Poetic jour­ney across porce­lain ter­rain

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Ed­mund de Waal first threw a pot when he was five, tag­ging along to evening classes at an art school with his fa­ther and older broth­ers. The fol­low­ing week he had a choice of colours, first to dip it into and then to paint it with. He chose a pure white glaze and left it un­dec­o­rated. Even then, his as­pi­ra­tion was meta­phys­i­cal, though he may not have been able to put it into words.

He can now, and how. As he writes in his new book, The White Road: A Pil­grim­age of Sorts, it was, “the first pot of tens of thou­sands of pots, forty-plus years of sit­ting, slightly hunched with a mov­ing wheel and a mov­ing piece of clay try­ing to still a small part of the world, make an in­side space”.

When he was 17, de Waal found porce­lain and his tra­jec­tory was set. He had ap­pren­ticed him­self to Ge­of­frey Whit­ing, a stu­dent of the Bri­tish ce­ram­i­cist and aes­thetic ide­o­logue Bernard Leach, and was spend­ing a sum­mer study­ing in Ja­pan. He vis­ited a fa­mous artist there. “The artist’s wife opened the pa­per screen with a sound like a sigh, bring­ing tea in porce­lain cups and white bean-curd cakes,” he writes.

The artist gave him a piece of the clay to han­dle. He doesn’t com­ment fur­ther, but the pil- grim­age of the sub­ti­tle, through space and time, is a quest for un­der­stand­ing of what­ever it was that mo­ment meant.

De Waal’s first book, The Hare with Am­ber Eyes (2010), was an eye-opener and a best­seller. Who knew this lead­ing ce­ramic artist was the de­scen­dant of such a grand and wealthy fam­ily? Who knew their re­mark­able story? Who knew this artist would be such a won­der­ful writer?

He reprises his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy only in fleet­ing scene-set­ting snatches in the new book. “I think my child­hood was quite odd, choppy with priests, Gestalt ther­a­pists, ac­tors, pot­ters, abbesses, writ­ers, the lost, the home­less and fam­ily-hun­gry, God-dam­aged pil­grims,” he writes. And: “My par­ents were proud of their open door. The Pope came. Princess Diana came. Peo­ple came for meals, for weeks, for months.”

He came from an up­per-class bo­hemian mi­lieu and the dis­so­nances echo through the book: the ten­ta­tive­ness and the self-as­sur­ance, the ease and the rest­less­ness, the rad­i­cal out­look on life and the niceties of in­ter­per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions. There’s no men­tion of any­one in his fam­ily hav­ing a prob­lem with him chuck­ing school to be­come a pot­ter.

In porce­lain, he found the proper medium for his ob­ses­sion with the colour — or non-colour, or all-colour — white. “I’ve read MobyDick,” he writes. “So I know the dan­gers of white … the pull to to­wards some­thing so pure, so to­tal in its im­mer­sive pos­si­bil­ity that you are trans­fig­ured, changed, feel you can start again.”

Porce­lain is made of two sub­stances. One is petuntse, or porce­lain stone, which, De Waal says pro­vides the flesh, the translu­cency and the hard­ness of body. The other is kaolin, or porce­lain clay, which is named for Kao-ling, the moun­tain near Jingdezhen that has been a source of it for a mil­len­nium. Kaolin, he says, is the bones of porce­lain. The two ma­te­ri­als are fused at su­per-high tem­per­a­tures to give the vit­re­ous sub­stance we know.

Af­ter Marco Polo’s voy­ages to China, the tech­nique of this beau­ti­ful ma­te­rial’s man­u­fac­ture was a se­cret pur­sued with al­most as much fer­vour as the quest for the philoso­pher’s stone. Build­ing a kiln ad­e­quate to the 1300° re­quired was a quest in it­self. De Waal sets out to visit the three key cities in which porce­lain was “in­vented, or rein­vented, three white hills in China and Ger­many and Eng­land”. His re­searches take him even fur­ther, to the Ver­sailles of Louis Qu­a­torze, to the tribal lands of the Cherokee In­di­ans, to Dublin and be­yond, dis­cov­er­ing the mar­vels, and the ter­ri­ble ex­ploita­tions, that flesh out his story.

Louis XIV’s court, for ex­am­ple, was ob­sessed with dis­cov­er­ing what ex­actly was the porce­lain that was mak­ing its way to Europe. French Je­suits re­turned from ex­pe­di­tions to China with such ob­jects as well as amaz­ing sto­ries. Books and con­ver­sa­tions about China abounded. Even the philoso­pher Leib­niz wrote about this fab­u­lous place.

If the Sun King and the Kangxi em­peror came to un­der­stand and re­spect each other, then France would be blessed with knowl­edge of the se­crets of China: “they are mer­can­tile and they are very prac­ti­cal and they in­clude the glo­ri­ous se­cret of how to make porce­lain”. In re­turn, China would “see the light of Christ”. From a 1689 in­ven­tory, we know the rooms of the dauphin were stocked with 381 pieces of Chi­nese porce­lain.

Ehren­fried Walther von Tschirn­haus, who came to de Waal as well as to the metropoles of Europe rec­om­mended by both Leib­niz and Spinoza, en­ters the story from another di­rec­tion, that of science. He be­gan to experiment with porce­lain in Dres­den, while in the em­ploy of the elec­tor of Sax­ony. Us­ing his fa­mous burn­ing lenses, he ex­per­i­mented with Dutch Delft­ware and Chi­nese porce­lain, melt­ing them to dis­cover their prop­er­ties. Even­tu­ally, co-opt­ing a tech­nique from a 19-year-old apothe­cary’s as­sis­tant who claimed an al­chemic break­through, Tschirn­haus suc­ceeded on Oc­to­ber 11, 1708. Europe could make porce­lain. Two days later, Tschirn­haus died.

The story me­an­ders on, end­ing with a re­sumé of the Nazi era: in Dachau con­cen­tra­tion camp, un­der Hein­rich Himm­ler’s SS, pris­on­ers manned a porce­lain fac­tory. Here The White Road hooks up with The Hare with Am­ber Eyes, giv­ing away another topic of burn­ing in­ter­est to de Waal: the fate of Europe’s Jews in the 20th cen­tury.

The book is im­mer­sive and slightly hal­luci-

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