August 22, 2012

Book Review: "Hare with the Amber Eyes" Part II

“The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance” By Edmund de Waal
Paperback: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010

Book Review by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief, Part II

In the prologue de Waal describes what he doesn’t want his book to be:
I know that my family were Jewish, of course, and I know they were staggeringly rich, but I really don’t want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss…. And I’m not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago.
He does have a vision for his book:
I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers – hard and tricky and Japanese – and where it has been. I want to be able to reach to the handle of the door and turn it and feel it open. I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and thought about it – if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.
De Waal expected his project to take six months not the six years his journey took him through archives and libraries from Tokyo to Odessa where his Russian family of grain-exporters originated. A piece of oral history links him from his grandmother to the purchaser of these objects, Charles Ephrussi, who lived on the rue de Monceau (slang for nouveau riche) in the Hôtel Ephrussi in Paris in the late 19th century. As a child, Elisabeth Ephrussi had met Charles at the family’s six storey stone Swiss chalet ‘on the edge of Lake Lucerne’. Elisabeth lived at the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna (not too far from the Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer residence).

Mr. de Waal, one of four sons of a retired clergyman in England, starts with a slender cache of objects from his 80-year-old father then travels to libraries, archives, and to each relevant family residence to piece together this story of collecting. In Paris de Waal discovers that the Hôtel Ephrussi at 81 rue de Monceau is now ‘an office for medical insurance’. The Ephrussi family had branched into banking in Vienna, the capital city of the Hapsburg Empire, and had set up offices in the French capital. One of the Ephrussi men, Charles, was excused from the business of making money. Charles moved from Odessa to Vienna before settling in Paris to live as a bachelor art scholar and collector: ‘He is in the extraordinary position of being both ridiculously affluent and very self-directed.’ Charles traveled throughout Europe gathering information for a book on the German artist Albrecht Dürer: Charles ‘needs to find every drawing, every scribble in every archive, in order to do him justice’ (not unlike this journey of Edward de Waal).

Anti-Semitism haunts the family even in 19th century Paris. Mr. de Waal notes that the diarist Edmond de Goncourt claims Charles has ‘infested’ the salons of Paris as a Jew: ‘Charles, he (Goncourt) intimates, is ubiquitous, the trait of someone who does not know his place; he is hungry for contact, does not know when to shade eagerness and become invisible.’ In addition to Goncourt, Marcel Proust (with more charity) mentions Charles as attending artistic gatherings known as salons. Mr. de Waal reads all of Charles’ reviews published in the monthly Gazette des beaux-arts where Charles was a contributor, editor and an owner. In the 1870s, Charles, who also collected French Impressionist paintings today found in many public collections, purchased collected Japanese art, a rarity in Paris, with his married lover (and incredibly the mother of five children, da Waal notes). Charles purchased 264 netsuke from a dealer in Japanese art, Philippe Sichel. As described by Goncourt, the artists of the netsuke specialized and took their time in sculpting the small intimate carvings. Da Waal quotes an 1889 letter from Rudyard Kipling describing the novelist’s reaction to seeing netsuke when he traveled to Japan:
Unfortunately the merest scratch of Japanese character is the only clue to the artist’s name, so I am unable to say who conceived, and in creamy ivory executed, the hold man horribly embarrassed by a cuttle-fish; the priest who made the soldier pick up a deer for him and laughed to think that the brisket would be his and the burden his companions…
Mr. da Waal describes popular erotic netsuke: “These small things to handle and to be moved around – slightly, playfully, discerningly – were kept in vitrines. The chance to pass round a small and shocking object was too good to miss in the Paris of the 1870s.”

Here's a link to Part I of this review. Here's a link to Part III of this review.


Post a Comment