I first saw this teapot, by the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, in a photograph when I was 17. I had just started my apprenticeship as a potter, and was making brown objects of a very tedious kind – casseroles, soup bowls and beer tankards by the dozen. I was in a world of craft, where function was the only imperative. But I longed for art, for the chance to make objects that explored ideas. And here was such an object. It bore no relation to any functional piece I’d ever seen before. You could use it, but it would be perplexing to use. It was considered and cerebral – an idea made concrete. A decade later, when I started making porcelain, I thought how radical it was that one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, who ripped up the script of what’s possible in art, was making teapots.
Malevich made it shortly after the Russian revolution in 1917. He was one of several artists who went to the factory in Leningrad where porcelain had been made for the aristocracy and the court. All these undecorated objects were still there with the imperial mark stamped on the bottom, and the artists began decorating this blank crockery with revolutionary scenes and symbols – peasants, shopkeepers, the hammer and sickle. But Malevich did something more radical. He broke the whole idea of a teapot apart, whitewashed it, and put it back together in a new way. He took a tea cup and cut it in half. The result is a bugle-cry of revolution. It’s combatant porcelain – a manifesto.
I had to wait a long time to hold it. There are very few of them around, and most are in museums. But last year I finally got my hands on one. The expectation with porcelain is that it should be light and translucent. But this teapot turned out to be incredibly heavy, and its weightiness felt good. This is porcelain that kicks down the clichés of what porcelain is meant to be.
As a young potter, I was trying to fit myself into a lineage and find my way in a tradition. But here’s something that doesn’t give a stuff, and that was liberating. The not-caring remains incendiary. Malevich’s teapot has been with me as an aspiration for 40 years, the most abstract concrete object in the world. It is a reminder to go back and start again.
Edmund de Waal was talking to Simon Willis