Pursuing the immaculate
MonicaBohmDuchen admirescompositeartistry. HesterAbrams onapoignantmemoir
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