A.S. Byatt hadn’t heard of Mariano Fortuny until she went to Venice, but once she experienced his home (now a museum), his dresses, and his designs, she found herself thinking about—William Morris. Yet back home in England, on Morris territory, she was haunted by Fortuny. From this strange crossing of artistic wires, Byatt has produced Peacock & Vine (Knopf, $26.95), a sumptuous objet d’art of a book. At once an investigation of how and why these particular creators so captivated her, a celebration of their achievements, and a tribute to design itself, the essay traces “the coming together of life, work and art” of both men. As distinct as they were similar, both Morris (1834-1896) and Fortuny (1871-1949) were passionate about myths and nature; both worked with a range of materials including dyes and textiles. But where Fortuny revered Wagner, Morris found him “’anti-artistic,’” and where Morris drew on birds and plants for their structure, Fortuny was especially sensitive to their symbolism. As Byatt lovingly describes theses lives, works, and arts, she reaffirms Morris’s faith in “beauty, imagination and order” as the touchstones of all good things.
Laing’s composite portrait of the artist as a solitary figure explores with extraordinary detail and compassion just how painful loneliness is. Focusing on Henry Darger, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, and David Wojnarowicz, with profiles of Basquiat, Billie Holliday, and others, Laing traces early experiences of alienation to a lifelong sense of vulnerability and shame. Showing how rejection leads to further rejection, she puts the artists’ isolation in the context of the early panic about AIDS, when even health-care providers feared contact with the stricken. Laing’s writing is sharp, sensitive, and angry; the stories are heartbreaking, including her own, as she tries to suppress loneliness by scrolling for days through Craigslist personals.
Like the legendary Silk Road, The White Road (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) is a route of wonders. Edmund de Waal’s fifth book is about the “white gold” that is porcelain, and porcelain is about geology and alchemy, shards and ewers, Jesuits, emperors, and Swedenborg’s angels—it’s a rich, multi-faceted story that de Waal, a world-renowned ceramicist who “write[s] books, too,” follows from China to Versailles to Meissen to Plymouth. Along the way he charts where it darkens with exploitation, war, and the Nazis’ brand of figurines, but more often reports the efforts of craftsmen and apothecaries to perfect the balance of porcelain’s kaolin and other (often secret) ingredients, and to discover the best temperatures for firing the clay to its wondrous luminescence. This quest leads de Waal, like so many others, to develop a life-long case of porzellankranheir, “porcelain sickness”—a condition reminiscent of tulip-mania. As he did in his unforgettable The Hare with Amber Eyes, de Waal makes history personal; he is passionate about porcelain, and his exquisitely textured language brings you into the hearts, minds, and hands of some of the world’s most virtuosic—and colorful—artisans of the white clay.