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Art review: Edmund de Waal: We live here, forever taking leave at Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury

14 October 2022

Susan Gray visits Edmund de Waal’s current show

© Edmund de Waal. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Photo Chris Lacey

An installation view at Waddesdon of just (for RMR), 2022, porcelain, lead, gold, yellow ochre, Corian, perspex, aluminium, and Plexiglas

An installation view at Waddesdon of just (for RMR), 2022, porcelain, lead, gold, yellow ochre, Corian, perspex, aluminium, and Plexiglas

EDMUND DE WAAL’s installation at Waddesdon is his second show in the Rothschild’s country house, built in the style of an 18th-century château nestling in the Chilterns. The potter’s first show in the Manor in 2012 came two years after the literary success of The Hare With Amber Eyes, which tells the story of the rise and near destruction of de Waal’s Jewish forebears the Ephrussi family, art patrons in belle époque Paris.

In the first show, de Waal’s porcelain pots were placed in Waddesdon’s opulent rooms without moving existing furniture or objects. The artist said that he would be happy if visitors passed through the rooms, admiring the English paintings, French armchairs, and Sèvres porcelain, hardly registering his cylindrical white pots at all.

De Waal, famous for his fascination with a white, minimalist approach and having a Donald Judd chair in his studio, used gold, very subtly, for the first time in the 2012 show. “Waddesdon moves him to use new materials,” the manor’s senior curator, Juliet Carey, says. While the 2012 show was a personal intervention by the artist, reflecting shared family histories and connections, including intermarriage between the Ephrussis and Rothschilds, the current show does something new with existing pieces.

Curated by the artist himself, “We Live Here, Forever Taking Leave”, with its themes of diaspora and exile, came rapidly into being after a lunch with Jacob and Hannah Rothschild. The two largest pieces, Sukkah and Psalm IV, are stopping off before they settle in their final home in Jerusalem, when the new National Library of Israel opens. Sukkah was originally made for a 16th-century synagogue in the Ghetto in Venice, placed in the upper room where Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, was celebrated. It was also shown in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, in the city where de Waal trained as a potter.

The piece is an arrangement of grey and white towering porcelain vessels, held in thin angular vitrines of different height, reminiscent of a skyscraper skyline. A thick Perspex platform lets the whole structure float above its stand. Light and shadows enter the work from all directions, with sheets of leaning gold beside some vessels, dispersing the patterns of light and reflection even further. “My Sukkah is an installation of towering vessels held in a kind of sanctuary of towers. It floats like all remembered cities should float.”

Venice’s Ghetto, Sukkah’s original installation site, is the oldest ghetto in the world. De Waal added that he wanted to present a reading of the ghetto away from solely being about oppression and marginalisation, and to reclaim its history as a place of creativity, conversation, knowledge, and music.

Echoing his earlier Royal Academy show, “White”, sited in the usually off-limits Academy print room, de Waal’s installation at Waddesdon is in what were once Ferdinand de Rothschild’s valet’s rooms, perched in a turret. “Not high status-rooms,” says Dr Carey. In a departure from the rest of the house’s richly coloured and highly decorated interior, de Waal has given the space plain white walls.

Psalm IV was first shown in Venice as part of the artist’s Library of Exile, a 2000-volume collection of books written far from where the authors were born, often not in their first language. The artist’s intention was to create a new library as a memorial to all the libraries that have been deliberately destroyed, from Nineveh to the Nazis’ 1938 destruction of his grandfather’s library in Vienna. A flat oak panel coated in kaolin, the material that makes porcelain white, inscribed with the word “exile”, makes reference to the larger work.

Psalm IV’s 44 porcelain vessels, 16 marble and alabaster blocks, interspersed with eight steel brackets and five steel boxes, are suspended on the wall in a slender framed, pale vitrine. Light bounces off the objects within their groupings, creating different dances of light and shadow, depending on the time of day. The artist says that the interplay of light and reflections mirrors the call and response structure of the Psalms. And a plain white room feels the ideal place to contemplate Psalm IV’s contrast between worldly accomplishments’ transitory glory, and repentance as the road to God’s favour. The psalm’s seventh verse is part of the Prayer for Sustenance recited on Jewish High Holy Days: “Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased.”

Shadows’ part in extending and redefining a work can be seen in Door Into the Dark, a wall-mounted horizontal composition of five dark vitrines containing grey porcelain vessels, black marble blocks, and five gilded tiles, three embossed with text. Shadow extends the composition both between the vitrines and down the wall.

Partially obscured text glints out from behind the vessels, suggesting the eloquence of writing and art to reveal truth even in the most difficult times. Visitors wishing to time-travel to Sukkah and Psalm IV’s permanent future home can see a model of the new National Library of Israel on the first floor. The works will be in the library’s foyer, ushering in a new chapter.


“Edmund de Waal: We live here, forever taking leave” is at Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, until 30 October. waddesdon.org.uk

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