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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.