Pur­su­ing the im­mac­u­late

Mon­i­caBohmDuchen ad­mirescom­pos­iteartistry. HesterAbrams on­apoignant­mem­oir

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

CE­RAMIC ARTIST Ed­mund de Waal’s sur­prise best­seller, The Hare with Am­ber Eyes, first pub­lished in 2010, must have been a hard act to fol­low. His new book is sim­i­larly hard to cat­e­gorise: a com­pelling and thor­oughly ab­sorb­ing amal­gam of history, au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, trav­el­ogue and philo­soph­i­cal ru­mi­na­tions on the na­ture of cre­ativ­ity and many other things be­sides.

On one level, this beau­ti­fully de­signed vol­ume is an ex­plo­ration of the history of a ma­te­rial — white porce­lain — that de Waal has made par­tic­u­larly his own, in the form of an odyssey that at times reads al­most like a thriller.

As­tute and of­ten wry ob­ser­va­tions about the peo­ple, places and ob­jects he en­coun­ters on his trav­els are in­ter­spersed with po­etic pas­sages about his cho­sen medium — res­cued from the dan­gers of pre­cious­ness by flashes of self-dep­re­cat­ing, al­most self-mock­ing hu­mour.

Even the more tech­ni­cal pas­sages, of less ob­vi­ous in­ter­est to the lay reader, are sud­denly il­lu­mi­nated and made mean­ing­ful by phrases such as “the man­ner of what we make de­fines us”.

The very ti­tle of the book is re­veal­ing: “The White Road” speaks elo­quently of a jour­ney, both phys­i­cal and metaphor­i­cal, a search for the five porce­lain arte­facts that, for de Waal, col­lec­tively

‘A change in the weather’ — 365 porce­lain ves­sels by Ed­mund de Waal com­prise a kind of Holy Grail; while its sub-ti­tle, “a pil­grim­age of sorts”, ac­knowl­edges the idio­syn­cratic and deeply per­sonal na­ture of that jour­ney.

The book opens with the fol­low­ing, deceptively sim­ple words: “I’m in China. I’m try­ing to cross a road in Jingdezhen in­Jiangx­iProvince…the­fa­bledUr­where itall­starts.”Pa­s­tand­p­re­sent­col­lideasde Waal sets out to ex­plore and understand this “city of porce­lain”. Hav­ing vis­ited his “First White Hill” (Mount Kao-ling), and ac­quired his first white ob­ject (a monk’s cap ewer), he re­turns to re­fuel in Lon­don, where his fam­ily and his stu­dio are based, be­fore set­ting out again (via Ver­sailles) to visit Dres­den.

Hav­ing vis­ited Meissen, his “Sec­ond White Hill”, and ac­quired his sec­ond “white ob­ject in the world” (a porce­lain cup), his next two ports of call in his quest to trace the univer­sal “de­sire for porce­lain”—Ply­mouthandCorn­wall(by wayof Chero­keecoun­try,SouthCarolina and Stoke-on-Trent) — are less ex­otic, but nonethe­less full of in­ter­est.

The fi­nal sec­tion of the book brings us firmly — and bru­tally — into the 20th cen­tury, as de Waal traces a path from in­ter­na­tional modernism in Rus­sia, Eng­land and the Bauhaus in Ger­many to his ap­palling dis­cov­ery that Al­lach porce­lain was pro­duced by in­mates of Dachau. White ob­ject num­ber five is thus a Nazi bambi fig­urine. Anger, sor­row and dis­gust are — just — held in check by the el­e­gant re­straint of his writ­ing style.

The book con­cludes with a trib­ute to poet and Holo­caust sur­vivor Paul Ce­lan, who “brings words to­gether into new­ness”: one of th­ese com­pos­ite terms, Atemwende (Breath­turn) is the ti­tle of de Waal’s lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion in New York, the cul­mi­na­tion of “all the ac­com­plished, at­tempted, con­so­la­tory, melan­choly, mi­na­tory, lam­bent whites” gar­nered from his fas­ci­nat­ing jour­ney. Monica Bohm Duchen is the au­thor of ‘Art and the Sec­ond World War’. Ed­mund de Waal’s ex­hi­bi­tion ‘White’ is at the Royal Acad­emy un­til Jan­uary


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