• John Diamond-Nigh

Milky porcelain, amber eyes

Updated: Jul 22, 2019

Enthusiasms come and go; most in fact don’t go. They subside into the tapestry of quiet passions that make our lives so rich: writers, buildings, periods, painters, highways, lovers, national parks, Mont Saint Michel . . .

Add the work of Edmund De Waal, a buoyant, literate, modest man who writes books and makes porcelain pots. His most famous book is #The Hare With Amber Eyes, a remarkable book that twines the odyssey of a collection of small Japanese figurines made of ivory and boxwood with the recent history of his own family, a family dispersed and ravaged by the Nazis. The family, in its heyday, was as wealthy as the Rothschilds. His great uncle, an aesthete and bon vivant in Paris, was the model for Proust’s Swann in The Remembrance of Things Past as well as a recurring model for Renoir.

But his pottery, wrought in the difficult medium of porcelain, stakes out a very unique place for itself, both among potters and more broadly, among the current eclecticism of the arts. I suspect that most Americans would find his work too austere. Most of it is white. Most shapes are subtle variations on a slender cylinder.

These he combines in arrangements either on shelves or in vitrines–glass-enclosed cabinets. I guess that I respond as I do because, in small and large ways, he continues to be a modernist. He grew up in Canterbury where his dad was the archbishop. Whether or not he is religious, his art strikes me, aesthetically, as High Anglican–clarion carols on Christmas eve.

He loves #white. He loves porcelain; I love paper. White is, I think, the most difficult, beautiful, pure and infinitely suggestive of all colors. It is a literary color. Every page of every book on my bookshelf is white. It is a transformational color. There was no morning of the year that was more magical than that morning when, as a small boy, I stepped out of our door to find the world crowned in several feet of fresh snow. A world newly hallowed and hushed.

His repetitive use of forms, particularly cylinders, would fall–in any text book–under #Minimalism, which actually was less about reducing things down to their simplest form than it was about using one form over and over again–just like Bach did. In recent music, this pattern of recurrence was called Serialism, and, yes, it could drive you crazy, but it could also, with composers like #Arvo Pärt, achieve a haunting and almost mesmeric incantational power. #De Waal, with the softly crude, handmade variations of each milky vessel, belongs to this serial category of utmost delicate poetry.

The Hare With Amber Eyes is, in long passages, a scorching political polemic about the harrowing, blindsiding rise of fascism in an established democracy. But his art is not, as far as I can tell, political, placing it in a long line of aesthetic art from Chardin to Monet to Agnes Martin. While I like many veins of current art (though militancy is not my bag) I really like this one–a deep, thorny, cogent conviction of beauty that speaks more to the madness of this moment than a hundred slogans by Barbara Kruger.

Keats, in praise of another clay pot, reminds us that a thing of beauty . . .

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