“The White Road: Journey into an Obsession”

Edmund de Waal, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) (paperback, Picador)


To the recently ascendant literary genre of novelistic histories of ordinary things—what one might call the “Secret Life of _____”, examinations of bees, dogs, salt, books themselves, and so on—add the secret life of porcelain. Renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s “The White Road: Journey into an Obsession” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; now out in paperback by Picador), epitomizes that category in many ways, presenting a thorough-going thousand-year genealogy, encompassing not only the medium’s multiple intercontinental vectors and inventions, but also the artist’s own philosophical and physical engagement with the stuff. The book is part travel diary too, as de Waal chronicles several years of visits to far-flung locations from Jingdezhen to Dresden, Versailles, and Cornwall (not to mention countless libraries, museums, castles, and bookstores). Another subtitle sometimes used for the book is “A pilgrimage of sorts,” in an accurate reflection of its rather Chaucerian story structure—a linear premise complicated by flashback, footnote, and sidebar.

Starting from when Marco Polo encountered an abundance of porcelain in China and made the first mention recorded in Western literature, it took four more centuries for European artists, craftsmen, and alchemists to figure out how to make their own, during which time royalty voraciously imported the exotic treasure that came to be known as “white gold.” Fast forward, as de Waal does, to its ubiquity in modern culture and industry, to the point where an otherwise reasonable English potter could spend forty prolific years wrestling with it in his studio and his mind, and never reach the end of its appeal. “Be very careful when you describe how something is made, how it comes into shape,” writes de Waal, “as process is not to be skated over. The manner of what we make defines us.” This activates the book’s dimension of personal memoir, as the author runs his experiences through the filters of self-examination, searching for the origins of his own profound obsession with white clay and the many permutations of its spiritual expression in physical form. This, much more than the actual journey, is the true subject of the book. De Waal cites a passage from the unavoidable Melville: “What is this thing of whiteness?” but another quote from “Moby Dick” might be more on-target. At some point Ishmael says, with regard to the unpronounceable name of a far-off land, “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

Evoking “Moby Dick” is a salient if somewhat obvious epigraph, especially as a large part of the volume considers the aesthetic appeal and allegorical significance of white as a general matter. But de Waal also invokes the overlapping areas between design and avant-garde art. So often, ceramics end up at that nexus, in art history and in the present moment. “Malevich makes a porcelain cup—a wide and open cappuccino kind of cup—and cuts it in half, makes it solid,” recounts de Waal. “You want a manifesto? Here it is. A teapot that cannot be used. A simple cup as combatant, revolutionary porcelain.” It is easy to imagine how this might resonate for de Waal, who makes a living producing and exhibiting vessels not intended for use beyond display.

De Waal’s is an endless army of simple cups, marching in syncopated regiments along shelves and in shadowboxes, toward a revolution of—what, exactly? A more nuanced attention to facture and detail, a slower quality of attention made deeper by deracinating familiar forms from assumed function, a kind of cumulative process-piece as much to do with the formal results as the actions of the lone, obsessed maker. Part of the reason that this artist’s writings are so satisfying, is that they often do form such a perfect encapsulation of his entire creative esprit—his work and ideas are infinitely fungible and equally patient. He produces seductive, almost organic porcelain vessels that can neither be used nor discarded, but only regarded on their own, emotionally rich, aesthetically minimal, materially salient terms. In his studio as in his research, where one expects sameness, one instead discovers the infinite potential for delightful, revelatory newness.