On White: Porcelain stories from the Fitzwilliam Museum
– Edmund de Waal
These are some of my favourite porcelain vessels in the Museum. I have chosen them because they are perplexing and beautiful and because they connect stories of where they were made and who they were made for.
Porcelain has been made for a thousand years. It comes from the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, a city built around the mining and refining of the white clays and stone that constitute porcelain. For a millennium it has been full of workshops, potters, glazers and decorators, merchants, hustlers and spies.This is the place where Emperors sent emissaries with orders for impossibly vast porcelain jars, stem cups for Imperial rituals, thousands of bowls for their palaces. This is the city where travellers could hardly see for the smoke from the kilns that burned day and night.
Porcelain has been in Europe for eight hundred years. You can trace a few shards earlier and you can see a glimpse of white in a list of presents given on an embassy from one princeling to another: a stallion, a jar of porcelain, a tapestry with golden thread. It is so precious, goes the story in medieval Florence, that a porcelain cup prevents poison from working. You can even see a glimpse in a Florentine altarpiece: one of the kings kneeling stiffly before the Christ child seems to be offering him Myrrh in a Chinese porcelain jar, and this homage seems about right for a substance so scant and so arcane, for an object that has come such a long way from the East. This is the long history of European desire for this grandest of commodities, this white gold, the cause of the bankruptcy of princes.
And homage and curiosity seem right for a material that is so white. This colour has an element of unreality about it: it seems ethereal, impossible. In a world where everything changes, porcelains’ clarity seems estimable.
This exhibition is the story of obsession with porcelain. How do you make it? How do you make it before anyone else makes it? How can you have a single piece? How can you have it all, surround yourself with it? Can you ever get to the place it comes from, the source of this river of white?
The Fitzwilliam has an extraordinary collection of Chinese porcelain. I fell in love with it as a student and thirty years later this is my chance to choose objects that tell some of the stories that interweave around porcelain. One of the stories that means most to me is that of continuity so on a visit to Jingdezhen last year I asked a porcelain factory to make these long, beautiful porcelain tiles for the museum’s porcelain to be placed on. And then I made three installations of my own porcelain to talk softly with these beautiful, complex white vessels.
There are five vitrines running through the Glaisher Gallery.
I’ve called this vitrine lost in white. The essence of porcelain is its whiteness. But white is not a singular colour, it is a possibility. Here is a compendium of whites spanning the four hundred years from an early T’ang dynasty bowl made from a material on the cusp of porcelain to a Yuan dynasty bowl of breath-catching austerity. White in China means clouds and mist, egrets, paper. It is also the colour of mourning. Look at the profiles of these vessels. And then imagine their volumes, imagine a splash of green tea poured into a bowl, or imagine holding the shallow dish and how your fingers look against this whiteness.
The impossible material. Do you know how hard it is to make one of these stem-cups? It is not impossible, but it is barely credible. At the high temperature needed to fire porcelain the thin walls of a pot can buckle and distort, the foot ring that holds the bowl or dish away from the ground can give way. These stem-cups are as breath-catching as Brancusi’s Bird in Space. In the hills outside Jingdezhen at a site where kilns worked six hundred years ago I walked on thousands of discarded, broken shards of these vessels. And yellow –glazes are impossible too. And using copper for decoration so that it blooms with a pinkish glow but doesn’t turn black: impossible. This case is full of miracles.
Each vessel here is a story in itself. But some of these stories are longer than others. A scaly dragon on a Ming Dynasty dish, paused in ferocious flight and surrounded by auspicious symbols, is framed in a double band of cobalt blue lines. Dragons are Imperial: these are images of power held in tension. Mythical animals fight their way through swirling clouds in another deep-set bowl. You want to sit down with this bowl and listen. But in the pair of eighteenth century plates we have very short-stories. In one Dutch peasants stare out at us from a Chinese landscape. A good Dutch cow has become an ox. In the other a phoenix seems to be flying over Burghley House in Leicestershire.
Porcelain is in endless conversation. But who and where and what are you talking to? This seductive and softly painted pilgrim flask looks to Arabic leather flasks. The Ming vase echoes the chased decoration of silver vases from Iran. Here are tiny snuff bottles looking back to Ming porcelain vases of five hundred years earlier a pair of Quing Dynasty square vases emulating Wedgwood jasperware. Here is a vast Japanese charger from the late 17th century , made in Imari, made to talk to Chinese porcelains. It is unfinished. I think its emptiness is a kind of conversation with whiteness. The stack of bowls here were made in Jingdezhen last summer. They are fake Sung Dynasty porcelain. Or perhaps they are just chatting away across seven hundred years with other potters’ work.
The rumours, secrets and lies and conjecture around porcelain were vivid. A Jesuit missionary in Jingdezhen sent back letters about its fabrication which were devoured with avidity. The secret of how to make porcelain was only uncovered in the early eighteenth century in Meissen by an alchemist employed to turn base metal into gold. These first porcelain vessels ache with emulation of the Chinese. They are small and fierce. These cups from Meissen, Venice and Bow map Europe as workers abscond with secret recipes and knowledge.
A thousand hours is an installation I made of a pair of vitrines with a thousand white and celadon porcelain jars. You can see some clearly, but many are held below you at ground-level or high above you so that they seem to float. How can we count the hours?
Yourself, you holds two wayward lines of porcelain jars. They are unglazed: all the markings of their making and firing are present. They stand in clear vitrines with just a breath of air between them. I am looking at myself.
There is real pleasure in hiding things. Not everything has to been given easily, quickly downloaded. Hiding things in museums is especially worthwhile. There are three small vitrines, each with seven modest pots, placed in the Lower Marley Gallery near to the eighteenth century European porcelain. It is an installation called In Plain Sight.