I recently finished reading Edmund de Waal’s wonderful new book, “The White Road, a Pilgrimage of Sorts” and it made me very much more aware of white and the role it plays in my life as an artist. De Waal went on a fascinating odyssey seeking out porcelain centers, history of porcelain and as he did in his previous book, “The Hare with Amber Eyes”, the whole story is interwoven with his own life as a potter in England.Read More
Edmund de Waal
How often do images of artwork remain with one long after going to the exhibition? I always find it to be a good test of how much I like a piece of art, how much it has spoken to me, and how it has become embedded in my mind.
I was thinking about this aspect of viewing art in relation, for instance, to the Summer Exhibition 2011 at the Royal Academy in London. I went to see this huge show in early June - it stays up until 15th August. Now, nearly six weeks after I saw the exhibition, I find that there are only a few of the thousand-plus works of art that remain fresh in my mind and still interest me. Naturally, as I invariably find, the art I like is seldom illustrated in any catalogue (let alone postcards in a museum)! So it is even more an acid test that I need to remember the artwork entirely without prompts, save for any notes or quick drawings I might have made at the time.
The RA Summer Exhibition, a selling exhibition, is a giant affair, with eminent Academicians in charge of hanging different rooms. Christopher Le Brun was the show's main co-ordinator; he operated under the thesis, "There are two ways of showing paintings. One is the classic orthodox hang with lots of space around every single piece. But here it's like a battle of the paintings - forty big pictures on one wall alone!" By contrast, Michael Craig-Martin, who curated another room, went in another direction. He explained, "Normally, the Royal Academicians are hidden among everyone else. I wanted to show their range and quality by focusing for the first time on RAs only, because there are lots of new ones and nobody quite realises that they have all arrived here."
Photographs, paintings, etchings and other prints, artist's books, architectural renderings and models, sculpture, drawings - the 1117 works gave everyone a taste of today's art. You need a few hours or several visits properly to absorb the diversity, quite apart from having to navigate the crowds which ebb and flow according to the hour. It makes the test of time even more demanding, in fact. But as I remember back, some works remain to delight me.
Frederick Cuming's large oils were a delight of subtle atmospherics, whose titles, "Crescent Moon and Sea" "Clouds Evening, Camber", "Clouds and Reflections" or "Dawn Garden, Frost" tell of his interest and skills in conveying almost abstractions that evoked northern climes. Later, I found his silkscreens, "Etna" and "Thaw", and promptly fell for them!
At the other end of the spectrum, a warm evocative abstraction in reds, "Window Screen Ajanta" took one far to the tropics - it was an oil by the late William Baillie. I have to say it was positively miserably hung, and almost impossible to view - shame on the RA for such a disservice to the artist.
In between, of course, there were the large and dramatic, the small and delightful, the ugly and strident, but more importantly, the gems. One, for me, was Edmund de Waal's "Untitled, 2011" white lacquered cabinet, hung on the wall, with clear laminated glass, containing 70 diminuitive celadon and white vessels. Discreet and elegant, interesting and evocative of so much history eastern and western in the ceramics world, I was not surprised that it was already sold. The other reason for my pleasure at seeing it was that the artist is also the author of one of the best books I have read for ages, "The Hare with Amber Eyes".
Another series of eight drawings, "Marks on the Edge of Space" were a fascinating use of conte, graphite and mylar by Ann Christopher RA. Layers, stainless steel rivets to attach them, use of shadows to evoke water, fields of grass, trees – so many plays of tone and shape to delight. Very sophisticated, lovely work.
There was another delight in the drawing section - a silverpoint. Small and quiet in its faintness, it was a lovely portrait, "Dulcie" by Dylan Waldron. Marvellous to find another silverpoint artist!
Of course there were many other stimulating or beautiful works of art at the RA. Nonetheless, the artworks which have stood the test of time for me and that come first to mind are, as I have mentioned above, but a handful. Of course, that is just my personal selection: vive la difference is definitely the operative phrase at a show like the RA Summer Exhibition. It is worth going to the exhibition if you are in London, for it is a good way of testing the pulse of a wide selection of British artists.
I cannot resist reverting to the wonderful book, "The Hare with Amber Eyes" by Edmund deWaal. Not only was it a delight because of the story, the history of the Ephrussi family and the netsuke that now belong to the author, but because of the comments about art in general, and about drawing in particular.
Edmund deWaal's ancestor, Charles Ephrussi, who acquired the netsuke collection in Paris, was himself an author on Albrecht Durer's artwork and a noted art connoisseur.
The image is the famed silverpoint drawing the 13 year old Dürer did of himself in 1484 – silverpoint is fiendishly obdurate in not allowing changes or erasures. This makes the drawing all the more amazing for this young artist to have achieved.
Charles Ephrussi's expertise in drawings led him to write about the intimate dialogue that a viewer has with them. Viewing a drawing allows us to "catch the thought of the art in all its freshness, at the very moment of manifestation, with perhaps even more truth and sincerity than in the works that require arduous hours of labour, with the defiant patience of the genius."
As Edmund deWaal noted, this is a marvellous "manifesto for drawing. It celebrates the moment of apprehension (my emphasis) and the fugitive moment of response - a few traces of ink or a few strokes of the pencil." As a very successful artist (potter) himself, he knows of this almost visceral moment of launching oneself onto the blank page, making marks that are instinctive, questing – without any real knowledge of what the ultimate results will be.
Edmund deWaal continued with a very important observation about Charles Ephrussi's book about Dürer. He talked about this study, written at a time when the Impressionists were launching their bold new way of seeing the world pictorially, as being Charles' way to remind people that art from different times can be mutually enriching. A Dürer drawing could "talk" in a very meaningful fashion to a drawing done by Edgar Degas. How true that is! Artists are constantly in conscious or subconscious dialogue with others' work; we cannot happily operate in a vacuum for too long. That is why art museums, art books, galleries and exhibitions are vital fare for us all, but especially for anyone who is a practising artist.
A final insight Edmund deWaal gives us, courtesy of Charles Ephrussi, is about Gustave Moreau's painting. He cites him as describing Moreau's work as having "the tonalities of an ideal dream" and goes on to describe such a dream as being one where "you are held in a state of weightless reverie and lose the boundaries of your self." That is the magical state that each of us can experience when, for instance, you visit a museum and see works of art that take your breath away. Suddenly the world falls away, you are captured by a multiplicity of emotions and you stand in front of a painting or drawing, oblivious of anyone or anything else. In other words, a state of grace, in my book. These are the moments that feed one as an artist, that allow art to transcend time and place and enrich us all.
In the same way, this book, "The Hare with Amber Eyes" is enriching. It is already on my list of gifts for friends.
I have always been enchanted with netsuke, those tiny and often exquistely carved toggles on Japanese kimono sashes. I learned about them from an early age, because of my family´s connections with Japan. Later, in the major European and American museums which have netsuke collections, I spent happy hours peering and delighting, but mourned the fact that none of them could ever be touched. They are essentially designed for touch, fitting so perfectly into the hand.
I was thus so delighted to learn, through the Christian Science Monitor´s book review page, of a book about a netsuke collection. Entitled ¨The Hare with Amber Eyes¨, by Edmund de Waal, it was published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2010. It is the story of the acquisition of this collection of netsuke, and uses the netsuke as the thread to trace onwards the history both of these works of art and their owners down the generations to today, when Edmund de Waal himself is their safekeeper.
The diversity, intricacy and beauty of these highly tactile small objects, linked to a fascinating family history, make for a remarkable book, layered with so many nuances that everything enriches. You learn of the original creator of some of these small netsuke, you learn of the Japan that came later (after World War II), you learn of the heady times of japonisme in Paris in the second half of the 19th century and accompanying rise of Impressionism... Later came Vienna, both opulent and then devastating as 1938 presaged the end of that world for Edmund de Waal´s family. Meanwhile, the netsuke survived - small animals, erotic scenes, old people, any manner of imaginative subjects.
In short, this is a book of magic, well worth reading for many reasons.