For an artist like myself, whose almost complete inability to paint in anything but the brightest of colours (as followers of this blog, or indeed of my art website may have realised) has made colour something of a trademark of my creative output, I sometimes surprise even myself when I start to find myself drawn towards simple, monochrome, muted colourless creations. It happened for example earlier this year, when I shunned the great pasty-coloured nudes of Lucien Freud in order to give my full attention to the stunning works in black and white that are his etchings. Completely captivated by the simplicity of the medium, yet the extent of intricacy and emotion he was able to capture in simple black lines, I became obsessed by printmaking, and started etching myself – a pursuit which continues to occupy many of my weekends as I dabble further in this new medium.
Now it has happened again, with the pots of De Waal. As I described in my post yesterday, I was delighted when, by sheer coincidence as I am reading my way through the enthralling pages of The Hare with Amber Eyes, I caught a documentary on the BBC’s Imagine show last week, focusing on the book’s author. While I was fully expecting my attention to be held by all references in the programme to the book which has captivated me for the last few weeks of reading, what I wasn’t expecting was to become so completely enamoured by the artworks which this great novelist also creates. I say also – however art is in fact Edmund De Waal‘s primary calling in life, and he was turning his hands to the malleable craft of pottery long before he ever began to trace the heritage of his netsuke whose story formed the basis of the book which has now made him famous around the world.
Edmund De Waal’s art is pottery. He makes pots. But pots whose assemblage is so brilliantly pictorial, so evocative of emotions deeply held within the craftsmanship of their creation, and yet so capable of rousing within the viewer deep, reflective emotions, that as installations, these simple pots create artistic masterpieces worthy of the great art collections of his family predecessors.
De Waal’s pots are simple – usually either in black or white – but their beauty tends to be about two things. First, the naive effortlessness of their shape; the mismatched almost drunkeness of one lean after another, which tends to give each pot a handmade personality all of its own, rather than the feeling of machine manufacture. Second, their grouping – it is the way in which De Waal groups his pots together which makes them so effective as works of art: Is it just that I am coloured by the contents of his book, or by his Jewish ancestry, or did he intend to create row after row of pots so uniquely human in their uneven appearance, that they seem to evoke to Holocaust itself? For me, when I see these works, such as the quartet of huge almost bookcase structures, Breathturn, displaying shelf after shelf of randomly placed pots, I think of the row after row of destitute Jews, stripped of their livelihood and of their dignity, waiting like cattle for train crates on bleak station platforms, ready to face the certain horrors of their final destination.
And then there are De Waal’s works which show groups of pots separated by a sheet of translucent perspex, so that you can see the pots behind it, but only in blurred outline. This produces the effect of a solemn group shot, perhaps a family, estranged – people taunted by the shadows or perhaps memories of loved ones; their presence there close at hand, and yet not there, untouchable, ungraspable; the frustrating feeling of irreparable separation, when a blasted great wall separates you from where, or with whom you should be.
These interpretations may well not be what De Waal intended when he made his works, but what does it matter? For in creating works that inspire these kinds of reactions in me, he has surely done the job of a great artist: he has moved his audience to an imagination all of their own.
And, as all the great artists have done before him, De Waal not only got my imagination churning when it came to his own works, but also inspired me to create a Norm re-invention of his pottery installations. And so I leave you with my own little Norm group shot; a homage to all those pots and the great variety of emotions their simple poses evoke.
The photos on this page are the copyright of © Edmund De Waal, and show the works he prepared for his 2013 exhibition at the Gagosian, New York. Norms are the copyright of me © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, 2013. The works of Edmund De Waal can be seen on his website, here.