A lyrical melding of art history, memoir, and philosophical meditation.
Ceramic artist de Waal (The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss, 2010, etc.) is obsessed with white porcelain, “thin as silver…white as driven snow,” a material so exceptional that it invites comparison to “smoke coiling up from a chimney, or from incense on an altar, or mist from a valley.” Porcelain gets its quality from two kinds of mineral: petunse, a fairly common stone, which yields amazing translucence and hardness; and the rarer kaolin, a soft, white earth that imparts plasticity. In short passages of allusive, radiant prose, the author chronicles his journeys in search of both the materials and the history of porcelain, discovering along the way men as obsessed as he. In 14th-century China, the Yongle emperor coveted porcelains of the purest white—“white as transcendence,” de Waal writes—with finely drawn decorations under a lucent glaze. In 17th-century France, Louis XIV built the Trianon de Porcelaine, filled with Delft imitations until a porcelain industry began in Rouen, Saint-Cloud, and Limoges. In early-18th-century Germany, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, “philosopher and mathematician and observer of how the world changes,” pursued his investigations in Dresden’s Goldhaus, a laboratory for natural philosophers and alchemists. In Cornwall, the Quaker William Cookworthy and the enterprising Wedgwoods perfected porcelain manufacture. Shockingly, in 1940, the Allach Porcelain Factory moved to Dachau, where inmates made figurines beloved by Nazis. Amassing a cache of kaolin, each with idiosyncratic properties, de Waal created an installation of 2,455 porcelain pots, glazed in white. For the author, white has mystical resonance: “White is truth; it is the glowing cloud on the horizon that shows the Lord is coming. White is wisdom….White brings us all into focus….It reveals. It is Revelation itself.”
De Waal’s poetically recounted journey is a revelation, as well: of the power of obsession and the lust for purity.