For the first time since World War II, 41 relatives from around Europe, the United States and Mexico toured the neo-Renaissance building that had been home to the Ephrussi family, European Jews whose wealth once rivaled that of the Rothschilds. But the stars of the show are netsuke pronounced NET-ske , tiny Japanese carvings in wood and ivory, made famous by Mr. De Waal has been a regular visitor to Vienna since the s, when he received the netsuke as an inheritance from his great-uncle and started to research the collection, then numbering more than Only a small fraction settled in the country, but their arrival was followed by an acrimonious debate and loud protests from the far right. Image A rate netsuke from the collection, made in Kyoto, Japan, from buffalo horn around
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Share via Email A netsuke belonging to ceramicist Edmund de Waal. Netsuke are toggles used to attach a carrying pouch to traditional Japanese garments.
Sometimes they look like the stacked contents of a cooled kiln, waiting for the selection to reject the misfires; or survivors retrieved from a cargo long sunk on its voyage back from the Far East.
De Waal barely mentions his pots in this unique memoir of his family, though. Netsuke seem the opposite of frangible porcelain. They were carved in finegrained wood or ivory to reward touch and endure wear while doing their job, as the toggle on a cord from which a container was slung, most often for medicine or tobacco. A man in traditional Japan tucked the cord behind his obi-sash, and the netsuke prevented it from slipping out.
Private satisfaction and public display contended in them, as it does in many small, personal objects. De Waal has the credentials, years studying Japanese aesthetics. But that proved too narrow a subject.
He came to want to hear the dialogue between all the possessions of Charles, wealthy son of a pan-European Jewish dynasty of grain brokers and bankers who had migrated from Odessa on the Black Sea. He needed to know how Charles had educated himself in art — Charles first wrote for, then became proprietor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts magazine; how Charles evolved his taste from tourist souvenirs, albeit the grandest ones, to the purchase of lacquer, and bold commissions of his friends, the Impressionists.
Charles paid Manet so amply for a painting of a bundle of asparagus that, a week later, Manet delivered an extra canvas with a single stalk, and the note: "This seems to have slipped from the bundle.
Proust borrowed it. Charles became one of the models for Swann in In Search of Lost Time, although by the year Proust began to write that, Charles had moved on from Japan, his passion for which had been intertwined with his relationship with his netsuke-collecting mistress. A sure way to retrieve lost time, or at least to feel that retrieval is possible, is to make contact with the dead fingers that left their impressions on what they created, and with the eyes and hands that appreciated that creation.
De Waal has a mystical ability to so inhabit the long-gone moment as to seem to suspend inexorable history, personal and impersonal. Charles on a whim gave the netsuke, and the vitrine that was their glass carapace, as a wedding present to his cousin Viktor, who married the Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla in She made up stories about the netsuke as her children took them out for play, but otherwise they remained undisturbed for almost 40 years, while the Austro-Hungarian emperor died and his empire evaporated.
Viktor and Emmy, confident in assimilation — his Russianness was vestigial, their Jewishness marginal — had invested in that empire and lost much of their fortune, but they lived on diminished in the palais. The central passage of this narration is overwhelming. Then, by many methodical days, the inventories, as the Property Transactions Office sent in its appraisal valuation official to divest Viktor and Emmy of everything from the ownership of the Ephrussi bank to a bundle of umbrellas.
Viktor and Emmy left with two suitcases for the limbo of a country estate in a Slovakia that no longer existed, and half their little luggage was confiscated on the way. Emmy committed discreet suicide; Elisabeth, by now a bicycling, observant Christian bringing up her own children in Tunbridge Wells, extricated her father. He arrived with the key to his case of books — all Aryanised by diktat into Austrian libraries — on his watchchain, and not much more.
And the netsuke? Postwar, Elisabeth reached a wrecked Vienna to retrieve any morsels of what had been home, to find the palais had been a Nazi, then a US occupation, office. His book is also a new genre, unnamed and maybe unnameable. The netsuke, and other works of art and craft gained and lost along the way, never serve merely as accessories, trophies or substitutes for their owners and looters, but retain their own secret identities, and hold within them, as they always will, the time of their creation; both the moment they show — that hare with his front feet so briefly lofted off the ground — and the many, many hours of their manufacture.
If you have ever cleared a house after a death you will recognise this feeling, that each handmade thing matters of itself, even when mortality casts it loose sequentially from maker and owners; the sense that responsibility for the present of an object is also a duty to its past, and an obligation to its onward transmission. What happened to the hare with amber eyes, and the carved medlar that almost felt as if it might squish when handled, after their return from Japan?
It is how you tell their stories that matters. Oh, and this is a beautiful and unusual book, as a physical object. Somebody really cared.
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal
Share via Email A netsuke belonging to ceramicist Edmund de Waal. Netsuke are toggles used to attach a carrying pouch to traditional Japanese garments. Sometimes they look like the stacked contents of a cooled kiln, waiting for the selection to reject the misfires; or survivors retrieved from a cargo long sunk on its voyage back from the Far East. De Waal barely mentions his pots in this unique memoir of his family, though. Netsuke seem the opposite of frangible porcelain. They were carved in finegrained wood or ivory to reward touch and endure wear while doing their job, as the toggle on a cord from which a container was slung, most often for medicine or tobacco.
The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal
Share via Email Edmund de Waal is a potter, perhaps the most famous potter working in Britain today. His bowls and beakers, thrown in porcelain and glazed in celadon, are domestic, — in theory, you could fill them with hot tea — but they also exist in a more contemplative realm; arranged in pale lines and marked by various dents and asymmetries, they whisper a story of limitless but rather fragile possibility. This is what they say: that the potter may throw any shape he likes; that no two of his pots will ever be precisely the same; and that a pot may disappear — crash! As an ever-present metaphor for human endeavour, I fear they would slowly drive me mad. In his memoir, de Waal alludes early on to the existential hum some objects emit. Things do "retain the pulse of their making" and this intrigues him: "There is a breath of hesitancy before touching or not touching, a strange moment. If I choose to pick up this small white cup with its single chip near the handle, will it figure in my life?
‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’ Comes Home