De Waal is known as a successful British potter who regularly exhibits at the world’s leading museums and galleries and has published the award-winning bestseller The Hare with Amber Eyes.
At the back of the book, it states that its cover design is by Nancy Harris Rouemy, it was printed in New York, and just above the barcode one finds the genre classification of the book: Biography/Jewish Studies/Art. And this is exactly what it is, an engaging story of a 264-piece Japanese netsuke collection preserved by four generations of De Waals, against the background of their experience as a successful Jewish banking family that is humiliatingly stripped off their identities, lives and assets by the Nazi in the early and mid 1900s. It is an intelligent story, and its 354 pages are seasoned with clever references to G Elliot, Montmartre, Proust, Coleridge and Vienna.
For someone who is interested in art, however, it is De Waal’s second book, The White Road, that makes one giggle out loud, re-read some paragraphs, daydream, and long to read another few pages despite being late everything. In that book, De Waal envelopes the reader in his hypnotising love for porcelain while travelling around the world to visit pottery landmarks renowned for their white porcelain production: China, Germany, France, Italy, England and the USA. In this book De Waal’s style matures, and he willingly shares his remarkable intelligence, biting wit, and appreciation of pottery.
Every page of the book offers a little treasure: Some pages have cunning references to great works of art, poetry, literature, and mythology:
“I keep thinking of the story of Theseus’ return from killing the Minotaur, and why he forgets to hoist the correct sail as he approaches home…The coming home in triumph is a return to loss, to grief. Theseus forgets”
Other pages pick one’s interest by relaying something new that changes one’s perspective and experience of pottery forever:
“The word carp, li, is a homophone for li, profit, and this suddenly makes sense of the ubiquity of these bowls with their strenuous fish, unstoppable in their need to swim higher”
Other pages show De Waal’s well-educated, ironic and quirky sense of humor:
“I’ve written them down and I thought I could pronounce this in Mandarin, but I’ve met with busy incomprehension, and a man is trying to sell me turtles, jaws bound in twine. I don’t want the turtles, but he knows I do”
You start the book with planning to read for half an hour before going to bed, which unexpectedly stretches to hours, and becomes an all-night reading marathon. One wants to google more and more things with each page. More importantly, De Waal’s story provides a meaningful context to the under-esteemed porcelain ware. Often depreciated as handicraft and disregarded by an average museum visitor in favour of the Old Masters, Terracotta Warriors, novelty displays, and other popular photography opportunities, pottery is usually on the radar of only those who moved past Art 101 with its Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionists, Berninis and Michelangelos years ago.
De Waal’s fascinating book brings pottery back on the art lover’s agenda and awakes one’s curiosity about the intricate world of porcelain and its captivating history, and by contextualising porcelain, provides a meaningful reference for consideration and interpretation of porcelain. In conclusion, it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a book so thoroughly. Suggested book classification: Wonderfully Exciting/Intellectually Stimulating/Personable Art.