Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Edmund de Waal - Pristine Elegance

When I think of white it is of purity, virginity, holiness, peace.

When I think of white I recall John and Yoko. I think of Iceland. of Scandinavia. When I think of white I remember 'Call of the Wild;' our beautiful Wedgwood 'Countryware.' When I think of white I recall 1968 and The Beatles 'White Album.' Now I add another name to that list for now when I think of white I think of Edmund de Waal.

White is not a colour nor is it the thing upon which colours are placed. It is the quiet, reflective strength of the Buddhist. White is strength in isolation. Edmund de Waal epitomises that silent resilience. His work amply demonstrates that reflective quietude.

In many ways Edmund de Waal's ceramics are similar to the netsuke he speaks of in his superb book 'The Hare With The Amber Eyes.'  Obviously not as small for netsuke are acorn size and far more intricate than the artists porcelains but there is a similarity the like of which I find hard to express, difficult to put into words. Perhaps it is the purity of his efforts; the sublime, pristine elegance, though flawed as if by design, mixed with the startling white that seems almost incandescent that appeals to me. But also it has to be the hand crafted manner, the artist and the artisan approach that links porcelain to netsuke, for me at least that pulls these two distinct art forms together.
Unlike Wedgwood or Daulton, de Waal's work is not refined by a precise detail that brings uniformity to the pieces but is instead, much like a Muslim carpet makers weaving, flawed. It may not be a nod to a supreme deity for only He can produce perfection but it adds something 'earthy,' some sense of being grounded.

By the way; a netsuke is small sculptural object which has been carved by Japanese artists. They were much prized by the Victorians who placed them beneath glass vitrines the better to view them. I first learned of these exquisite objects whilst reading de Waal's family biography.

Edmund de Waal is a ceramic artist, a potter. He is also a very gifted writer.

"The Hare With Amber Eyes" is a remarkable biography not just because it recounts a remarkable family who lived through some exacting times, often dark and sinister, but in the manner by which de Waal tells his families history.

He doesn't just lead us by the hand though the lives and times of the Ephrussi clan for that would be a dry telling of something soaked in layers of light, dark and moments of sheer bliss muddled with those of deep despair. For much of the telling the author speaks in the past tense using third person terms but then, by a delightful, deceptive conceit, slips into present tense which delivers a level of intimacy not often seen in biographies. It could be argued that much of what he fleshes out he could possibly know or sure but in doing this the biography delivers a level of characterisation normally associated with literary works. You really feel as though you know Charles, and Ignace and Emmy and the rest. They come alive under this method and make the book all the better for it.

There are times when you find yourself slightly at odds with this family who rivalled the Rothschild's for wealth. They seem so up themselves, so wrapped in their riches that the mundanity of everyday living, of those less well off than themselves is not even worthy of concern. And yet there are common decencies to be found among them too. Not all of them are oblivious to the plight of others. But more than anything you feel a despair of inevitability. It is of course a despair borne of the times passed as we all know too well how badly history treated the Jews.

Again and again we encounter European anti-Semitism as it rears its ugly head. This is seen during and before the Great War, The First World War of 1914 to 1918 but also again, and with such dire results, in Germany in 1933 through to 1945.

As much as the author condemns that insane hate of Jews he also, in my mind at least, presents a dichotomy that surrounds anti-Semitism and the dislike of Zionism. There is everything wrong in hating Jews but everything right in disliking Zionism for it is remarkable how alike the Fascism that turned upon it and even more like the Right Wing Libertarianism we now live under Zionism is. 

When the war is over, having lost all to the Nazi's - homes, business, fortunes, family - Elisabeth, the author's grandmother, returns to discover their home has been used by the allied forces, the American's, as an office. Her hurt and disbelief springs from the page by virtue of the authors ability to convey such depth of emotion. He unleashes a wave of pain that floods from his long dead grandmother. Feelings of loss and yearning for things ruined by the dictatorial regime, things destroyed never to be replaced. It is an unendurable pain yet one endure it the Ephrussi do.

“Austrian Republic established after the war gave an amnesty to 90 per cent of members of the Nazi Party in 1948, and to the SS and Gestapo by 1957.”

Ninety per cent of Austrian Nazi's were given amnesty? Zero per cent of the misplaced Jews, their art collections, their jewellery, their homes, their furniture, were never compensated. Forget my misgivings over Zionism; this act, less turning a blind eye than condoning those vile acts with a wink and a nod, is unforgivable.


There is a sort of poetry, a poetic license that runs through the story, a natural symmetry that gains deeper poignancy by the authors delectable prose.   Iggy, the authors relative, after the war, takes up residence in Japan as part of the conquering forces administrative occupation. With him he takes the netsuke. What was Japanese, having travelled the globe, returns to the land of their origins. He remains there long after the occupation living with a younger man, Jiro, who may, or may not have been his lover. The relationship is left beautiful ambiguous as it should for whose damn business is it any way and besides, in light of the horrors seen during that war, who cares? 

It is a remarkable book. 

Edmund de Waal was born September 10th 1964. It was through his grandmother, Elisabeth, where the Ephrussi connection comes from. 
"How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten?" 
I see, and in no small part, a large influence of netsuke in the manner of Edmund de Waal's art. He tends, when exhibiting, to place his porcelains in large glass cabinets not unlike those that housed the netsuke - the vitrines. Another similarity is the almost wilful imperfections inherent in his work. This again is reminiscent of the Japanese objects. In some odd manner de Waal, by creating one thing is externally glorifying another. This gives both a history and a future as it connects us through a contemporary field of view allowing us to observe the delicate refinements of the white with the ornate carvings of the netsuke. Like the netsuke his porcelains are numerous and are displayed in great numbers.
“Yangi, a philosopher, art historian and poet, had evolved a theory of why some objects - pots, baskets, cloth made by unknown craftsmen - were so beautiful. In his view, they expressed unconscious beauty because they had been made in such numbers that the craftsman had been liberated from his ego.”
If there is any ego involved in the creation of these beautiful objects, vase and containers, then the 'I' sits small and insignificant, made so by virtue of the absence of any sense of there being any sort of vice involved in their making. By that I mean the thought of the money such art can process is not the reason for there creation.
“You just hope, if you make things as I do, that they can make their way in the world and have some longevity.”  

'The White Road' is another book; another memorable book.


Edmunds ability with clay and words is much the same thing. He manipulates both to suit his objectives. 'The White Road' is not a memoir nor biography in the accepted sense and yet it too traces a history. Where 'Amber Eyes' was deeply personal 'White Road' is completely passionate. Of course he had a passion for his families history and I am sure he loves his own family above all else but you are left in no doubt as to what drives Edmund to make such marvellous pieces. It is as much due to the material he works with as it does the finished ceramics he creates.

Again we are led through a variety of roads, down avenues with few dead-ends but all from the same single path. From China to Europe. To Venice then Versailles. Dublin to Dresden then on, ultimately to Wedgwood. I say ultimately for it is my opinion only, Wedgwood produce some of the most divine china. My wife and I have a small collection of dinner plates and associated bits, even extending to the extravagance of owning Christmas crockery. My favourite of all we have (and it is by no means large) is 'Countryware.' White as snow with a delectable leaf ornamentation around the circumference.

It is the glazing, that almost translucent quality, that glass like fragility, that shockingly lustrous, nacreous look that is so captivating and which patently has captured Edmund's heart. Good that it has for he in turn has produced some stunning pieces.

Again the author manages to make what so easily could be a dry read exciting. His ability to fuse fact so that it reads like fiction is a compelling trait. It enables the reader to saunter into the narrative, aided by some descriptive characterisations without realising where the borders between historical reference and fictional are. It is a very disarming style.


Edmund de Waal is a gifted man. Not only does he produce art that is beautiful to behold but writes in such a detailed yet beguiling manner. He is a relatively new discovery to me one who I found about through the kindness of a woman called Fiona who first sent me a copy of 'The Hare with Amber Eyes.' Life is about constant discovery and I am so glad she sent me the book so I could discover such a talented man.
Whether as a potter or author Edmund de Waal takes great pains in producing what he does to the highest standards. His latest book is evidence of this and comes highly recommended.

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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