Showing posts with label Hare with the Amber Eyes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hare with the Amber Eyes. Show all posts

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.

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.

August 20, 2012

Book Review: "The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss", Part I

“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 I

My regular Wednesday tennis mate Barbara recommended a book that I heard as written by a famous ceramicist – a guy who makes pottery – about the history of the Japanese knick-knacks he inherited from his family.

Pottery. Japan. Knick-knacks. I was reading about Nazi-looted art (see Lady in Gold). A book with the odd title “The Hare with Amber Eyes” did not immediately send me to the bookstore. Barbara knew a little bit about the Jews in Europe during the first half of the 20th century – her mom, she had mentioned only once, had been in a concentration camp.

A few weeks later Barbara and I, over the net, were discussing the Klimt paintings and what the Bloch-Bauer family went through in Vienna – that the paintings hadn’t been donated to the museum by Adele Bloch-Bauer but stolen more than a decade after her death from her husband’s residence after Austria united with Nazi Germany.

“Did you read that book I recommended?” Barbara asked.

“What was the title?”

“Hare with the Amber Eyes,” she repeated. “The family was in Vienna when the Nazis came.”

A few hours later I had downloaded the book on my iPad and my iPhone, downloaded the audible book, and later ended up at our local bookstore in Pasadena where the Vroman’s employee told me I could find Edmund de Waal’s memoir under “Biography”.

Not since Jonathan Harr’s book, The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, has a book so influenced me.

First of all, Edmund de Waal isn’t just a potter but an academic who has written on the subject in various journals and truly is recognizable in the art world (as confirmed by the first woman I recommended the book to).  Second, de Waal read English at Cambridge and brings an amazing literary talent to his tale.

I have recommended this book to any lovers of Proust and 19th century France (the Japanese netsuke were purchased there by an ancestor of de Waal who served as a model for the French novelist); anyone who wants to understand anti-Semitism in Europe and how that prejudice allowed the Nazis to rise to power; and to my teenage son who loves Japan (part of the narrative is placed in Japan after World War II). I would recommend this to anyone looking for “a good read” in any subject by a compassionate and intelligent human being. As for myself, this book changed the way I viewed decorative arts as stuff-to-dust to artifacts of the experiences of everyday life.

Edmund de Waal was studying porcelain pottery and visiting his great-uncle, Ignace “Iggie” Ephrussi, in Japan in 1991 where he first handled one of the 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings known as netsuke. He later writes:
I pick one up and turn it around in my fingers, weight it in the palm of my hand. If it is wood, chestnut or elm, it is even lighter than the ivory. You see the patina more easily on these wooden ones: there is a faint shine on the spine of the bridled wolf and on the tumbling acrobats locked in their embrace. The ivory ones come in shades of cream, every colour, in fact, but white. A few have inlaid eyes of amber or horn. Some of the older ones are slightly worn away: the haunch of the faun resting on leaves has lost its markings. There is a slight split, an almost imperceptible fault line on the cicada. Who dropped it? Where and when?
Mr. de Waal describes how one of the netsuke feels when he pockets it for a day:
Carry is not quite the right word for having a netsuke in a pocket. It sounds too purposeful. A netsuke is so light and so small that it migrates and almost disappears amongst your keys and change. You simply forget that it is there.
Then he describes why he wrote this book:
I realize how much I care about how this hard-and-soft, losable object has survived. I need to find a way of unraveling its story. Owning this netsuke – inheriting them all – means I have been handed a responsibility to them and to the people who have owned them. I am unclear and discomfited about where the parameters of this responsibility might lie. 
I know the bones of this journey from Iggie. I know that these netsuke were bought in Paris in the 1870s by a cousin of my great-grandfather called Charles Ephrussi. I know that he gave them as a wedding-present to my great-grandfather Victor von Ephrussi in Vienna at the turn of the century. I know the story of Anna, my great-grandmother’s maid, very well. And I know that they came with Iggie to Tokyo, of course, and were part of his life with Hiro.
This book review will be continued on Wednesday. Here are links to Part II and Part III.