“I open my heart to myself like a sort of vitrine, and examine one by one
all those love affairs of which the world can know nothing.”
Charles Swann, in Cities of the Plain by Marcel Proust
In his fascinating book, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, the potter, Edmund de Waal explains how he inherits a collection of netsuke from his Uncle Iggie, who died in Tokyo in 1994, and how he desires to learn more about those objects have survived and been handed down through several generations of his wealthy Russian Jewish family, the Ephrussi bankers who started out as grain traders in Odessa.
Edmund de Waal‘s researches into his inheritance of 264 netsuke and into how they came into his family, how they were handled and appreciated, how they were passed on, how they survived and how his family managed to retain them, cause him to neglect his ceramics business in London and to travel on to Paris, Vienna, Tunbridge Wells, Tokyo and even to Odessa, where his great, great, great grandfather founded the Ephrussi banking dynasty many decades before any Europeans had heard of netsuke.
So, in case you are wondering, what are netsuke?
Netsuke are miniature sculptures that first appear in 17th-century Japan. Originally netsuke were toggles that were used to secure the silk cord by which purses and pouches were hung from the sashes that secured gentlemen’s costume. Carved out of ivory, boxwood, yew, antler, netsuke developed into works of elaborate craftsmanship. They were often carved into the forms of animals, natural objects, or people engaged in typical pursuits, such as bathing, drinking, sleeping, love-making and so on. Netsuke production was most popular during the Edo era that lasted from 1615 until 1868.
Handling one of the netsuke, Edmund de Waal tells us,
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.
These desires are those of a potter, someone with a highly developed haptic sensibility and a feeling for textures and for the way in which objects occupy space and the way in which spaces are changed by the objects that occupy them. Thus we are offered some sensitive insights such as,
Making something to hold out of a very hard material that feels so soft is a slow and rather good tactile pun.
Here is a video of de Waal talking about his netsuke and “what this strange inheritance actually meant.”
In 1870 the two sons of Charles Joachim Ephrussi, were sent out of Odessa to establish the family banking business in Vienna and Paris. The elder son, Leon, went to Paris, the younger, Ignace, went to Vienna.
Leon‘s third son, Charles Ephrussi became an aesthete and art collector who flourished during the Belle Epoque and who was one of the neo-Japonistes, or second generation connoisseurs of Japanese art in Paris during the late 19th century. It was Charles who bought all 264 netsuke from Sichel’s, the Parisian art dealers who made a fortune importing thousands of art objects from Japan.
Charles Eprussi was the inspiration for the character Swann in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, Jules Laforge was his secretary, and an object of jealousy for Edmond de Goncourt. He was a patron and friend of Impressionists such as Degas, Renoir, Monet and Manet. He bought Une botte d’asperges from Manet and was included in Renoir’s Le déjeuner des canotiers as the “out of place” chap in the top hat and suit at the back of the party, talking to his secretary, Jules Laforge.
Patron and friend though he was, Charles did not escape the censure of Degas and Renoir (both of whom later supported the anti-Dreyfusards). Degas berated Renoir for accepting too many commissions from “financiers.” Renoir complained when Charles began buying works of “Jew art” by Gustave Moreau:
“It was clever of him to take in the Jews, to have thought of painting with gold colours… Even Ephrussi fell for it, who I really thought had some sense! I go and call on him one day, and I come face to face with a Gustave Moreau!”
I notice that the proprietor’s son, Louise-Alphonsine Fournaise, leaning against the railing, is surveying Charles with a quizzical, perhaps disapproving, gaze. A decade later, when the Dreyfus case broke, Charles found himself suddenly excluded from the company and friendship of anti-Dreyfusards, including Renoir and Degas.
Edmund de Waal is very good at bringing interiors to life. He painstakingly builds up from his researches (letters to Charles from Jules Laforge, for example) not just a picture but a feeling for Charles’s rooms in the Hotel Ephrussi in the Rue Monceau, Paris. He feels relieved that among all the high art there is room in Charles’s home life for a vitrine full of Japanese netsuke that can be taken out one by one, handled, passed around, appreciated and enjoyed, and it is quite possibly that Laforge, Proust, Renoir, Degas among others handled some of them.
And then Charles was fifty and it seems, he had got tired of his netsuke. When his Viennese cousin, Viktor, was to get married in 1899, Charles sent all 264 netsuke and the vitrine to Vienna as a wedding present. By then, netsuke must have seemed to Charles like bibelots from his carefree youth.
In Vienna, the vitrine of netsuke find a new home in the dressing room of Viktor’s new wife, Edmund de Waal’s great grandmother, Emmy Schey von Koromla, in the Palais Ephrussi, on the Ringstraße in Vienna. Emmy’s busy social life meant that her children had few opportunities to spend time with her, but one of those times was when she was dressing with the help of her faithful maid, Anna. While Emmy was changing from one costume to another the children were allowed to open the vitrine and play with the netsuke. Here is Edmund de Waal reading an extract related to this part of the story…
The story inevitably veers towards tragedy with the Anschluss in 1938. By then, the three older children had grown up and left Austria. Viktor and Rudolf, the youngest son, are arrested. Victor signs away ownership of the Palais Ephrussi and the two are released. The Palais Ephrussi is handed over to Alfred Rosenberg’s organization and suddenly we are presented with the awful irony of a Nazi occupying a Jewish nobleman’s salon complete with its ceiling paintings taken from the Book of Esther,
Rosenberg is installed in his new Viennese office with Ignace’s carefully calibrated hymn to Jewish pride in Zion – his lifetime bet on assimilation – above his head: the grandiose, gilded picture of Esther crowned as Queen of Israel. Above him to his left is the painting of the destruction of the enemies of Zion. But there are to be no Jews in Zionstrasse.
Rudolf, is able to get out and go to America, leaving Victor and Emmy, alone, terribly vulnerable, in the rooms “alloted” to them at the back of the building while the Gestapo scrupulously catalogue everything of value in the house – except that they overlook the 264 netsuke in the vitrine in Emmy’s dressing room.
Viktor and Emmy’s daughter, Elizabeth, now Elizabeth de Waal, now a capable and “indefatigable” lawyer, returns to Vienna, banking on her Dutch passport to protect her, and works to get her parents out of Austria, but only as far as their cousins’ country villa in Czechoslovakia. Shortly after the Nazi seizure of Czechoslovakia, Emmy, suffering from a weak heart, dies in her sleep and her grandson makes it clear that he believes that she took an overdose of heart tablets. Elizabeth helps Viktor to get papers to England and he arrives in his only remaining suit and with just one suitcase. Viktor dies in England on 12th March 1945, one month before the liberation of Vienna.
In 1945 Elizabeth returns to Vienna. Palais Ephrussi is now in American hands. Elizabeth meets Emmy’s maid, Anna, who has continued to work in the house throughout the Nazi occupation. It turns out that in a quiet act of heroism, and wanting to save something “for the family” Anna had taken the netsuke, just one or two a day, from the vitrine and hidden them in her apron pocket and then concealed them in her mattress. She hands them over to Elizabeth who brings them back to England and gives them to her brother, Iggie. Years later, Edmund is unable to trace Anna and realizes that he doesn’t know her surname and that it is too late to ask anybody what it was; but, I wonder, have all traces of records, such as employment records or social security records, disappeared? Quite possibly, of course, they did not survive the war. What about in the post war period when Anna was still at the house when it was occupied by the Americans? If records survive, it would be a painstaking job, but not impossible, if Anna was registered as living at Palais Ephrussi. If… if…
Edmund de Waal’s uncle Iggie has gone through the war as an intelligence officer in the US army. He gets a job in Japan takes the netsuke with him to a country that is too busy recovering from the war to remember what they are.
Iggie falls in love with Tokyo and spends the rest of his life there. The young Edmund, already a keen ceramicist, wins a scholarship to study Japanese for a year in England and then spend a year in Tokyo, incidentally, just at the time when I first arrived in Hiroshima to “work” as an English teacher. (Actually, it was more like being at university, but with money in your pocket – a fat envelope of Japanese yen, handed over to me at the end of each month by my boss, Mr. Tomihara.)
In Tokyo de Waal spends quite a bit of time with his uncle, handling the netsuke and hearing a potted account of their history. On inheriting them, de Waal takes them to his London home, buys a vitrine from some old stock the V&A is selling off, and sets it up in his living room where his children are happily allowed to renew the family tradition of playing with netsuke.
This is the second book I’ve read this year, the first being Along the Enchanted Way, by William Blacker. Both describe wonderful and moving journeys of discovery by sensitive, talented and capable English men roughly my own age. Both have helped me in ways that are difficult to describe, but in ways that are conducive to a more expansive and generous view of humanity, or at least an expanded awareness of our potential to live more fully and to “only connect” as E. M. Forster would probably have said.