August 24, 2012

Book Review: "Hare with the Amber Eyes", Part III

“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 III

Charles Ephrussi moves to a ‘grander’ address at 11, avenue d’Iéna in the 7th arrondissement of Paris and begins purchasing pictures, the first of which were by Berthe Morisot. He would own 40 Impressionist works – by Morisot, Cassatt, Degas, Manet, Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and Renoir. A true story of Charles, a Manet painting, and an extra asparagus stalk is disguised by Proust in a reference to ‘Monsieur Elstir’s asparagus’. As part of his research, Mr. da Waal traveled to the National Gallery in London to see Monet’s Les bains de la Grenouillère once owned by Charles. Even the back of Charles Ephrussi’s head is depicted in Renoir’s Le déjeuner des canotiers, the Luncheon of the Boating Party. In 1899, Charles sent the 264 netsuke in a black vitrine with green velvet shelves and a mirrored back as a wedding gift to his first cousin, Victor and the Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla, the great-grandmother of Edmund de Waal.

The netsuke collection was set in the dressing room of the fashionable Baroness at the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. Emmy’s three children took out the objects and played with them while they visited their mother during her long ritual of dressing for her various social engagements, particularly on Sunday morning when their caregivers had the morning off to attend church. Mr. da Waal visited Vienna and researched the history of the family business and the contradictory relationship of his great-grandfather Viktor to business, art, and his family. During this period, Mr. da Waal tells of how Vienna, which under Emperor Franz Joseph had expanded the Jewish community, became increasingly anti-Semitic under a mayor whose philosophy would mentor Adolf Hitler.

The Ephrussi family considers themselves assimilated Jews, even celebrating the festivities of Christmas. Mr. da Waal describes the luxurious life of this family with the national events that would change their country and ultimately threaten their survival. The Ephrussi family was even able to leave ‘demonstrations against the Jews’ in Vienna during the First World War for their country home in Czechoslovakia for fresh food. Then in 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Empire is dissolved, the Emperor Karl flees to Switzerland and Austria becomes a republic. Mr. da Waal notes how his grandmother Elisabeth claimed her spot in the academic world as a poet and lawyer, one of the first women from the University of Vienna to receive a doctorate in law. Elizabeth marries a young Dutchman of the Reformed Church at an Anglican church in Paris.

Meanwhile, for two decades between two wars, Austria struggled along until it was annexed to Nazi Germany. Then in 1938, ‘six members of the Gestapo, in perfect uniforms walk straight in [the gates of the Palais Ephrussi].’ The Ephrussi men are declared enemies of the State and arrested. Emmy is relegated to two rooms at the back of the house while her husband Viktor and son Rudolf are imprisoned until they sign away all of the Ephrussi property – businesses, residence, and 100 years of possessions – to avoid being sent to the concentration camp in Dachau. Of all the objects stolen then sold, a loyal housekeeper named Anna risks her own safety to pocket the netsuke a few at a time until she could hide them in her mattress.

After the war, the netsuke are returned to the family and Edmund da Waal’s great-uncle Iggie takes them back to Japan where he spends the rest of his life. And where Edmund the potter and student of Japanese finds the netsuke and learns what those objects mean when they are returned to the culture from which they came.

Here are links to Part I and Part II of this review.

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