Review: Edmund de Waal Contemporary at Waddesdon

Acclaimed author returns to pots in a new exhibition.

Edmund de Waal is an unlikely celebrity. Tall, thin and unassuming to the point of extinction, he seems, even at a private view surrounded by family and friends, to be always on the edge of the picture. This won't do, because, even if we put aside memories of last year's bestseller, the Hare with Amber Eyes, de Waal is still one of the foremost ceramicists of our age.

His exhibition, just opened at Rothschild-owned Waddesdon manor, near Aylesbury, is in many ways a response to the book's success, which won him the Costa biography award. Waddesdon, grand and as ridiculously opulent as a late Victorian mansion owned by the richest people in the world can be, is far from a family house. It was used most regularly as a party house for hunting gatherings, and in fact still is, in the winter off-season. But the Rothschilds and the Ephrussis, de Waal's ancestors who starred in his memoir, are interlinked families, and the house is bound up for him in the history he told.

He says he intended the exhibition “to be a way of thinking through, in visual terms, some of the ideas on belonging that drift through my book The Hare with Amber Eyes.” He insisted nothing was moved from the permanent collection to make way for the pots.

The result of this is that the ceramics are placed in conversation with other pieces of art in the house, making a charming mishmash of styles. One of the most memorable locations is an enormous Russian desk, complete with two clocks and a copious amount of black Japanese lacquer. de Waal called it “a desk to sign treaties on”. On it a vitrine is placed, with a series of stacked dark glazed pots, almost like sake cups. The comparison between the simple, understated but beautiful ceramics and the death-by-gilt desk is striking, indeed perhaps too striking, as many visitors miss it as they come through the door.

Vitrines are fashionable these days, but I'm not sure they are the ideal choice for De Waal's work, as they separate them from their surroundings when they should communicate with them. It is the first time he has used them in his work. The plates appear to be floating, which is effective, but the vitrines make the ceramics run the risk of being more museum pieces than living artworks. They also make it harder to see how the glaze reflects the surroundings.

Some of the vitrines are frosted so that you can only see a ghostly outline of the pot within, a deliberate attempt to reflect a sense of loss inherent in Jewish ancestry that nonetheless feels a bit frustrating.

It's a lovely exhibition, however, capable of enchanting people who previously thought plates were just for eating off as well as hardened ceramic fans. Particular favourites include the stack of white glazed plates with a gold one hidden in the pile, and the tiny smear of gold glaze on a rank of black glazed cups. Waddesdon itself is one of those places that have to be seen to be believed.

Photo: Paul Barker © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor
John MacDougall/Getty
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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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