Interpreting Ceramics | issue 12 | 2010
Articles & Reviews
Book Review by Michael Tooby
The Hare with Amber Eyes
Author: Edmund de Waal
The reviews of Edmund de Waal’s new book have usually mentioned that he is a potter, ‘perhaps the most famous potter working in Britain today’.1 As is now well known, the book is not about pots. It is a personal account which traces how a collection of traditional Japanese ‘netsuke’, 264 miniature carvings in ivory and wood, came to him.
De Waal frames the book with its relevance to his practice:
For a readership of the book made up of those who are already familiar with his career as a ceramicist and curator / polemicist, this is the obvious way to read this memoir: look out for references to materials; register descriptions of porcelain in its various types of manufacture; develop further the understanding of the dialogue between Europe and Japan. There is the way in which the narrative traces back an affinity with things gathered and collected and displayed. We have repeated insights onto the experience of architecture, of place, and the journeys which objects make.
These are all there from the outset. One rapidly realises, however, that the real momentum behind the book is the relationships between the people brought to life in describing the journey the netsuke collection has made. Edmund de Waal writes with a wonderful mix of the essayist’s precision and the novelist’s evocation of time, character and place. He has a terrific sense of telling detail and nuance. He also carries us along with his own passion and honesty.
He risks hubris by using the device of placing his own enquiry in the foreground. He sets up the project by explaining his first encounter with the netsuke collection at a crucial point in his early career. Having studied in the traditional studio ceramic practice and in the traditional English university, he has moved on through a scholarship to study and work in Tokyo. He works in the archive at the Mingeikan. The Tokyo apartment of his great Uncle, known as Iggie, provides both a kind of refuge and a signal to the young man’s taste and outlook.
He wins the reader’s acceptance and appreciation of this self-reference by the directness with which he expresses, at different moments, love, empathy, distaste and anger. At the outset, for example, he gives a moving description of returning to Tokyo for his great Uncle’s funeral. He thereby explains that he eventually inherits the collection, and that the present book is the result of a decision to fill out through research with due thoroughness his hitherto basic grasp of the story of the collection.
The first of the three main sections – one for each generation –sees de Waal travelling to Paris, seeking out both documentary sources and real places associated with his great great-uncle, Charles Ephrussi who first acquired the collection. Switching between tenses, the research project is in the recent past while the author’s encounters with real places and the deep past are both described in the active present. We gradually realise that Charles is at the heart of Parisian cultural life, a critic and editor, and the model for Proust’s character Swann.
De Waal then moves on to Vienna, following the netsuke when they are given as a wedding present to Charles’ cousin Viktor. Over the course of Viktor’s life, Vienna evolves. It fades as the last capital of the Habsburg empire, becomes a new city of the modern world, and one of the places at the heart of the European tragedy begotten by post Imperialism and anti-Semitism. De Waal’s great grandfather and his family and friends personify the kind of ‘enemy’ that the forces of proto-fascism begin to target.
In fact, one of the most powerful dimensions of the book, permitted by the author’s openness of exegesis, is to vivify anti-Semitism. The era of the Dreyfuss affair is the context for Charles’ later career in Paris. In Vienna, de Waal demonstrates how generalised, how embedded in everyday society anti-Semitism was over the decades that the young Hitler grew up in Vienna. Uncle Iggie, for example, describes walking in the Alps, in the time soon after the First World War, when identity cards were required: ‘It was already cold, but there was a hut, full of students round the stove and cheerful noise. They asked us for our cards and then told us to get out, told us that Jews polluted the mountain air’. 3
We see the vast new apartment block in which the family lived, their holidays in homes in Hungary and Switzerland. We see an intellectual and artistic heritage, and a kind of permissiveness about sexual relationships quietly accommodated in family life. The architectural and collecting taste of the family is used as a counterpoint and harmony to these themes: ‘There is light in these rooms, trembling reflections and glints of silver and porcelain and polished fruitwood, and shadows from the linden trees’.4
However, it is worth noting that by this stage, perhaps two-thirds to three quarters through, some questions are answered. The book’s sub-title is an example. The nature of ‘a hidden inheritance’ is linked both to subterfuge – how did families retain precious possessions in such upheaval, even when so much was lost or destroyed? – and to identity – to what extent is there no coincidence, luck or happenstance in such stories, merely a realisation of the hidden poetry involved in understanding how people remain connected to one another over time, through shared values, loves and memories?
As the netsuke collection approaches its move to its (presently) penultimate home, we are back in post-war Japan. A directness in the author’s relationship to the place, the collection, returns to the narrative. The history of the netsuke, their re-interpretation and experience for different generations figures particularly in the closing passages of the book, returning as they do to Japan. De Waal reconsiders how they represent a refiguring of what ‘Japanese’ now means, after the war, through the eyes of occupying powers, in contrast to the exotic, eroticised ‘Japonaiserie’ that was the taste through which great-great uncle Charles was first drawn to them.
A visit to Odessa, the place that had to be left behind, provincial even if the original source of the family’s wealth, plays ironically as a last stage in his research :
So the author eventually brings us home, to his own home in London and his own life and work.
This allows a reappraisal of the initial thoughts about how the narrative relates to de Waal’s studio practice. Yes, specific references to his exhibitions and projects have been prompted: the metaphor of opening doors in recent work; images of containers, packed away, about to leave or just arrived; memory and experience and the idea of rediscovering one’s past through autodidacticism or research in his Kettle’s Yard installation; the sense of rediscovery of collections and collectors in Cardiff; the idea of revealing hidden treasures in Dartington or MIMA; the diverse ways in which we understand objects in architectural space in so many projects, from Blackwell and Chatsworth in England to the Kunstindustrimuseum in Copenhagen.6
De Waal noted in the publication accompanying the Blackwell project how the places he has worked in have been akin to a personal journey through different buildings:
And he describes how the intimidating challenge of Blackwell’s architectural specificity was alleviated by the awareness of its history of different uses, different occupants: ‘So pots have been made for particular spaces, some very public and obvious, others more private and hidden’.7
In a later text, de Waal explores this sensitivity to specific sites vis a vis the fact that groups of objects may be situated in different sites over their lifetime.
Aside from the connections to the motifs and themes of the memoir, these projects remind us that De Waal’s practice has been characterised by demanding an authorial voice in both the practice and critical framework for ceramics.
The foregrounding of the authorial voice in the memoir affirms de Waal’s position as both a writer and a potter. In a memoir about his real family, suffused with love and empathy, we are reminded of his relationship with his ur-father, Bernard Leach, this being a complex brew of admiration and critique. De Waal’s attitude to Leach is in large part driven by his feeling for the relationships between what Leach says in his texts and what he made, how he ran his practice. De Waal is particularly anxious about how ‘[Leach’s] writing established the canon by which his own work was judged’.9
Of his own career, de Waal has commented:
In the ‘Hare with Amber Eyes’ , foregrounding the authorial voice parallels de Waal’s practice in that an intellectual or experiential grounding of idea is, or should be, integral to the experience of the physicality of the object in the work. The nature of his installations are that certain crucial qualities, understood as paradigmatic of ceramic practices, are challenged or ‘unpacked’ in an active way by the evidently authorial manner of presentation.
Consider his writing about the sensory experience of objects. Whilst many reviewers have noted, rightly, the power of description of touch in ‘Hare with Amber Eyes’, the keenness of the writing about fragility, about the feel of objects, de Waal’s installations and objects are often about the denial of that possibility. We might glimpse a profusion of pots inside containers, or find them high up on isolated shelves. Other times we ask a minder nearby if we are allowed to open a door, to step up to look inside a raised box. Sometimes we are allowed, often we are not.
Books about collections and collectors usually have the luxury of not requiring to physically deploy the collections themselves. Freedom from constraints of scale, weight and fragility allows authors to create juxtapositions of reproductions. So, one of the most curious, or more likely, most calculated and subtle, devices of Edmund de Waal’s book is that there are no illustrations of the very objects of the collection which is its prompt, its central motif, its raison d’etre. To see reproductions of the netsuke themselves, we must travel through web pages and print out press releases, none of which are referenced in the book.
Meanwhile the recurring image of the memoir which constantly draws us back to this theme is the image of the vitrine. The vitrine which went with the collection from Paris to Vienna. The new display unit created for the netsuke in Tokyo. The replacement vitrine found in London – bought from the Victoria and Albert Museum when declared redundant by recent refurbishment, in fact.
In Paris, de Waal declares :
‘Are museums about objects or stories?’ asked a recent conference12. The question needed to be asked, it was argued, since so many experiences of objects in museums are now secondary to narratives. These narratives are laid out in graphics, in interactives, in dense three-dimensional environments, and using film, video and cgi. Where, we ask when overwhelmed by such stuff, is the object, the collection, the founding principle, the sine qua non of museums? In our world of secondary and virtual experience, globalisation and reproduction, surely we need to rediscover the object, the sense of physical scale, the comparison of detail, the nuances of material? And even when the object is there in front of us, we are denied it, left instead to surrogates in handling sessions if we wish to understand them more fully.
Inevitably, the introduction of narrative around objects, particularly objects which have generated fame and status, introduces relationships of power and status. The curator (one also thinks of the English title ‘Keeper’ used for senior museum posts) dispenses stories in order to validate judgements or provide insights about objects. We hope that these engage and enthuse those outside their world, but at the same time they create the need for a critical reader and viewer, who tests, measures, asks questions of story and object.
The Hare with Amber Eyes reminds us, so powerfully, that the epiphany that artist or museum must seek is when the power of the object and the necessity of the story are in a provocative but perfect conjunction. It also requires reflection on how the reader, in being able to share the stories offered, must use it according to de Waal’s example: as an opportunity to measure their own experience, what they have learned, against the story being offered.
Much of de Waal’s work, both made and written, has positioned itself to express the artist’s share in this process. He has celebrated and asked questions of buildings, of histories, of institutions. He has asked us to re-read what we may have accepted too easily as the standard literature by the dominant personalities. At the end of the book, he is careful to keep his own endeavour in perspective :
In being such a vivid and moving story, The Hare With Amber Eyes now becomes a wayfinder on a journey of further inquisition, by author and his readers, of the relationship of people and their values to beautiful and meaningful things. As I write, the book is number 1 in the London Review Bookshop bestseller list. The success of this book will bring its own responsibilities, not least to the future exegesis of his own and contemporary practice in the visual arts. If Edmund de Waal is going to carry the label of ‘perhaps the most famous potter working in Britain today, then he also has the platform to understand what there is to be learned from the example of perhaps the last person who carried that label.
© The copyright of all the images in this article rests with the author unless otherwise stated
Book Review by Michael Tooby Issue 12