Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Edmund de Waal traces a century of heartbreaking family history through a set of tiny, beloved figurines

Edmund de Waal, Geoff Dyer and John Jeremiah Sullivan, have won the 2015 Windham Campbell Prize for nonfiction. Each of them will get a $150,000 award to be presented at Yale in September.

Photo by Hannah Jones
De Waal is the author of THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES: A FAMILY’S CENTURY OF ART AND LOSS. If you haven’t read it, please get up right now and go to your nearest library or book store and get a copy. We’ll wait right here until you’re back.

Edmund de Waal is a British ceramicist whose work has been exhibited in major museums around the world. (As an aside, I should say that I have seen a few examples of it in the excellent collection of post-1940 pottery and ceramics at the Mint Uptown Museum in Charlotte – worth the drive, indeed.)

THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES is a family memoir tracing the history of the wealthy and influential Ephrussi family. As de Waal has written, “It is the story of the ascent and decline of a Jewish dynasty, about loss and diaspora and about the survival of objects.”

The Ephrussis were bankers who spread their empire from Odessa to the capitols of Europe in the 19th century. Charles Ephrussi eschewed the family business to study and collect art. He moved to Paris and became an early supporter of the impressionists and is said to be pictured in Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” He is also said to have been Marcel Proust’s model for Swann in
REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST. In a time of particularly strong French antisemitism (think the Dreyfus affair), the Ephrussis were “simultaneously loathed as upstarts and feted as patrons.”

It is also a time in which Japanese art was highly sought after and it was Charles who collected the 264 netsukes, small intricately carved figurines, which are the thread connecting the generations. Charles then sent them to his cousin Viktor in Vienna as a wedding present where they were kept in his wife’s dressing room. Their children were allowed to play with the netsukes while their mother, the Baroness Emmy, dressed for the evening.

Then came Hitler. The Ephrussi family lost everything. Neither their wealth, their social standing, nor their support of culture and art protected them. Family members fled or were imprisoned. Their palace was appropriated, their library and Old Master paintings were confiscated.

After the war, Viktor’s daughter, Elisabeth Ephrussi de Waal, returned to the family home, now in the hands of the U.S. occupying authorities. There is nothing of the family possessions left. However, there is, she is told, an old woman still living in the house. It is Anna, a loyal family servant who has hidden the netsukes from the Nazis in her straw mattress, intending to return them to the family after the war. She gives them to Elisabeth who puts them in a small valise and takes them home with her. They are all that is left of the family’s many treasures.

“How objects embody memory — or more particularly, whether objects can hold memories — is a real question for me.”

The collection goes next to Baroness Emmy von Ephrussi’s son, Ignace, now living in Tokyo with a young Japanese man. Upon their deaths, it is inherited by Edmund de Waal who had studied in Japan and known his great-uncle there.

Of the netsukes, de Waal writes: “I am the fifth generation of the family to inherit this collection, and it is my story too. I am a maker: I make pots. How things are made, how they are handled and what happens to them has been central to my life for over thirty years. So too has Japan, a place I went to when I was 17 to study pottery. How objects embody memory – or more particularly, whether objects can hold memories – is a real question for me. This book is my journey to the places in which this collection lived. It is my secret history of touch.” (edmunddewaal.com).

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