in Japan a way of creating an object he couldn't make in England, and being Leach, being a highly poetic character, a man who spins lyrical stories around his experiences, he creates a myth of appropriateness, of what kind of pots are appropriate to make.
See I've never understood that word. Tell me what did he mean by appropriate?
Appropriate is the key word for Leach. Appropriate means using materials in a very limited kind of way, that you locate one or two materials and use them. You don't look beyond those few materials you use. That the colours are soft and gentle and don't distract, that decoration is minimal and comes from natural sources - you know a sprig of flowers from here or a pilgrim, if you're making a Leach dish. But more than that it's an appropriateness of use, that the kinds of objects you make should be part of your everyday life without really attracting attention, they should just be part of your life. And that the humility of the maker was withdrawing from attention, that actually these objects shouldn't become visible.
It's not an ignoble ideal is it, I mean this sense of self-effacement in the process of creation? And there's nothing wrong with it per se.
There's nothing wrong with it at all, it's just a very dogmatic thing if you say that's all that ceramics are. The problem about Leach is that he goes on and on. His great message of self-effacement, or standard ware, of appropriate conduct, appropriate kinds of pots, is one thing, but it becomes cultic, people take it very very seriously. And he closes down opportunities for different kinds of ceramic practice. So for instance if you look at his great work on ceramics, 'A Potter's Book', there's no figuration, there's no figurative ceramics, there's no work by European makers, there's no work by artists who've used ceramics - Gauguin, Miri, Picasso and so on. There's no Islamic ceramics, and so on. It's a closed system, where only a few kinds of ceramic practice are identified as being credible.
Were you very unpopular when you published this monograph?
Yes, I literally had hate mail. I think by pointing out very simply that there were some gaps in Leach's knowledge of ceramics and indeed his understanding of Oriental ceramics, I was regarded really as a traitor, particularly of where I'd come from, because of my background and growing up within that tradition.
Oh I can see that people might not have liked it, but hate mail, from potters? It's faintly comic isn't it?
How cross can a potter get? Well very very cross indeed, particularly around Leach. I think what happened was that the functional pottery of that school has really needed a champion since the death of Leach, and no-one has really argued how they should continue to be valued, and how they should be critiqued. And so my monograph, which is only really a contextual book, seemed to be one step too far for that aspect of the ceramic world. I think it's partly also that I seem to be just saying that the energy and interest in contemporary ceramics seemed to be elsewhere.
Yeah. Now in the meantime of course, so while this process of discovering that, can I say, Leach had feet of clay, that was one bit of it, but you in the meantime quite clearly knew what you wanted to do, and did you know then that you wanted to work in porcelain and in celadon - that was sort of fully formed?
Yes, that was fully formed. And that was quite exciting for me because porcelain was a material that I hadn't worked with in my apprenticeship, and it wasn't a material that I associated with the Leach tradition at all. I mean porcelain for me was really a new way of thinking about the pots I loved, and the pots I loved were both Korean and Chinese celadon bowls. But also Bauhaus pots, modernist pots from the 1920s, futurist pots from the 1930s, a whole different spectrum of porcelain objects. And by using this material it allowed me to sort of enter a different kind of territory.
Give me a thumbnail difference of what working in porcelain is and working in earthenware or stoneware is.
It's a very plastic material, but it's a very treacherous material. You have to work very quickly and decisively. It's a very seductive material as well, very smooth and very beautiful. But the interesting thing about it is that when you fire it you can't completely control the results. When you fire it to the temperatures I'm firing my porcelain to, it bends and warps, moves around. So you can't make a perfect porcelain pot - or I can't make a perfect porcelain pot. So what you're dealing with is a material which actually is susceptible to gesture, to how you handle it, to your movements around it. And I tried to work with that by making pots that were very simple and austere and plain, but also moved. After I'd made this simple austere pot, I then bashed it with the heel of my hand, or pinched it between my thumb and finger, so that when you pick it up you actually feel the hands that have made it, you feel the movement of the making. And that seemed to me a very exciting way of using the material.
And you couldn't do any of those things, or you wouldn't need to do any of those things with earthenware, which is more lumpy, more solid?
It is more solid. For me porcelain was the way I was going to do it. Porcelain for me had all those somatic, bodily experiences of being able to move the clay around in a new way. That was one thing. But it also, porcelain of course is a great, part of the great matrix of how culture has happened. I mean it's the Silk Road , it's how pots have moved from the East to the West. It's full of lots of different historical resonances.
So you're connecting with the universal tradition rather than, without labouring the Leach point too far, with a much more local English tradition?
Absolutely. And indeed one of the first groups of pots I started to make was actually about the Silk Road, because actually I started to make pots in groups and called them cargoes of pots, in a very kind of selfconscious way trying to suggest that there were different ways that pots could be seen together, and that there was historical resonance of porcelain pots being unloaded in the docks over many hundreds of years. So I started to make pots in a way that I really enjoyed rather than I felt I had to.
Now to take a slightly different look at who you are and what you do, the writer Philip Rawson said that the single pot tells you about the materials, the process, and the person. So let's just go through those with you. You said something about porcelain, but the fundamental material is clay isn't it?
So I think you said one of the fascinating things about clay is that people don't know how to treat it in many respects because what is it? It's earth - we're all human clay. It's a base material. Has this never worried you?
Not remotely. Clay's a very interesting material in that sense in that it's got no value at all. As it happens porcelain has got value, but no-one really knows where it is the hierarchy of materials.
It's very low isn't it?
It's very low.
Just above lead perhaps?
Way down, in the sense that anyone can dig it. It's free, a free material. It's also of course a material that is part of our poetry in that clay and people go together very very well indeed, and we are earth, we are dust, we are shards, you know it's part of the kind of biblical resonance in that sense as well.
But that ought to give it a higher value shouldn't it, in a way that because it plugs into our feelings in such a universal way we ought to appreciate it instead of thinking as apparently some people do well it's not a posh material because it doesn't resist, and it's the good, the greater materials are the ones which have their own hardness and which resist, and clay doesn't.
That's so interesting, because it's that very absence of resistance has actually allowed a lot of people to play with clay. It's obviously material that's used by potters, to make vessels, but it's also, it's that lack of resistance, that ability to pick it up and handle it and model it, to feel it change within your hands, that has allowed a lot of people who are outside the great sort of parish boundaries of clay work to use it in very very interesting and stimulating ways. And I suppose one of the things that I've found most stimulating is that it's by looking at the people who don't call themselves potters that you can find some of the most interesting uses of clay as a material.
Mm, well let's just park that idea for a moment because I want to come back to that. And the thing also about clay surely is that you're constantly re-working it. If you don't like where you've got to on the wheel, you just go back to the basic lump don't you?
Yes, I understand - put very very crudely!
No it's only when you fire the pot that actually that's the point of no return. Throwing pots is very interesting because of course it's one of the great iconic images is the potter's hands moving on the clay, and it's a very seductive image, because what you're doing is actually of course making an inside and an outside simultaneously, which doesn't happen in very many other places in art. You're making a volume in a very short period of time, you're creating an internal space.
Ah back to your spaces and cathedrals.
Yes. Go on.
And so when you're making a vessel, and I really actually am only interested in vessels - that's for me the most interesting thing about ceramics - when you're making a vessel every single touch of your hands after you've thrown the basic cylinder, actually changes the interiority, the sense of internal space, completely. You can make twenty pots in a row, and by just moving them ever so slightly each of them has a very different resonance, a very different sort of pitch.
I can see that. And then you mentioned the firing and the variability that firing produces. It's as if you're very happy to accept that the element of the random, what happens in the kiln, should take over in the creative process at a certain stage.
I accept completely that what happens in a firing is that sort alchemical change from clay to fired object. It can be very beautiful, but of course it can go completely wrong, so you have to be very critical - one is critical about what comes out of the kiln. But that sense of the changed object seems still to me to be very very exciting, that actually you put pots into a kiln and you simply don't know what you're going to get out. You really have no idea what's going to get out. You can have a guess but you don't know. And one of the things that I've been doing with my pots over the last few years is really by working at really quite a scale with porcelain, making pots that are three or four feet high, is to see how they move around in the kiln, it's very extraordinary. And of course they can topple over or they can be ugly when they come out. And then you just have to use a hammer, you just have to break them up. But that's fine because for every pot that goes wrong, you may get a pot which actually is more than you expect, or has moved in a dynamic way.
Yes. And I suppose when you see absolutely that it's wrong, you don't say oh God I can't bear to break that - you presumably can't bear to look at it a second longer?
No, absolutely. I mean there are far too many pots in the world to let things out of the studio which aren't right. But also we walk on pots, the earth is full of shards, and an archaeologist's job is to dig up broken bits of pots. And so there's nothing wrong with breaking pots as well as making them.
It occurred to me when you mentioned earlier that you put the imprint of the palm of your hand, or you pinch the porcelain, whether that was one way of saying I know that this pot is going to come out different, and this is my way of, as it were, establishing my diffence... I know it's not going to be perfect, so I'm going to make it imperfect from the beginning. Is there an element of that?
There is an element of that. I'm torn. I'm torn always between making an object which has the kind of purity of a Donald Judd box, that has the sense of effacement of the hand, where you can't see where the hand has been. But I love the gesture as well, the movement into an object that you can get with porcelain. And I think recently with some of the series of works that I've done where I've shown ten or twenty pieces in a row, I've tried to have that sense of both clarity and movement going on between the different pieces, so that you've got the sense of how the hand works in different ways during the series.
Yes, when you make a series are you aware of the previous ones that you've made, and do you start to think now I need to get a bit of dynamic into this set of shapes and do it slightly differently?
Absolutely. The series are very very carefully planned. In fact, I suppose overall my work is, goes between a lot of reading, a lot of writing, a lot of thinking, a lot of planning, and then quite a lot of quite quick dynamic making. So it's an odd process.
When you sit down in front of the wheel, and of course you've indicated that this is so habitual it's like playing scales, but is there a feeling of anticipation still?
Absolutely. I haven't stopped for one second enjoying the making of pots. It's something I look forward to, and I would be very worried if I'd lost that.
Now when you sit down at your wheel, what's the process like? What do you feel?
I feel intrigued. It's a very immersive process, you are in the process straightaway. You cannot be elsewhere while you're making a pot, partly because, as I said, every single breath really comes out in the making of the pot - it's visible, it's present in terms of the touch - of the pot. So it's a very complete experience. And I listen to music often when making pots, but it's a very complete experience in itself.
How does your body feel when you're throwing pots?
Achey. It's not a very relaxed experience. You come away from the wheel, having made pots - I'm tall, and making pots is a bad thing for my back. So it's not a great leap away from the wheel with joy in my heart, I actually ache and ache and ache after making pots, particularly if I've been making a series of works and have been very involved in that. It's hard work.
So do you have to keep it up for several hours a day, particularly once you're making a series or an installation?
Yes. I mean in preparation for an exhibition where I might be doing several series of work, there's a huge amount of work and preparation involved in a big exhibition. I mean a couple of years ago I did a porcelain room, when I made a wall of pots which was three hundred and sixty pots in the series, and they're based on a kind of brush pot, very simple, small cylinder. But making three hundred and sixty pots sequentially was tough, it does take it out of you. But it's also very very interesting because when you're going through that sequence and seeing how things are changing as you go through - I had a very clear idea, I knew exactly what I wanted out of that wall of pots, I wanted it to be like a musical wall, I wanted for you to be able to listen to the whole series and sequence of pots in the group. But the way it turned out was of course different from the way I'd heard it or felt it in my hands.
So that of course couldn't have been more different from what you were taught as a child, which is make five hundred things which are the same. These are similar, but the key is to allow, indeed to demand, that each one evolves.
Exactly, and it's that demand on yourself to make sure that the difference is interesting difference rather than just different. There's nothing good in itself, or nothing good in itself about the difference, it's to make those gaps, those synapses between pots, electric, that is what I hope I'm about.
Yes because I suppose it's too easy just to manufacture a difference and say oh I'll make this one lop-sided to the left rather than lop-sided to the right, and at that stage you know that that particular game is up.
Absolutely, and there's nothing particularly good about bashing in the side of a pot. It doesn't necessarily make it any more interesting than a beautifully, clearly thrown pot with a nice handle that has no sense of touch about it at all. But it has to work for the eye, it has to work for the hand, it has to work for the head.
Is there something particularly spiritual about working at a potter's wheel?
I hear my father preaching sermons on this. But no, there isn't, and I think, you know Jeremiah on his, on his heap of potshard. No I, no there isn't, there isn't, there's nothing spiritual in itself about, about, about any artistic practice I don't think.
Is there anything particularly creative about it - especially creative?
I'm very wary of proscribing special experience to any particular.... I've got too many friends who are novelists or musicians or whatever to start proscribing specialness to any artistic activity - I think in that way lies treachery actually. You become very dogmatic I think if you start proscribing. If you start saying that throwing pots is more special than hand building them or making a wall of clay out of them or whatever, then I think you're in dangerous territory.
Now going back to that Philip Rawson point, that you can tell from a pot about the materials and the process and the person, and so I guess we've reached the stage of what sort of person you are, having described the materials and having described the process. What do you think we can see of you as the person in your pots?
I would hope that people would see a rigour about the pots, and perhaps a rigour about their way they've been made, but also an interest in, or love really of touch, of sensuality, of how things actually feel when you pick them up. The great joy of being a potter rather than anything else is that people feel they are able to pick up your pots. There are very few arts where people feel that they have a licence to actually pick something up and handle it, and it's an extraordinary way in for people to experience what you do. And I hope if people did pick up my pots that they actually... or run their hands over a very large one rather than picking it up, that they actually would feel that combination of perhaps rigour and sensuality.
Romance? I know it's an awful word, it's a vulgar world, word, but to a romantic maybe another aspect of sensuality?
Maybe. I mean, for me there's a lot of longing going on in my pots, but it's often a longing for other things, a longing for a piece of music or a poem, or a cabinet of pots in the V & A or a memory of a journey, and there are often quite a lot of embedded feelings and thoughts that bring about a new piece of work.
Are there longings for things that you don't have in other aspects of your life?
I suppose what I'm trying to say is that pots can express lots of different things. Pots aren't just about the kitchen table - they can be wonderful on the kitchen table but they don't just have to be about the domestic space. Pots can be about anxiety, they can be about pleasure, they can be about time, they can be about genetics - I've just done a piece based on Mendelian genetics. They can be about anything you want. Ceramics isn't just a domestic drama.
Now I suggested earlier that there was an interesting, maybe a tension between what you do and the rigour and refinement of what you do, and the way in which you have spoken up for this twentieth century tradition of the artists who use ceramics in rough ways, who couldn't be less like potters in the way they use ceramics. Now when did you come on this idea that there was this, as it were, unacknowledged tradition of ways of using clay which the potting world chose not to think about?
I was talking to a friend of mine who's a curator, and I'd just been to see the Fontana exhibition, and hated the Fontana ceramics. And we had a stand up row about it. And he said to me, you have to go back and look at those ceramics again - before his famous great slit paintings he made things out of clay. And the things he made out of clay were often exuberant, and tacky and kitsch.
I remember the exhibition at the Hayward , and I hated the ceramics.
Exactly. There was a piece which was a great mannequin, a harlequin, and instead of a kind of safe little German porcelain harlequin for a glass vitrine, this was also a metre high, full of his thumb prints, pink and gilded and drippy glazes. But it had a sort of... - and I hated it when I saw it when I saw it first, but he told me to go back, and I trusted him enough to go back and have another look. And I realised that what Fontana was doing was destroying the sensibility of how pots had to behave, that he was actually being, as he, I discovered he'd called himself, a minotaur in the Sevres factory - a mad, exuberant, sculptor loose amongst the proprieties of porcelain. And this got me thinking about the kinds of objects that I knew were out there but I hadn't really thought through - Picasso's ceramics, Miro's ceramics, Gauguin's ceramics and so on - and I started to look at them more closely and go back to them and see whether or not there was a common thread between these kinds of objects, and whether or not I should really re-assess my initial reactions to them.
And the thread is...?
The thread is really what a critic in the fifties called 'high unseriousness'. It's that sense of playing with clay, of having time off from other activities, and exploring how their hands worked on this very seductive material. And what it revealed to me, when you had people who weren't professional potters, that they highlighted a lot of the most interesting parts in the ceramic process. For instance, this thing about pots going wrong in the kiln - where a professional potter of a particular school might see a disaster, Miro saw in his words a symphonic, surrealist fantasy, where pots had dripped off the, off, of the, the kiln shelves and melted and gone all over the place in a very kind of wayward way. When he saw that, he saw alchemical moment of what happens when you fire pots, that they change their state of being.
And in recognising that he couldn't be more different from the sensibility of the classic potter?
Exactly. When Picasso in the fifties sees a potter working in the South of France, in Vallauris, in seeing him make a vessel, he sees a woman's form, or he sees a condor. He sees different kinds of object within that vessel, and just by picking up a freshly thrown pot and moving it around he understands that that particular object can become lots of other things simultaneously. So what these artists are doing is going back to the moment of creation and finding new possibilities, opening up new ways of seeing what a thrown pot or a fired pot can actually be. And it seemed to me that because we had grown up with a sense of propriety of authentic pottery, that we'd missed out on this whole world of possibility.
Well now hearing you talk about it only sharpens my sense of the need for the question, that is that I don't begin to see how this feeds into anything that you do, and that there is a slightly, I was going to say schizophrenic, which is rude, but what they do and what you admire, and what you've identified in these playful ceramicists is so different from what you do.
Isn't it okay to like different things? Because...
But when they're so far apart, I mean I think that it's fascinating, because I guess that you are congenitally incapable of doing what they did with clay.
I'm completely congenitally incapable of doing what they did with clay. But, the way I work is by writing and reading about things, as well as looking at things, and things feed in in very complicated and rather long-winded ways. So when I read Miro's poems about pottery, or when I read Gauguin writing about pottery in the 1890s and talking about it as a central art, the art that we've lost in the middle of our culture, and look at what he's making, I can't but be intellectually stimulated and excited. And that feeds into my sense that ceramics are a central art, that they're something right in the middle of our culture. So of course my pots are never going to be as mad as Miro's pots, or as Noguchi's pots, or as Fontana's pots, but I think what I value about them and what I value about the work in recuperating them, recovering them into the narrative of what pots, works with clay are about, is trying to strengthen the idea that ceramics are very much part of the central part of our culture.
I'm going to take you back to something that was written about you about eight years ago, and I wonder how far it was fair at the time, or how far it's even relevant now. I'm sure you remember the piece. And it referred to your use of classical forms, traditional forms, as being apparently anachronistic, and that sticking with these forms with porcelain and celadon, it referred to 'forced reticence and shrieking diffidence'. I'm sure you know the piece. Was that fair at the time as a criticism of what you were doing then, that you were handling material in a rather over-restrained way? Or was it just unfair?
I think it was unfair then, but I understand what he was saying. I don't think I've ever been diffident. I think that perhaps the pitch of what I've been doing has always been quite quiet, and perhaps now critics are beginning to be able to alter their...
To calibrate their reactions.
I hope so. Diffidence - I don't think I'm diffident in the slightest, I think I'm always... I think I make what I want to make, I think I write what I want to write, I don't ............
But how much have you changed since that was written?
I'm getting... I'm more confident, I am more confident about what I'm doing. I think, yes I think I am cha... I'm changing all the time. I mean, well one hopes one's changing all the time. Certainly the experience of the last year, of the last exhibition I had and the work I'm working on now, I do feel that I'm just at the point of being able to express some of the things that I've wanted to express for a very long time.
And the balance between your hand and your brain? Because again this article eight years ago said your hand is inhibited by your brain. A pitying shake of the head! (LAUGHS)
That kind of comment I think comes out of anxiety about potters talking about work. It's a very old feeling that really you should stay still down in Dorset at the end of a lane and make pots and shut up and leave all those metropolitan types to talk about your work for you. It's complete nonsense. It's also interesting because of course there will be no anxiety at all about musicians writing about their work. There's any number of wonderful musicians, composers, who write about their work - it's perhaps just slightly more novel in the world of clay, so far.
But even as you work, and I mean you've described how you work but was there anything at all that this writer got about the particular balance between your rationality and your creativity when you throw pots?
No, they are not cerebral pots when you pick them up. They're not cerebral pots when you look at them. There might be any amount of stuff going around them for me, but I think when you look at them I don't think you need to read the title, I don't think you need to read my footnotes, you don't need to have read the books I've done or the exhibitions I've curated. I think they sit there in the world, by themselves, and stand or fall on your reaction to them as works of art. And I don't think they're cerebral objects at all, I don't think they've been made in a cerebral way. I just have a rather complicated way of getting myself to the wheel.
So how are you changing?
I just feel I'm running out of time. I think that I'm picking up my pace. I think that I'm discovering that I can do what I want to do, and the things that I want to do are installations, that they're larger, that they take up more space in the galleries or the houses or the environments in which they're given. And I think it's that sense of allowing myself to take up space which is changing.
I guess that's so.
So can you imagine at the moment ever not working in porcelain and celadon?
I can't. There are a huge number of things that I haven't begun to venture into with porcelain. Porcelain for me is still a very interesting and complicated material, and celadon is a very interesting colour, tonality, and there is a huge amount more that I need to do with these materials.
So there's a continuing exploration of a particular, some would say fairly narrow part of the spectrum, but the important thing is that you're still finding things to explore within it?
I don't think it's narrow in the slightest. I think you find breadth wherever you are. I would go back to the musical analogy, that there are only so many different notes, but I don't think anyone's felt particularly worried by that so far. My sense of the possibilities of working with the vessel, of working with porcelain, and with working with a colour which for me expresses both a great history of Oriental ceramics but also one of the great colours of modernism and minimalism, it seems to be are enough material to be getting on with.
Edmund de Waal, thank you very much.
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