Poetry Written in Porcelain
by Carol Vogel
In England, Edmund de Waal is a celebrated potter, known for installations of impeccably made vessels in soft shades of celadon or white, many of them permanently displayed in places like the Victoria and Albert Museum here. But in the United States Mr. de Waal is known primarily as a writer whose 2010 family memoir “The Hare With Amber Eyes” became a surprise best seller. Despite countless rejections from publishers, it ended up selling more than 1.5 million copies, has been translated into 26 languages and was recently optioned for a movie.
Chronicling the journey of 264 Japanese netsuke — wood and ivory carvings of animals, plants and people, none larger than the palm of a hand — that Mr. de Waal inherited from his great-uncle Iggie, “The Hare With Amber Eyes” is a sweeping story that begins in Paris in 1871 and progresses through five generations of the Ephrussi family, whose collection of netsuke made its way to Vienna, where it was thought to have been confiscated by the Nazis, and decades later ended up in London. “My making and my writing is one thing,” Mr. de Waal explained, adding, “Pots turn into words, and words turn into pots.”
Like the netsuke, Mr. de Waal’s own work is three-dimensional, tactile and painstakingly fashioned, but in his own Minimalist and modern language. He produces objects like wafer-thin cylinders, plates and pitchers, carefully arranged to tell a story. While collectors like the cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder and Sotheby’s vice chairman Charles Moffett have purchased examples of Mr. de Waal’s porcelain, there has never been an exhibition of his work in the United States. But after the dealer Larry Gagosian read the memoir, he was curious to see Mr. de Waal’s art. “They’re really poetic installations,” Mr. Gagosian said of his decision to present a major show of Mr. de Waal’s porcelain at his Madison Avenue gallery, opening on Sept. 12.