From Head to Hand
Edmund de Waal on making art.
A week afterwards, the grey aluminium ring was lacquer red. We saw it being rigged from a scaffold 60ft above the entrance hall: a beautiful red ring held in only four places, floating in the dome. A wild red scribble in space, one that Faussone, the rigger of cranes might have understood.
"We agreed ... on the good things we have in common. On the advantage of being able to test yourself, not depending on others in the test, reflecting yourself in your work. On the pleasure of seeing your creature grow, beam after beam, bolt after bolt, solid, necessary, symmetrical, suited to its purpose; and when it's finished you look at it and you think that perhaps it will live longer than you, and perhaps it will be of use to someone you don't know, who doesn't know you. Maybe, as an old man, you'll be able to come back and look at it, and it will seem beautiful, and it doesn't really matter so much that it will seem beautiful only to you, and you can say to yourself, 'Maybe another man wouldn't have brought it off.' "
The V&A was working to a tough deadline to open its new galleries. We had a week to install before the scaffold had to come out. By day we were placing the 425 porcelain bowls, dishes and jars into this beautiful structure, calibrating each part of the installation so that it echoed true. And at night I was at home trying to calibrate the final chapters of my family memoir The Hare With Amber Eyes. The publishers had an equally tough deadline.
The making of my written work had started five years earlier, in 2005, when I had begun a journey into the history of my Jewish family from Odessa to Tunbridge Wells through Paris and Vienna, using as a compass a collection of small Japanese carvings (netsuke) I had inherited. It was an attempt to find a voice for something that was unvoiced—the strange hiddenness of my Jewish family background. There were real problems for me in this. Some problems were emotional. How could I even dare to write about this when the experiences of other writers who had endured so much and written with such clarity—Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Jean Améry and Levi himself—were in front of me? Some were practical—the records and traces of my family were buried across Europe. How could I use these inherited stories, anecdotes, memories from my grandmother, my father and uncle, newspaper clippings, photographs and construct a real story, rig a real, complex structure when all I had done before was to make basic shapes?
Before me, alongside me, were Levi's stories of how you put something together without emotional falsity, how you think about representing structure. I wrote in the preface to The Hare about my anxiety that this family memoir could succumb to the lure of nostalgia, be more than a few stitched-together anecdotes. "Melancholy," I wrote, "is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return."
By using these real objects—small and tricky and beautiful—as a structure, telling their story with attention, I had a chance of making a different kind of book. It seemed worth the effort.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.
Edmund de Waal is the author of The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance.
Photograph of Edmund de Waal by Ian Gavan/Getty Images.