The White Road (a book review of sorts)

The White Road

Some art history books have a capacity to kill the reading joy in me. They have a fusty language creating a heavy, claustrophobic atmosphere that squeezes all life out of the subject matter. It’s like they forget there is a reader. Not so artist and writer, Edmund de Waal. His most recent book, The White Road, draws the reader in and takes them on a magical porcelain journey that’s steeped in history but entirely accessible. It’s also a very human story.

I thought it was high time for a book review here on Art Matters Now, especially as we’re heading into the summer holiday season (in the southern hemisphere at least). So what better to do than share some insights about a book on what might be considered a fairly indulgent topic: porcelain. But this is no ordinary tale of pretty ceramics….

In his book, Edmund de Waal’s love of ceramics takes us to three significant porcelain sites – China, Germany and England – to explore the translucent material of porcelain. The reader is taken on a kind of searching odyssey, or Edmund calls it ‘a pilgrimage of sorts’. His way of blending the personal, historical and spiritual brings the subject of porcelain to life. It’s part memoir, part historical inquiry, part travel diary, and together it works. As a reader I was drawn into the people and landscapes belonging to the story of porcelain, and for me that’s part of the magic of the way this book has been written and structured.

Edmund de Waal is an artist who makes exquisite installations using porcelain, and he has done so for decades (almost 5 to be precise). Until recently he had been almost exclusively working with porcelain in white. This obsession with finding the perfect shade of white is conveyed throughout the book in painstaking detail.

What amazes me (and makes me more than a bit jealous) is that he is both a highly skilled artist and an extraordinary wordsmith. Anyone who has read his earlier book, The Hare with Amber Eyes can attest to his artistry as a writer. This short video will take you to Signs and Wonder, an installation of his work he created for the V&A in London. There you will see the wonderment that is his ceramics.

But back to The White Road, the story of porcelain spanning one thousand years. Some are not so happy with the structural techniques used in this book – a departure from the way Edmund framed and wrote The Hare. I don’t mind the meandering flavour he creates here – the sometimes short, pithy paragraphs with long tales wrapped around them. All of it is steeped in pots and porcelain, and for me, as someone immersed in the cultures and practices of making that equates to heaven on a page.

An early section in the book brings to life beautiful imagery of Edmund in China, and is a part of the book that I found especially captivating. He describes traipsing up and down dusty hills that house the components of porcelain (two minerals, petunse and kaolin) in Jiangxi province, and tells stories of the worker’s excavating it from the earth. We learn that for an astonishing long 500 years, the west had no idea how porcelain was made. “It rings clear when you tap it. You can see the sunlight shine through. It is in the category of materials that turn objects into something else. It is alchemy” he tells us.

The White Road takes the reader through a journey of devotion to a grand and beautiful material, and Edmund’s fascination gives porcelain the pedestal it deserves. A humble material which most of us don’t stop to think about much. We might admire porcelain for a moment in a piece we encounter but beyond that probably not another thought is given to it. Edmund de Waal, however, has held porcelain in his hands and worked with it creatively for decades. His desire to understand its origin is palpable in the book. Perhaps that’s too much for some readers. But for those fascinated by making and the creative act, with an interest in materiality, there is much joy here. There is a real respect for materials that come from the earth, and with it, the life of objects and people and places.

There is much talk about (and heralding of) the return and rise of material culture. I for one am extremely happy about this. The White Road embodies material thinking and culture in an engrossing format. It achieves this by weaving one artist’s story through this exploration so that we gain insight into his creative process – a topic of great interest for many people. For Edmund de Waal, the material of porcelain is an anchor for life, for thinking, and for creative pursuit. And this works well to pull the reader into his mesmerising ‘pilgrimage of sorts’.

And with that I wish you a happy end of year and holiday season. Art Matters Now is taking a break and will be back in February 2017.