Edmund de Waal on his new project ‘white’

Published 10 September 2015

This autumn, the RA Library and Print Room will host a project by Edmund de Waal: an exploration of the colour white. Here, he takes us through some of the objects on display.

  • From the Autumn 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    My project, white, at the Royal Academy looks very hard at what white means. It is an interweaving of words and books with sculpture, paintings and photographs.

    White is aura. White is a staging post to look at the world from. White is not neutral; it forces other colours to reveal themselves. It moralises – it is clean when nothing else is clean, it is light when most things are heavy. It is about impossibility. Think of Moby Dick and Captain Ahab, the question crying out, “What is this thing of whiteness?” White is a place to begin and a place to end.

    I have spent my life thinking about white. My very first pot, thrown on a potter’s wheel as a child, was white. Forty-five years later, I am still making white pots, porcelain vessels. For the past six years I have been travelling to the places in the world where porcelain was discovered and desired, researching and writing a book called The White Road about the cost of this obsession with white. On my journey I have dreamed of the images and objects that matter to me most. Some of them are included in my project at the RA.

  • Johann Friedrich Böttger, Two handled beaker, Meissen, Germany

    Johann Friedrich Böttger, Two handled beaker, Meissen, Germany, c.1715.

    Porcelain. 8.3 x 9.5 x 7.5 cm. Collection of Edmund de Waal. Photographer: Ian Skelton.

  • It is not an exhibition in a white cube gallery. It is an intervention in the Library and Print Room of the Royal Academy that leads off from the sculpture gallery in the Sackler Wing. At one end of the gallery is Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo (c.1504-05). At the other, a modest door, often walked past, unseen. These rooms were added to the top of Burlington House when the RA moved here in 1868, to house the collection of white marble sculptures and casts. My project brings this early history home.

    There are objects from the RA Collection that embody memory: a beautiful bust of Ippolita Maria Sforza, a plaster taken from the original 15th-century marble, destroyed in the bombing of Berlin (pictured); a torso of Europa made in the fourth century BC, a study of flowing cloth over a body; the 1841 death mask of Francis Chantrey RA and the life mask of Thomas Banks RA, from 1790; the white porcelain palette owned by J.M.W. Turner RA, a stormy sky of colours on a white ground. These rooms are archive, reliquary, store-room, memory-palace and lumber-room for the Academy. There is an elephant folio of white pages, completely empty. There is a stack of redundant mounts, kept for 200 years, waiting.

    This project endeavours to look at white as both object and experience.

  • after Francesco Laurana (1452-1502), Bust of a woman, possibly Ippolita Maria Sforza

    after Francesco Laurana (1452-1502), Bust of a woman, possibly Ippolita Maria Sforza, c.1473.

    19th century plaster cast manufactured by Brucciani & Co.. 73.0 x 63.0 x 28.0 cm. Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • Visitors come into the dramatic, dark spaces of the Print Room and see an early Cy Twombly painted bronze glowing in front of them. There are vitrines with manifestos, manuscripts, poems and ripostes around white – the white pages of Tristram Shandy, Samuel Beckett, the silent score for John Cage’s 4’33”, Rachel Whiteread’s plaster sculpture, Folded, a lithograph from Josef Albers’ 1960 White Line Square series. There are also small works that capture the difficulties of white: a Malevich drawing, early photographs and photogenic drawings from the mid-19th century, a Renaissance grisaille on enamel illustrating the meeting of two saints, an ivory netsuke of a hare. And, crucially for me, one of the first pieces of white porcelain made in the West, a delicate cup of from Meissen (pictured).

    Stepping from the Print Room into the library itself, some of the books on the shelves have been displaced by a drawing, a sculpture or a vitrine. A 1953 Morandi still life of vessels on a table top takes the place of a run of periodicals. Up high is the fragment of a 12th-century corbel head of a saint. Malevich’s 1920s Suprematist Teapot – intensely, angrily pure – sits on a shelf. A beautiful Robert Ryman painting from 1998, a vortex of repeated white markings, hangs at eye level, demanding you give it time. A marble lantern by Ai Weiwei Hon RA is juxtaposed with a porcelain table by Amanda Levete: weight and weightlessness. High above is a new work by Garry Fabian Miller, Open Clear Light (2015; pictured). I have made a couple of vitrines of porcelain to sit near particular books I love, including A Mind of Winter.

  • Attributed to Sawaki Rizo Masatoshi , The Hare with Amber Eyes

    Attributed to Sawaki Rizo Masatoshi, The Hare with Amber Eyes, c.1880.

    Ivory netsuke of a hare with raised forepaw. Eyes inlaid in amber coloured buffalo horn. Signed Masatoshi.. 37 cm. Osaka, Japan, c.1880 3.7 cm long Collection of Edmund de Waal Photographer: Michael Harvey.

  • This is a project bringing together objects from the collection as well as from further afield. Held in a working library, it is a quiet journey of discovery through and up and around the spaces. It is intended as an unexpected journey through things that displace the world through white. Many artists have explored white. There are those for whom it is central and those for whom it has been a moment of symbolic, critical disjuncture. There are artists who have used white as a way of abstracting, of understanding the structure of the world through the removal of the extraneous, and others for whom it is a form of exploration of the spiritual. All these are different journeys into white, different explorations of what white does to the world around it.

    This is not about minimalism, or rounding up the people who have made things in white, but about something much harder and fiercer. There is nothing whiter than a white page, nothing quieter than a library. But as in the score of John Cage, when in silence we are compelled to listen hard to what happens when we stop moving, we look harder when we see white. Because white is a place to start again.


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