Museum  January 24, 2022  Howard Halle

Edmund de Waal Reconstructs History in “The Hare with Amber Eyes”

The Jewish Museum. de Waal family collection.

Recumbent hare with raised forepaw, signed Masatoshi. Ivory, eyes inlaid in amber colored buffalo horn. Osaka, Japan, ca. 1880.

Provenance refers to the chronology of ownership for a painting or other valuable, and the process of following custodial clues to establish its bona fides and historical importance. But along the way, provenance also reveals the lives of collectors involved, and the fortunes and fates that cling to the object like so many layers of drawing room dust.

Such is the premise for The Hare with Amber Eyes in which artist and author Edmund de Waal reconstructs the history of his family around a diminutive heirloom passed down through the generations: An ivory Japanese carving of a rabbit with its paw raised. That item and more appear in this compact exhibition at the Jewish Museum, which shares its title with de Waal’s book, and makes concrete its overriding theme: That possessions serve as portals to the past, and the triumphs and tragedies therein.

De Waal’s ancestors, the Ephrussis, were Sephardic Jews who rose from humble beginnings in Russia’s Pale of Settlement to become one of nineteenth-century Europe’s wealthiest dynasties. They started out as grain merchants under paterfamilias Charles Joachim Ephrussi (1792–1864), before branching out as bankers in Vienna and Paris. But it’s the story of Ephrussi’s grandson Charles (1849–1905), and his calling as an aesthete, that anchors the show.

The Jewish Museum. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Installation view of The Hare with Amber Eyes, the Jewish Museum, NY, November 19, 2021-May 15, 2022.

Like many moneyed scions, Charles decided against joining the family business, choosing life as an art patron instead. He bankrolled, edited, and wrote for France’s leading art periodical of the day, the Gazette des Beaux-Art, and eventually became interested in the Impressionists, befriending, and buying work from, Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Pierre Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. Such was his importance to their milieu that he’s believed to be the model for the titular character of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, and for the top-hatted gent in the background of Renoir’s painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party.

Most importantly, Charles acquired the hare and hundreds of other figurines like it. Known as netsuke, these ornamental curios were meant to attach to a box containing a man’s personal effects (pipe, tobacco, etc.) to the sash, or obi, of his robe. Their exquisite craftsmanship made them highly desirable, especially during the period craze for Japanese art known as Japonisme, which had a pronounced impact on artists such as Manet, James Whistler, and Mary Cassat. Charles eventually gifted the netsuke to his cousin Viktor, but some sixty years later they’d play a role in the family’s dramatic downfall at the hands of the Nazis.

The Jewish Museum. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Museum Purchase, 2016.

Jean Patricot, Charles Ephrussi, 1905. Drypoint.

After the Austrian Anschluss of 1938, and the fall of France two years later, the Nazis confiscated the Ephrussis’ assets—their banks and magnificent homes in Vienna and Paris, and of course, Charles’s art collection, which resided at his own resplendent domicile, the Hôtel Charles Ephrussi on the Avenue d'Iéna in the city’s 16th arrondissement.

However, the netsuke were spared, hidden by a family maid until after the war. By then, members of the Ephrussis had escaped to England, Mexico, and the U.S. In time, De Waal inherited the tiny treasures.

As lengthy as this precis may seem, it’s necessary for appreciating the show, which is less about the art than it is about De Waal’s narrative. The bulk of the proceedings are ensconced in an installation by Highline starchitects Diller & Scofidio. Rich with darkly stained Neo-Gothic details, it suggests a cross between a deconstructed library and Wunderkammer containing artifacts—photographs, books, a Torah mantle, a Second Empire chair—as well as artworks reflecting Charles eclectic tastes, which range here from fleshy Rococo fluff by Fragonard to vigorously gestural portraiture by Berthe Morisot.

The Jewish Museum. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, museum purchase with funds by exchange by contribution, and by exchange from a Gift of Laurence K. and Lorna J. Marshall, 2013.62.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Aurora Triumphing over Night, about 1755-56. Oil on canvas.

Besides the Morisot, inclusions of Charles’s Impressionist paintings are few, since surviving works by higher-profile names are now distributed among various institutions. The omissions include Manet’s still life, A Bunch of Asparagus from 1880: As the story goes, Charles paid Manet more than the agreed-upon amount and, deciding to make up the difference, Manet sent him another canvas depicting a single asparagus stalk.

The Jewish Museum.

Various netsuke from the de Waal Family Collection.

The exhibit also contains color photos by Iwan Baan of Charles’s home today, which, if not empty, certainly resonates with le temps perdu. The main attractions, though, are the netsuke, 154 of which are divided between two tabletop vitrines. Dating from the early nineteenth-to early twentieth century and fashioned in wood or ceramics as well as ivory, they fancifully depict animals, mythical figures, and comical characters.

Decades of attentive handling have buffed each to a buttery sheen that seems burnished by memory. But in the show, as in the book, De Waal’s meaning finally rests with the hare, whose amber eyes bore witness to events far larger than itself.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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