The Netsuke Survived
By ROGER COHEN
Published: September 3, 2011 in The New York Times / http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/opinion/sunday/cohen-the-netsuke-survived.html?_r=0
PEOPLE start collections for many reasons — because they can, because they wish to contemplate beauty, because of the associations an object stirs. Perhaps a secret memory lurks in a loved bibelot: Proust muses that the collector’s pleasure “was always for reasons which other people didn’t grasp.” Certainly exile, which is loss, can make a salvaged collection doubly precious.
The odyssey of 264 netsuke — Japanese carvings not much larger than cherry tomatoes — lies at the heart of Edmund de Waal’s extraordinary book “The Hare with Amber Eyes.” The carvings in ivory or boxwood with subjects as various as a persimmon or a copulating couple were acquired by Charles Ephrussi in Paris in the 1870s. Ephrussi, a forebear of de Waal with a discerning passion for art, was a very rich man.
He was also a Jew, a descendant of the Ephrussis of Odessa who became known as the kings of grain. Diversifying around Europe they amassed wealth once comparable to the Rothschilds’. Then everything goes up in smoke. De Waal’s book is a meditation on Jewish upheaval and loss.
It is all here: the Jewish striving, the patriotic pride as emancipation opens doors, the balls, Charles Ephrussi with his Légion d’Honneur, Baron Ignace von Ephrussi of the Viennese branch with his Iron Cross Third Class — all of it as brittle as aged Japanese parchment. Delusion is tenacious and it makes you weep.
Charles was an aesthete who furnished inspiration for Proust’s Swann. Two generations had delivered him from Odessan dust to Parisian delicacy. He bought Manet and Monet and Morisot to adorn his mansion. There, on green velvet in a mirrored vitrine, he placed the netsuke. They came from across the world but shared with Impressionism a fascination with the captured instant.
France takes the collector in, but there are rumblings. Edouard Drumont, the anti-Semitic demagogue, published his book “La France Juive” (“Jewish France”) in 1886: “Jews, vomited from all the ghettos of Europe, are now installed as the masters in historic houses.” The Ephrussis were targeted as epitomes of the nomadic, money-grubbing Jew. Soon the Dreyfus Affair breaks, dividing France over the fate of a Jewish officer, the wrongly accused Alfred Dreyfus. Salon doors slam shut on Charles the Dreyfusard.
In the turmoil Charles sends the netsuke as a wedding gift to his cousin Viktor in Vienna. It is 1899. Change of scene but not of grandeur: in the dressing room of Viktor’s gorgeous wife, Emmy, who spends a lot of time lacing into corsets for the Opera, the netsuke find a new home.
The couple’s children play with the carvings. One of them, Elisabeth, de Waal’s grandmother, who will become a lawyer and poet, befriends Rilke and is thrilled by his words: “All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end.”
The end is coming. Drumont’s Austrian counterparts inveigh against “the Jew, the sucking vampire.” Imperial collapse feeds frenzy: Elisabeth and her brother Iggie are thrown out of their Alpine Club to keep the peaks clean of Jews. The Ephrussis linger too long, unable to imagine jackbooted terror.
To imagine this: The Gestapo going through the silver, the books, the paintings, the tapestries, the netsuke — cataloguing all the Jews have “robbed” from Aryans. The family scatters to the United States, Mexico, England. Emmy commits suicide. Cousins are killed in the camps. A century’s endeavor is eviscerated.
Only the netsuke endure. They are hidden by the family maid, Anna, and recovered by Elisabeth in Vienna after the war — almost the only “restitution.” In England, she gives them to Iggie, a trader who is assigned to Japan and takes them “home.” It is in Tokyo that de Waal, a ceramicist, first sees them.
This is a book about Jewish credulity. The Ephrussis believed they were pillars of society; they were deluded. In 1896, three years before the netsuke left Paris for Vienna, Theodor Herzl, appalled by the Dreyfus Affair and convinced that combating anti-Semitism was futile, wrote “The Jewish State,” arguing for a Jewish homeland in Palestine — his Zionist answer to the Ephrussis’ diaspora submissiveness.
De Waal shuns politics. But part of the sadness of his story is that the German question that so ravaged Europe has been solved, while the Jewish question remains open. It took almost 120 years from the founding of the modern German state to reach resolution. On that scale, with the modern state of Israel, we may be halfway to the inevitable but elusive peace.
I said sadness. That is only one aspect of this saga. What are the netsuke? They are “inconsequential gobbets of reality” — a woman with a crying child, an amber-eyed hare — that an artist has labored for years to immortalize. The stubborn artist has seized the moment. And now de Waal’s children in London stroke the netsuke. What they hold in their hands is wisdom — and consolation.
Edmund de Waal on Proust: The writer behind the hare
The potter and award-winning author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes, memoirist Edmund de Waal, explains why Proust is at the heart of his family’s story.
By Edmund de Waal 01 Apr 2011 in The Telegraph / http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/8418199/Edmund-de-Waal-on-Proust-The-writer-behind-the-hare.html
I have just come back from Paris. The Hare with Amber Eyes, my attempted retracing of the history of my Jewish family over 200 years through a very large collection of very small objects, was being launched in France. I had a round of interviews and lectures to survive. The book’s new name, La Mémoire Retrouvée, could not be more Proustian and I was convinced this was a hostage to fortune. My very first radio interview was short. The interviewer was svelte and cross. You are an Englishman, she told me, and I believe you are actually a potter. Your book seems to concern Proust. How has this come about?
So I start to tell her that my great-uncle Iggie in old age, sitting in his armchair in his Tokyo apartment after an autumnal lunch with plums from the orchard of his country cottage in Izu, began talking of the plum dumplings mit schlag made by their cook in Vienna. That when my grandmother Elisabeth died and I inherited her 14 black-bound volumes of Proust, printed on cheap thin paper by Gallimard, the ink smudged, I found that they were interleaved with postcards and photographs and scraps of pocketbook jottings marking — what? I start to say that I simply didn’t know that when this journey started six years ago, airy with ambition and purpose, I would be charting a journey into memory. I start and she has packed up her microphone.
I had no intention to let Proust into my book. My story started in Belle Epoque Paris as that was the home of the first collector of these little Japanese carvings, a glamorous and ridiculously rich mondain cousin of my great-grandfather’s called Charles Ephrussi.
But as I haunted the archives and paced my routes between old houses and offices, vagabonding in museums, aimless one moment and over-purposeful the next, I kept coming across the places where Charles Ephrussi and Charles Swann intersected. Before I started my journey I knew in the broadest terms that “my” Charles was one of the two principal models for Proust’s character – the lesser it was said, of the two. I remember reading a dismissive remark on him (“a Polish Jew… stout, bearded and ugly, his manner was ponderous and uncouth”) in the biography of Proust published by George Painter in the Fifties and taking it at face value.
But as I started to trace Charles’s passage through Parisian life, his early friendships and love affairs, his passionate and partisan collecting, his attempts to learn to write on art, I fell under the spell of this first owner of my collection of ivories. And I kept coming on Proust. Proust seen whispering to Charles in the corner of a salon. Proust asking his advice on his translation of Ruskin, using the library at the Gazette des Beaux-Arts where Charles was editor, visiting the apartment at the Hotel Ephrussi in the Rue Monceau to see Charles’s new paintings, the 40 Manets, Renoirs, Degas, Sisleys. One of his Monets, a painting of the break-up of ice on the Seine, is alive in Proust’s description of it: “A day of thaw… the sun, the blue of the sky, the broken ice, the mud, and the moving water turning the river to a dazzling mirror.”
As I tried to map the straightforward correspondences that my Charles and the fictional Charles share, the lineaments of their lives, I grew more and more confident of this metamorphosis. They were both Jewish. They were both men of the world. They had a social reach from royalty (Charles conducted Queen Victoria around Paris, Swann was a friend of the Prince of Wales) via the salons to the studios of artists.
They were art lovers deeply in love with the works of the Italian Renaissance, Giotto and Botticelli in particular. They were both experts in the wildly arcane subject of Venetian 15th-century medallions. And they were both collectors, patrons of the Impressionists, incongruous in the sunshine at a boating party of a painter friend. At the very back of Renoir’s Boating Party, slightly apart from the louche drinking and the flirting in singlets and loose dresses, is Charles, dressed for the opera rather than this late lunch. And Proust weaves him in: “A gentleman… wearing a top hat at a boating party where he was clearly out of place, which proved that for Elstir he was not only a regular sitter, but a friend, perhaps a patron.”
Both write monographs on art: Swann on Vermeer, my Charles on Dürer. They advise society ladies on which paintings to buy. They are both dandies, both chevaliers of the Legion d’honneur, both infatuated with unsuitable, complex women.
But there was something beyond this delight in finding that the collector of the netsuke had this other reimagined life in Proust: both Charles Ephrussi and Charles Swann were Dreyfusard. For my family found that their carefully constructed life in Parisian society was deeply riven by their Jewishness, when “the precarious structure of assimilation”, in Walter Benjamin’s words, came crashing down around him. They were reviled in the anti-Semitic press, excoriated in pamphlets, threatened.
Paris changed for Charles. He was a mondain with doors shut in his face, a patron ostracised by some of the artists he had supported. He collects only “Jew art”, says Renoir. And the clearest, most potent expression of this fissure comes in Proust. I think of what these times must have been like, and recall Proust writing of the Duc de Guermantes’s anger: “As far as Swann is concerned… they tell me now that he is openly Dreyfusard. I should never have believed it of him, an epicure, a man of practical judgment, a collector, a connoisseur of old books, a member of the Jockey, a man who enjoys the respect of all, who knows all the good addresses and used to send us the best port you could wish to drink, a dilettante, a family man. Ah! I feel badly let down.”
Swann, gravely ill and shocked by this illumination of his place in society, is grateful to Dreyfus for revealing “the paths that his forebears had trodden and from which he had been deflected by his aristocratic associations”. It is as if this terrible light causes him to reassess who he is. I am moved when I find that my Charles, terminally ill at the moment of Dreyfus’s partial rehabilitation in 1905, helped endow a school in Odessa for indigent Jewish boys. The place where he and his brothers came from is still in his life.
And so, though of course I wanted him to be Swann – driven, loved, graceful – I didn’t want Charles to disappear into source material, into literary footnotes. I feared losing him to Proust Studies. And I cared too much about Proust to turn his fiction into some Belle Epoque acrostic. “My novel has no key,” Proust said, repeatedly.
During the years of travelling and researching, recalling conversations and attempting to replace memories with actual rooms and streets, this slippage between what was “real” and what was in fiction became one of the greatest complexities for me. For the family turned up in the novels of Joseph Roth and the stories of Isaac Babel – often, I have to say, as terribly arriviste.
Proust played with the interpenetration of the real and the invented; his novels have a panoply of historical figures who appear as themselves mingling with characters reimagined from recognisable people. Elstir, the great painter who leaves his infatuation with Japonisme to become an Impressionist, has elements of both Whistler and Renoir, but has another dynamic force. And Proust’s characters stand in front of actual pictures. The visual texture of the novels is suffused not just with references to Giotto and Botticelli, Dürer and Vermeer, Moreau, Monet and Renoir, but by the act of looking at paintings, by the act of collecting them, remembering what it was to see something, the memory of the moment of apprehension.
So as I try to track down what my great-grandfather saw on the way to his office off the Schottengasse in Vienna a century ago, or what pictures hung in his salon, I am attempting to bring alive a memory of an early morning walk on a dusty street, the memory of real pictures lost, looted and scattered.
And so, to answer the radio journalist, I am an Englishman but I have to think of Proust.
The Ephrussi family were a Ukrainian Jewish banking and oil dynasty.
Family members made their fortune controlling grain distribution in beginning in Odessa (then Russian Empire, now Ukraine) and later controlled large-scale oil resources across Crimea and the Caucasus. From 1856, members of the family established banking houses in Vienna, Paris, and Athens. By 1860, the family was the world’s largest grain exporter. The Austrian branch of the family were elevated to the nobility by the Habsburg emperor.
During the 19th century, the family possessed vast wealth, owning many castles, palaces, and estates in Europe. The family were known for their connoisseurship, intellectual interests, and their huge collections of art.
The family's bank and properties were seized by the Nazis after the March 1938 German annexation of Austria.
The family name is considered to be a variation of "Ephrati", a Jewish family name attested in various countries since the 14th Century and still current in present-day Israel, in this case transformed through the Ashkenazi pronunciation (Ephrati-Ephrassi-Ephrussi).
Notable members of the Ephrussi include:
Béatrice de Rothschild-Ephrussi (1864-1934) - part of the Rothschild family
Boris Ephrussi (1901-1979), influential French geneticist (his wife, Harriet Ephrussi-Taylor, 1918-1968, was also a geneticist and crystallographer)
Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), art historian, proprietor of the "Gazette des Beaux-Arts", an inspiration for Charles Swann in Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu
Ignaz von Ephrussi (1829-1899), Austrian banker
Jules Ephrussi (1846-1915), French banker
Marie Juliette Ephrussi, Princesse de Faucigny-Lucinge, (born 1880) - Princess de Faucigny-Lucinge
Maurice Ephrussi (1849-1916), French banker
Michel Ephrussi (1845-1914), French banker
Viktor von Ephrussi (1860-1945), Austrian banker
Palais Ephrussi is a Ringstraßenpalais - Vienna.
Villa Ephrussi - Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the Côte d'Azur
Hôtel de Breteuil, 12 Avenue Foch, Paris
Hôtel Ephrussi, 81 Rue de Monceau, Paris
Hôtel 11, Avenue d'Iéna, Paris
Villa Kerylos on the Côte d'Azur
Hôtel Ephrussi, 81 Rue de Monceau, Paris
Villa Ephrussi - Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the Côte d'Azur.
Villa Kerylos on the Côte d'Azur
Palais Ephrussi is a Ringstraßenpalais - Vienna.
Charles Ephrussi (born Odessa, December 24, 1849 - died Paris, September 30, 1905) was a Ukrainian-French critic, art historian, and art collector. He also was a part-owner (from 1885) and then editor (from 1894) as well as a contributor to the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, the most important art historical periodical in France.
A member of the wealthy Ephrussi family, he spent the first ten years of his life in Odessa, a major port on the Black Sea where his grandfather was a grain industrialist in Ukraine, before moving to Vienna. His father Léon and his uncle Ignace were in charge of establishing branches of the family business in Europe.
In 1871, Charles Ephrussi moved to the newly built Hôtel Ephrussi, 81 rue de Monceau, in Paris, with his parents and brothers. The next year, he traveled to Italy, where he began to collect art. On his return to Paris, he became more involved in both the purchase of art and writing about it, publishing his first article in Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1876. Like most of his publications, it concerned Renaissance art. He also gave two works of art to the Louvre at this time.
In about 1880, Charles Ephrussi became interested in the art of the Impressionists and, within the next few years, purchased some 40 works by Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, and Pissarro, among others. He has been identified as the man in a top hat standing with his back to us in Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party (Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.). An account of the collection hanging in his study appears in a letter written in 1881 by the Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue (later published in La Revue blanche). But, to the distress of some of the Impressionists, he continued to buy other types of art, including pictures by his friends Gustave Moreau and Paul Baudry.
It also was at this time that he began to collect Japanese lacquers and netsukes, the subject of Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010) which also devotes considerable attention to Charles' life and artistic interests.
In 1891, Ephrussi moved with his brother Ignace to a grander Parisian hôtel at 11, avenue d'Iéna. His taste had changed, and he decorated his part in the Empire style. By this time, he was a well-established figure in the Paris art world, and a welcome guest at some of the most famous salons. He was one of the inspirations for the figure of Swann in Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; titled Remembrance of Things Past in the first translation).
All of this changed with the Dreyfus Affair in 1894, which polarized France and caused many doors to be closed to Jews. The Ephrussi family was very prominent and thus became the target of anti-Semitic attacks.
Charles died in 1905, before Dreyfus was exonerated. He had never married, and left much of his estate to his niece Fanny Kann and her husband Théodore Reinach