Books On Books Collection – Edmund de Waal

breath [prospectus](2019)

breath [prospectus](2019)
Edmund de Waal
Papercased sewn booklet. H214 x W152 mm, 16 pages. Acquired from Lady Elena Ochoa Foster, 28 June 2022, “Sensational Books” exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

In correspondence with Ivorypress in 2019, I first learned of Edmund de Waal’s artist’s book inspired by the later works of Paul Celan. With the help of Ivorypress, de Waal created breath as an artwork consisting of the artist’s book (in a limited edition of six), a series of vitrines, shelves and diptychs conceived as open books, and a reading room. His aim was to pay homage to the Romanian poet Paul Celan, in whose last books “there is more white page than word”, as de Waal puts it. The only way to have seen the book then would have been to fly to Madrid.

In a major surprise, a copy of the edition appeared at the formal opening of the exhibition “Sensational Books” at the Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Libraries (Oxford, 28 June 2022). Heightening the surprise was Edmund de Waal’s delivering a talk about the work to open the exhibition. And capping the surprise was Lady Elena Ochoa Foster’s kind gift of this eponymous booklet describing breath. Perhaps the surprise of a long anticipation’s being met, or de Waal’s impassioned talk, or the kindness of the gift created a susceptibility to the raw emotion on, in and beneath the whiteness of this work. But no, it is objectively there. De Waal’s booklet, photos from the exhibition and the Ivorypress videos further below help to understand from where the power of breath comes.

One of the booklet’s inserts is a square of white paper (perhaps the G.F. Smith Colorplan Ice White, one of the four different papers used in the artist’s book). Opposite the insert, de Waal writes, “Your mind moves over the whiteness of the page and you try and sound what this whiteness means, its silence a place of redaction, or of held breath, or of exhalation.” The close-up of the insert turned shows the paper’s degree of translucence that de Waal uses to great effect in his artist’s book as can be seen in the videos. The close-up also gives a view of the bite of the letterpress in the raised impression from the page before and the ink-filled depth on the facing page. This kind of material contrast recurs — bite and breath, white and black, lighter and heavier papers, rougher and smoother — in the larger work in so many ways.

These visual, tactile and conceptual workings realize in small what the artist’s book accomplishes on a larger almost monumental scale. The artist’s book measures 453 x 673 x 43 mm and runs to 104 pages and is housed in a wooden box that converts to a lectern and provides storage for the translucent ceramic works on which Celan’s words are inscribed.

Another source of the larger work’s power is the porcelain slip that de Waal has brushed over parts of Celan’s poems to create a white surface on which he rewrites Celan’s words. Porcelain is de Waal’s tool. When asked what he does, he often puns in reply, “I throw pots”. The presence of porcelain slip in a work of such size, materiality and grounding in Celan’s poetry of coming to grips with the Shoah conjures a more somber pun on creativity and destruction. It establishes a paradoxical, metaphorical union of fragility, breakage and exhalation with strength, restoration and inhalation.

Showcased at “Sensational Books” exhibition, Weston Library, Oxford University. Photo: Books On Books, 8 July 2022.

Showcased at “Sensational Books” exhibition, Weston Library, Oxford University. Photo: Books On Books, 8 July 2022.

Just as the book, ceramics and lectern constitute another layer to the installation work, there are layers in the artist’s book itself, some of them hidden. The use of porcelain slip to cover Celan’s words has already been mentioned. Another layer lies in the binding, executed by Shepherds, Sangorski & Sutcliff. As was done in the early days of bookbinding, scraps of previously published material line the spine. For this purpose, De Waal collected scraps of medieval manuscripts previously used for binding. Binding within binding, centuries within centuries. By tucking away underneath the paper binding’s flap the only colored image in the booklet, an image that even looks like a scrap of illuminated manuscript, de Waal alludes to this practice.

While the scraps embedded in breath‘s binding are not materially perceptible, knowledge of it enriches the reader/viewer’s perception. Enriched perception enriches the work. As de Waal writes in the booklet and as we hear in the videos, “All books are palimpsests. As we read and reread, we re-create texts”. As readers/viewer responding to breath, each of us brings a layer to the palimpsest.

My response brings to the palimpsest another layering artist who celebrates Celan in works of book art: Anselm Kiefer. The juxtaposition provokes an intake of breath as it brings to mind Shulamith (1990) in homage to Celan’s “Todesfugue” (“Death Fugue”) or The Secret Life of Plants (2008) shown with a sound installation of Celan’s poetry and also sponsored by Ivorypress. So different from the whiteness of breath and its materiality of porcelain, wood, gold and paper, Shulamith is 64 pages made of lead, hair and ashes (1010 x 630 x 110 mm), and The Secret Life of Plants is 18 pages made of oil on lead over cardboard (1900 x 1400 x 200 mm). Both are dark and foreboding works. The artists themselves, too, differ in their roots. As told in The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), de Waal’s family, the Viennese Ephrussis, were persecuted by the Nazis. Kiefer’s father was a soldier in the Wehrmacht, which we know from Kiefer’s infamous early works incorporating photos of him in his father’s uniform and giving the Nazi salute. Where de Waal evokes breath and whiteness, Kiefer evokes death and leadenness. Yet both fuse materiality and visual representation with text (whether explicit, implicit or hidden) to stand with Celan’s agony and creative spirit and achieve an originality, an independence that is nevertheless dependent on history.

Further Reading

Werner Pfeiffer and Anselm Kiefer“. 16 January 2015. Bookmarking Book Art.

Brandon, Claire. Ed. 2021. Looking forward: Ivorypress at twenty-five. Madrid: Ivorypress.

Bravo, Joana. n.d. “breath — a project by Edmund de Waal for Ivorypress“. Accessed 29 June 2022.

De Waal, Edmund. 2016. The white road: a journey into an obsession. London: Vintage.

De Waal, Edmund. 2010. The hare with amber eyes: a hidden inheritance. New York: Picador.

De Waal, Edmund. 2021 “Breath“, In Paul Celan Today: A Companion, edited by Michael Eskin, Karen Leeder and Marko Pajević. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. 319-324.

Gopnik, Adam. 2013. Edmund De Waal: atemwende. New York: Gagosian Gallery.

Granero, Natalia, and Gunnar B. Kvaran. 2019. Anselm Kiefer: livres et xylographies: [catalogue de l’exposition, Montricher Fondation Jan Michalski pour l’écriture et la littérature du 8 février au 12 mai 2019 ; Oslo Astrup Fearnley Museet du 30 mai au 15 septembre 2019].

Minssieux-Chamonard, Marie, and Anselm Kiefer. 2015. Anselm Kiefer: l’alchimie du livre. Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France.