Edmund de Waal, potter and author, chats about the life, legacy, and lore of porcelain. He takes us to porcelain’s very beginnings in China, recounts its journey to Europe, layover in Tennessee, and expansion to the rest of the world. Edmund parallels this history with his own philosophy related in his most recent book, The White Road: Journey into an Obsession—a philosophy that speaks to the physical and spiritual journey of an artist, learning to reject more than one accepts and appreciating the various shades of white that appear as a story unfolds.
More to Explore
Edmund de Waal artist’s website
Edmund de Waal at the Gagosian Gallery
The White Road: Journey into an Obsession book
Review of The White Road: Journey into an Obsession
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
EDMUND DE WAAL: I’m totally waylaid by wonderful happenstance, by finding things out. And that takes me off in different directions. And that’s just the way I choose to live.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with potter, artist, and author Edmund de Waal.
Edmund de Waal is a potter, artist, and author of the critically acclaimed, beautifully written, and poignant memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes. He was in Los Angeles recently to install an exhibition of his work at Gagosian Gallery. As an artist, Edmund groups pots together in compositions of light and dark, like musical notations, a fact that he has highlighted by titling a work in his exhibition, ten thousand things, for John Cage. Edmund has long thought of Cage’s writings and music since at least when he saw an exhibition of Cage’s musical scores in Cambridge, England. The spare marks and varying spaces that comprise Cage’s scores, so similar to the drawings Agnes Martin, which Edmund also deeply admires, are formative moments as Edmund has described them. Moments that compel other moments into being, and when taken together over time, comprise a composition, a series of formative moments in duration. As with Cage’s music, Edmund’s pottery is as much about the silence or space in between the moments as about the pots—the moments—themselves. The spaces in between are filled with resonant, visual echoes of differing duration and make of the collective pots a composition—a work of art.
I sat down with Edmund to discuss his book, The White Road—his account of the history of porcelain. What follows is an edited version of our longer conversation.
The music you will hear during this episode was composed by John Cage and performed by the pianist David Tudor. It is taken from the David Tudor Archive in the collection of the Getty Research Institute, courtesy of Mode Records.
Edmund and I began by looking at one of the Getty Museum’s most beautiful paintings, Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi, painted about 500 years ago and featuring three Eastern kings bowing down before the Christ Child, having brought to him three gifts of great rarity, including, in the lower center of the painting, an exquisitely refined Chinese porcelain cup. I asked Edmund what it was about porcelain at the turn of the 16th century in Europe that it should feature so prominently in what Mantegna presumably believed to be a depiction of reverence before the Christ Child, before the Son of God.
DE WAAL: It is, of course, an image of the adoration of porcelain. Because what the Magi are bringing are iconic gifts—gifts that wrap up imagery, symbolism, and elsewhere, wrap up the idea of coming a very long way, which is what the kings did to bring to the Christ Child. And what could be the gift that encompasses, girdles the world more forcefully than a Chinese porcelain bowl? So, when Mantegna’s painting this image of adoration and trying to encapsulate what it means, he uses the porcelain cup, because the porcelain cup is about the most precious object he could think of. It has come right across the world. They are extraordinarily rare. They are arcanum—they’re secretive. And so that’s what you bring to the Christ Child.
CUNO: I asked him to tell us about the history of porcelain, how a Chinese material became so highly desired in Europe that it should be depicted this way, and why it was that he organized his history of porcelain, indeed his personal quest for that history, around three cities in China, Germany, and England.
DE WAAL: Porcelain begins a thousand years ago in China. And Jingdezhen is the great city, the sort of Ur place where it all starts. Quite quickly, this porcelain is on its travels through the great trading missions and the great caravanserai which go across Asia.
CUNO: Along the Silk Road.
DE WAAL: Along the Silk Road. And so porcelain begins to come into Central Asia, and then into—gradually, gradually seeps into Europe, where it’s regarded with incredulity, because it’s a material that no one can understand. So Marco Polo, for instance, you know, 150 years before Mantegna, writes about porcelain, and indeed, brings back when he returns to Venice, a single porcelain bowl, which is now in the Basilica in Venice. So these objects have a great arcane beauty to them, a great strangeness around them. And because they’re so rare, they’re collected by kings and by princes. They’re courtly objects. And they acquire this beautiful kind of pathinogen, because they’re so rare that it’s assumed that if you have a porcelain bowl, it will prevent you being poisoned. That it’s so special—
CUNO: The things that you would drink out of the bowl…
DE WAAL: Yeah. You would drink—you would drink out of the bowl—they have this mystery built into them.
CUNO: Because the irony is, they’re so rare of course, they’re rare in Europe, because they weren’t in Europe until Marco Polo brings one back. But the volume of production of porcelain in China makes them anything but rare, in a sense, because there’s great, great volume.
DE WAAL: Yes. I mean, this extraordinary city Jingdezhen, which, you know, even in the thirteenth, twelfth, thirteenth century, was really the first industrial city in the world. It was producing things on such a scale, because they discovered that you could break up production into lots and lots of different—it was Fordism. You could break things up into tiny, little segments. And every single different kind of worker could be given one section of the work. So that a piece of porcelain, like the piece we’re looking at there in the Mantegna picture, might have gone through thirty different people’s hands. So it looks lyrical, and it is lyrical and beautiful, but it’s actually also industrial. And so the scale of production, as you rightly said, is vast.
Before porcelain happens, there’s another thousand years, before you get to porcelain, of extraordinary ceramic production in China. So for a thousand years—well, more than a thousand years—before porcelain, people are trying out different clay bodies and experimenting with kilns. So that by the time that porcelain’s actually sort of becomes this beautiful translucent, light, and materially perfect substance, you’ve had generations of people getting it wrong. And so in fact, this—
CUNO: But the wrong material or the wrong firing temperature?
DE WAAL: The wrong firing temperatures, wrong combinations of these different kinds of clay you need to bring together. Everything that can possibly go wrong happens around porcelain. And you know, I begin my book by walking up a mountain, which is basically a mountain of broken pots, a mountain of shards. You know, the history of discovery of porcelain is basically a history of things going wrong.
CUNO: To me, that sounded like poetry, like a kind of metaphor: the art of porcelain being made of things going wrong. But of course Edmund meant it, literally. In The Hare with Amber Eyes he wrote of how important it is when becoming a potter to learn to destroy most of what one makes, to become comfortable with rejecting much more than one accepts. So I asked him to talk about how the making of pottery, like the making of poetry or any other form of art, is about the discipline of knowing just what is good enough, even when one is making it on the scale of the great industrial porcelain manufacturers of Jingdezhen.
DE WAAL: Part of this journey after decades of using this material, of trying to work out what I really felt about it, was really trying to excavate this history of work. Which seemed to me totally lost. It seemed to me that people were highly connoisseurial around porcelain. They collected it, they dealt in it, they were obsessional in the ways in which they displayed it, but no one had really, really thought through the cost of making porcelain. You know, what it actually meant to those generations of people who were part of this process of endless, iterative work around making this stuff. Because basically, it’s extremely hard work, it’s incredibly dangerous. You get destroyed by working with it.
CUNO: How is that?
DE WAAL: Because this white clay, this porcelain clay, when you use it, you produce silica, free silica. You make white dust. So every time you handle a piece of porcelain when you’re making it, you’re breathing in white dust and your lungs just don’t survive. It’s called—in every culture—it’s called “potter’s rot.” You know, it’s the thing that shortens your life.
CUNO: As Edmund spoke, I was struck by how it’s both difficult and dangerous to work with porcelain. And how it’s precious, too—how it’s the treasure of connoisseurs. I told him of my once being told by a Chinese connoisseur that he was taught to distinguish the date and authenticity of porcelain by reaching into a bag and touching the pot to feel the relative smoothness of its surface and the thickness of its body—that one could, indeed one should as a connoisseur, determine this by touch alone, so distinctive and fine was Chinese porcelain.
DE WAAL: It’s tremendous. I mean, the literature of connoisseurship around Chinese pottery is extraordinary. You have to think of all those poets and scholars feeling porcelain, writing poems about it, and of course, listening to it. You know, here we are, we’re in some pavilion in the Song Dynasty, Jim. You know, we’re talking about everything and we’re drinking our tea. And then we tap our bowls, you know, and listen to the different qualities, the timbre of the porcelain, and then that provokes us to write yet more poetry. So, you know, there’s a huge amount of sophistication around tactility, around weight, but also around the sound of porcelain.
And if you imagine that porcelain pagoda in Nanjing, built by the Emperor Yongle in memory of his parents, you have to imagine a pavilion which is 275 feet high, of white porcelain, with lanterns lit every night, so that it was a sort of incandescent glowing beacon in the middle of the city, with bells ringing in the pagoda. And if you want poetry around porcelain, you’d be hard-pressed to think of anything more extraordinary about this. And white, of course, in China, being the color of mourning. You know, being the color of grief and of transition to death. So, you know, decorative, absolutely, but it’s also profoundly strange and beautiful.
CUNO: I was curious about the title of Edmund’s book The White Road, and of its subtitle Journey into an Obsession. I asked him: what made the pursuit of the history of porcelain so personal for him?
DE WAAL: I’ve been doing this thing of working with clay now for forty-five out of my fifty-two years. So that counts as a journey, I think. All pilgrimages start out with a sense of direction and you kind of get lost. Every good pilgrim goes off track. And that certainly was my experience of attempting to write a book about these three different white hills that I thought I’d mapped them very well, but by the time I got there, I’d been taken somewhere completely elsewhere. And that is, of course, what happens as an artist. You think you know where you’re going and you’re taken somewhere completely different.
CUNO: I asked Edmund about the colors of porcelain, which at first was treasured for its rare, pure whiteness. Even the pots in his exhibition were not only white, some were even a charcoal, ashen dark gray.
DE WAAL: The great other color, of course, associated with porcelain is blue. Cobalt. It—you know, because it’s blue and white. It’s when blue comes into conversation with white porcelain that the whole storytelling around porcelain gets—the idea imagery, the painting of all kinds of narratives. And so blue changes the world of porcelain completely. And then of course, there are all those other glazes. You know, celadon absolutely, this beautiful, lyrical blue-green color that I have used a lot in my work. But then all the other colors that can happen around porcelain. And I kind of come and go with my emotional feeling about that, because for me, there’s an intensity around the whiteness of porcelain, which seems to me absolutely the heart of the material.
I use as an epigraph to my book, Melville talking about what is this thing of whiteness? And that seems to me the DNA of porcelain. So by the time we get to kind of, Sèvres in the late eighteenth century, I’ve kind of had enough. I can’t cope with garnitures of Sèvres with pink glazes with gilding on top. You’ve got beautiful ones here, Jim. I’m not going to go to the wall about your beautiful Sevres, but—
CUNO: But the equivalent, even in China, the Ming Dynasty, you know, or the Qing Dynasty, shall we say, where it’s over-the-top decorative qualities and so forth. Even that would seem to be a distraction from the qualities that you value most in porcelain.
DE WAAL: Yes. I mean, I am doggedly austere.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, tell us about the Yongle emperor of the Ming Dynasty and his love of beautiful things, because he has a big role to play in your story.
DE WAAL: Well, he’s an extraordinary figure. You know, he moves mountains. He’s—
DE WAAL: Literally. I mean, he creates the Forbidden City, he has a sort of disinhibited sense of the scale of what an emperor can do which is really quite incredible. He sends fleets around the world, you know, to explore and to trade. And he’s absolutely passionate about white porcelain. So, on the one hand, you’ve got someone who slaughters his enemies and is a man of ferocity. You know, I mean, famously, he massacres families, you know, a man of terror. And the same time, a man of enormous piety, who only will use particular kinds of white porcelain for his everyday use, and commissions this white pagoda, commissions works of remarkable beauty to have near him. So, white—white is not an easy color.
He was very affected by Tibetan Buddhism, which was one of the things that he supported—Tibetan Buddhists. And so he commissioned remarkable early Tibetan Buddhist artifacts made out of porcelain. Ewers and bowls with Tibetan inscriptions. So, you had these contemplative objects made out of porcelain. And there are some remarkably beautiful ones scattered around the museums of the world. While on the other hand, being an emperor, on an appalling scale. And that seems very interesting, because it’s the precursor, of course, for other obsessives, powerful obsessives, around porcelain.
CUNO: As we’ve heard, Marco Polo is credited with bringing the first Chinese porcelain bowl to Europe. He is said to have traveled in central and east Asia with his father and uncle, and in 1300 he published his account of their travels.
Over the years since Marco Polo, Portuguese traders brought porcelains to Europe in increasing numbers, even as the Chinese themselves began to produce export porcelain. It was the rarer, fine porcelains that attracted interest among the princely elites in Europe, not only for their beauty but for the mystery of their ingredients and manufacture. The finest of Chinese porcelains simply couldn’t be produced in Europe for almost four hundred years after Marco Polo brought the first Chinese porcelain back to Europe.
And so we pick up Edmund’s story in the late 17th century. It was then that the search for porcelain became intertwined with the burgeoning scientific interest in optical lenses and even alchemy.
DE WAAL: It’s a very interesting area, because curiosity and power are a peculiar mix. There’s very little disinterested science, early science. Almost all workings out of problems have an end in mind. So, you know, you have Leibniz or Newton or Spinoza trying to sort out philosophical problems. But at the same time, they are deeply involved in manufacture and how lenses might work, how this might become a commodity.
There is, for me, a very beautiful moment when this idea of how light works, of how lenses get created and what happens with heat and light of the sun, comes suddenly face to face with this problem about how to make porcelain. And there’s this remarkable moment where a particular impoverished German mathematician, philosopher, thinker, a man called Tschirnhaus, a maker of lenses, a grinder of lenses, tries to begin to work out how to make porcelain.
CUNO: He becomes associated with this man named Bottger. And Bottger seems to be a kind of child genius of a certain kind of untrained natural form. And yet he becomes almost kidnapped by the Elector of Saxony, in order to produce—to find the secrets of alchemy, the maker of gold and transitions to porcelain and so forth. What about that whole community of people and the desperate race to find the answer?
DE WAAL: The person who’s behind that race is Augustus, the Elector of Saxony, who is a remarkable man, you know, of appetite. That’s how he’s described. He’s someone who’s an obsessive collector of porcelain, obsessive collector of women and of buildings and of art. And is so determined to have his own porcelain production that as you say, this young alchemist and this remarkable philosopher are basically locked together in this embrace in the cellars of Dresden and then in Meissen and told they will not be released until they’ve discovered how porcelain can be created.
CUNO: And Tschirnhaus barely survives it. I mean, he dies shortly thereafter.
DE WAAL: He dies two days after. Which I have to say is the beginnings of a film. I mean, there’s no question about that, that this is sort of just the makings of a very, very good feature film.
CUNO: And they get locked away in this gold house in Dresden, is that right?
DE WAAL: Yeah, they get locked away. And it’s a moment of really interesting early science. It’s the moment when all kinds of materials are under scrutiny. The gold house is a place where minerals are refined and artifacts also created. So it’s like your Wunderkammer materials here at the Getty. You know, things go in lots of different directions. They can be made objects of contemplation or objects of scientific endeavor. And those two things are very closely aligned.
CUNO: The first porcelain factory in Europe, I think, or at least outside of China, was established in Meissen, as you write in your book, in 1708, 400 years after Chinese porcelain. It is kind of amazing that it takes 400 years for it to transfer. What do you make of that, that it takes so long to figure it out?
DE WAAL: I think it’s terribly pleasing, actually, how slow we were . It’s partly down to a lack of a material sensitivity, understanding raw materials, understanding the world. In the end, what happened was that these two men, this philosopher and this alchemist, actually instituted trials of different materials and brought them together, X and Y, in endless, endless trials. One particular kind of clay gave plasticity, gave it the ability to make things; and the other material gave the strength of the clay body, so that it could be fired to great temperatures, to 1,300 degrees centigrade or 2,500 Fahrenheit. And that as soon as they’d worked out that you needed two materials, not one, then they began the trials. And they ended up, after eight, nine, ten years of trialing, with white porcelain.
CUNO: And once it got produced in Meissen, once it got produced in Europe, did the trade in Chinese porcelain decline or was there still a privileged value to that porcelain?
DE WAAL: What happens is that Meissen begins to occupy the sort of princely place within the courts of Europe. So everyone wants their own dinner services, wants their own, you know, table decorations, banqueting suites of porcelain. So Meissen begins to occupy that incredibly significant place in sort of porcelain diplomacy. And the Chinese porcelain still is very revered, but then slowly, the kind of value of it starts to diminish, and that’s when tea starts to get imported. And so the kind of democracy of porcelain begins to happen, that poorer households, middleclass households, as we might call them, start to have a porcelain teapot. You know, by the time you get to Chardin and you see a few porcelain cups and a teapot on a table, you’re looking at merchants, you know, merchant class.
CUNO: You make some reference to Meissen actually turning porcelain into a bourgeois product.
DE WAAL: Yes, yes.
CUNO: And that wasn’t necessarily a negative statement.
DE WAAL: I think I’m ambivalent about that. Partly ’cause a lot of Meissen, after the early years, is totally ghastly. But it’s the journey towards porcelain that I find really, really exciting. You know, it’s trying to discover that I find very, very compelling. I think the moment it becomes something you can make porcelain rhinoceroses out of, as they do at Meissen, or vast depositions of Christ, you know, painted in every color going, with gold it ceases to be a kind of a material of wonder for me.
CUNO: With the discovery of how to make porcelain in Dresden, the Elector of Saxony, August the Strong, patronized its production in Meissen in vast quantities. But the story doesn’t end there. It continues across the Chanel in the UK, in the eighteenth century, and then it involves, of all places, Tennessee.
DE WAAL: It’s the great Wedgewood, you know, who—the great inventor of the Industrial Revolution, really, in Britain, in Europe, in many ways, who is a great powerful interrogator of what clay can do. He rules ceramics. And he’s heard this story that the Cherokee Nations in the Appalachian Mountains have white clay, have a clay which is like Chinese kaolin, like Chinese porcelain clay.
CUNO: Who first knew to make that comparison? Who first came across it and decided, this is like China? Not just, this is a beautiful white.
DE WAAL: Some merchant explorers in the Carolinas in the 1740s had seen the Cherokee Indian people using it in rituals and using it also inside structures as a slip a wet clay in order to kind of cover surfaces. And they realized that it had some of the qualities that they’d heard that Chinese porcelain clay might have. So it’s a kind of rumor. And then Wedgewood doesn’t deal with rumors, he wants facts. So he sends off a sort of ne’er-do-well adventurer called Thomas Griffiths to go off and basically steal—he says negotiate—but basically steal as much of this clay as he possibly can from the Cherokee Nation and which he does. He does this extraordinary journey deep into the Appalachian Mountains. He finds the right place, the right cleft in the hills where the white clay comes from. He barters for five tons of this clay. He makes a promise that he’s going to come back with porcelain punchbowls and give them to the Indians and disappears with all their sacred clay.
CUNO: How does he transport five tons of clay?
DE WAAL: With mules.
CUNO: A lotta mules.
DE WAAL: A lot of mules. And there’s a description of the rainstorms. And the rain comes down onto the red mountains and washes red earth into the white clay they’ve spent three months digging out. I mean, the whole story—and then being ambushed. And the whole thing is again, is another movie.
CUNO: And as soon as it back to Wedgewood, it takes some time for Wedgewood to figure out what to do with it.
DE WAAL: Yeah, yeah. And then he tests it. And then the extraordinary thing is, because Wedgewood’s very good at PR, he lets it be known that in the cameos he’s making—the famous blue and white cameos—some of this Cherokee clay is introduced into the material he’s using. And he says, “I’m gonna tell everyone that this clay has come from the Indian peoples from the other side of the world, and that’s it even more precious.” He puts his prices up.
CUNO: So then it almost makes a full circumnavigation of the globe. Begins in China, ends up in Tennessee, and makes its way back to…
DE WAAL: Yeah, and that’s what porcelain does. The stories—they kind of come this way and then that way, with enormous energy.
CUNO: Is that true in the writing of your book, in the researching of your book, that you went back and forth and stumbled upon things or was it a trajectory that was rather clear from the beginning and executed perfectly?
DE WAAL: If only. Like if it had been that clear, I’d have knocked three or four years off the research and writing of the book. No, it’s not—it wasn’t clear. And it’s partly because, of course, my life is made up of making and writing. So, one informs another, so that I’m traveling and researching. And that makes me slow down, because suddenly ideas for making an installation or an exhibit happens. But more often than not, the other thing that happens is I’m totally waylaid by wonderful happenstance, by finding things out. And that takes me off in different directions. And that’s just the way I choose to live.
CUNO: We started this conversation by talking about the scale of production of porcelain in China in the early years, and then we came back around at the end here now, to Wedgewood, and on a similar such industrial scale. Your life as an artist has changed dramatically, with the success of your ceramics, your work, and the success of your books. And now you have a studio, a studio that isn’t just occupied by yourself and your clay and your wheel and so forth, but has studio assistants and so forth and people who take care of your calendar and your life, because it’s busy, between exhibitions and commissions and publications and—do you find yourself now on an industrial scale you didn’t anticipate?
DE WAAL: No.
CUNO: You can still find the private moment?
DE WAAL: The very straightforward answer to it, which is that I do have a wonderful team of people who work with me. But actually, I make everything. So every single vessel in every installation, wherever they go in the world, is made by me. It’s not outsourced or made by someone elsewhere. And so, I have to spend time in my studio, at my wheel, with clay, making things. Otherwise, there would be no work. And that actually limits the amount, in a marvelous way. It grounds what I do totally. You know, like I have all these great, whimsical ideas. But actually, if I don’t spend my time in my studio—and actually, that’s time by myself in the studio—there might be people elsewhere—but time in my studio with the wheel, with the clay, with the music on, then there’s nothing.
CUNO: There was a moment in your career when not only did you switch from stoneware to porcelain, and not only from discrete individual objects to clusters of objects to installations of objects and so forth. But then you went from white to gray to black. How risky was it to go, for you as a maker of things, from white to color? Or to another color.
DE WAAL: I’m still doing it. I’m still on that particular trajectory, to use your word. Risky, yes, but you know, I’ve never been interested in style. There’s always been a question to me at the heart of what I’m doing. So it’s never been white or nothing. Moving towards these black glazes, these black installations, working with other materials as well. I mean, this exhibition I’m just opening now has—I’m using corten steel and plaster and lead and gold, alongside the porcelain that I make…is part of a kind of a relaxing, in some way, into the world, of allowing myself to really explore where the things I make can sit within structure, within architecture, alongside other materials.
CUNO: Did you feel at all anxious about the transition from vessel maker, pot maker, to artist, shall we say? Though not in the sense of the way that you think about how you do your work, but how others might think of your work.
DE WAAL: No.
CUNO: For you, it’s still a pot, whether it’s hundreds of pots, thousands of pots or a single pot?
DE WAAL: What I do is sculpture. I am a potter. It is art. And I work in architecture, in space. And it’s also a kind of poetry. I have totally given up on attempting to police my own self-definitions because it kind of doesn’t matter to me anymore. I just keep making this work and putting it out there. And what others make of it is curiously irrelevant to my need and desire to keep going and make new work.
CUNO: You’ve said that you make things and you write things. And you’re here at the Getty because you are on a book tour, I suppose it’s fair to say. And then you’re opening an exhibition at Gagosian Gallery here in Los Angeles. So you’re going to be exhibiting the fact that you do write things and that you do make things. And that’s mutually reinforcing for you?
DE WAAL: Yes, it really is. And it’s funny, actually, because, you know, one thing doesn’t map the other. I don’t, you know, make things and then write about what I’ve made. They sit near each other, with this sort of odd energy field between them as practices. So, I’m thrilled to have both things happening in the city at the same time, that feels really, really good, to be able to be in two bits of the city doing both the things I love, with no time between them.
CUNO: Do you have a writing project in mind for the next book?
DE WAAL: No. God, no! No, it’s gonna take years and years and years for that to emerge. But I am writing. I’m writing about Cy Twombly and the color white. And I’m curating an exhibition in Vienna and et cetera. There are kind of, you know, great, odd projects happening here and there.
CUNO: Well, I want to thank you. I wanna tell you how much it means to us that you’ve come to the Getty and to Los Angeles, and we’re grateful for the time that you’re giving us in this podcast, and thank you so much.
DE WAAL: Thank you very much for hosting me here, Jim. It’s a huge pleasure.
CUNO: With that, Edmund went off to finish installing his exhibition at Gagosian Gallery before returning to speak publicly that evening at the Getty, which gave me a few more minutes to speak with him about his book and his pottery.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to get to the end of his book, which takes a surprising turn, a turn that was even a surprise to Edmund. One day during researching his book, he came across a reference to one of his favorite Bauhaus designers and he learned that the designer had worked for the Allach porcelain factory. Edmund bought a book about the factory and opened it to find as its first illustration a photograph of Hitler and the Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler “examining,” as the caption told him, “with apparent approval, a selection of Allach porcelain figures.” They looked to Edmund like Meissen figures. And so he read on.
He learned that the Allach porcelain factory was founded in 1935 in a suburb of Munich by three members of the SS who planned to create porcelain worthy of the Nazi party. Himmler learned of this and arranged for a capital infusion of 45,000 Reichsmarks from his personal office, which is to say he bought the factory. Himmler was obsessed with what he believed to be the Aryan mystical values of whiteness. And he saw in the factory an opportunity to produce porcelain figures representative of true Germanic culture.
As production increased, a new facility was built near the Dacchau concentration camp, and slave labor from the camp, both Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners, was used to meet increased production demands. The slogan for 1938, alone, was “20 million porcelain soldiers on the march,” with Allach selling porcelain soldiers and little porcelain badges with soldiers on them to raise money for the impoverished citizens of the Reich. The campaign was announced in the week of the Anschluss, when German soldiers invaded Austria. Austria was the home of Edmund’s grandparents and the impetus, one might say, for his first book, The Hare with Amber Eyes.
Allach made porcelain objects for new, Nazi rituals, the most popular of which was Yulefest, the Nazi Christmas holiday, for which they made Yule lanterns, unglazed stoneware candleholders to serve as presentation pieces for SS officers to celebrate the winter solstice. Hitler ordered from Allach a special production of a hundred figures of Frederick the Great on horseback and kept one in his office in the Chancellery. He gave the others to those who impressed him with their dedication to the Reich.
In 1939 Allach opened a store in Berlin, and in the following years, stores in Warsaw, Poznan, and Lwov. Most of the figures produced by Allach were white glazed or unglazed bisque ware. “White porcelain is the embodiment of the German soul,” the first catalogue for Allach promoted. The white surface of the porcelain figures was the domestic equivalent of the white marble of the great classical figures in Berlin and Munich museums. It allowed every good German to have a model figure in his or her home, a source of inspiration and pride in the Reich. And every figure was stamped on the bottom with stylized, doubled Ss—the mark of the SS.
This is the double-side of whiteness and the underside of porcelain’s history. Porcelain was the obsession of powerful rulers and men of war, first in China and then in Saxony. And in England, men who broke their promises to the Cherokee nation and exploited their trust. It was also, in its whiteness, the favored material of the Nazi leadership.
What then does one think of this when one reads of Edmund’s turn from white to black in his pottery as he described it in a recent interview when he said, “Working in black is a very new thing to me, and the new exhibition will have a lot of black in it. I don’t know why I started using black but it’s very exciting. It’s marvelously ironic that I’ve been going around the world talking about my obsession with white, he said, and here I am making work in black glazes. But of course the vessels are still made of porcelain, so they began in white.”
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JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
EDMUND DE WAAL: I’m totally waylaid by wonderful happenstance, by finding things out. And that tak...
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