Tiny Japanese sculptures at NY Jewish Museum tell a story of Jewish family’s resilience


New York Jewish Week via JTA – Edmund de Waal believes objects, like families, are diasporic. They start in one place and end in another, accumulating stories.

A master ceramist who exhibits his work internationally, de Waal is the author of the award-winning 2010 bestseller “The Amber-Eyed Hare: A Hidden Legacy”, a memoir on the rise and fall of the world. banking and fine arts dynasty of his European Jewish family. .

Now the subject of an exhibition that opened on November 19 at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, the book has captured the world’s attention for its graceful and original narrative, evoking the lost worlds of pre-Holocaust Europe in through material objects and the stories they continue to tell.

These objects are on display at the museum: family photos, letters, souvenirs and works of art from the family collection, including paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Berthe Morisot, Claude Monet, Gustave Moreau and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

At the heart of the exhibit is the eponymous hare, which is part of a large collection of netsuke, tiny Japanese figurines intricately carved in ivory and wood. Inherited from the author, whose Dutch-born father was Anglican Dean of Canterbury, the netsuke inspired his research and represents the rise, breakup and resilience of the family.

“There’s this thing about tactility, things, what’s in them,” de Waal said in an interview from his London studio last week. “I honestly feel this idea that when you do something and pass it on, there is a transfer of energy, emotion and imagination. I firmly believe that objects tell stories. If you are obsessive enough, you can discover the stories they might tell.

He continued, “No story is simple. When you try to tell a complex story, like a family story, which is about memory and emotions and things that are explained and things that are hidden, it s it is about secrets and silences as much as about things that are transmitted.

In memorial style, the exhibition traces the history of de Waal’s paternal family, the Ephrussians, an influential Jewish family whose roots were in Berdichev, a village in the Pale of Settlement in what is today the central and western Ukraine. In 1840, Charles Joachim Ephrussi went to Odessa, where he was very successful in the grain trade, then to Vienna, where the family further increased its wealth, prestige and philanthropy.

In the 1870s, a grandson of the family patriarch, also named Charles Ephrussi, art critic and collector (cousin of the author’s great-grandfather), acquired a collection of 264 netsuke in Paris and keeps them alongside the paintings of his friends, including Renoir. . The figurines were probably admired and handled by Charles’ friend Marcel Proust, who was visiting his Paris living room, before being sent as a wedding gift to a cousin Ephrussi in Vienna.

Various netsuke figurines from the collection of the family of Waal, exhibited at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan as part of the exhibition “The Hare with the Amber Eyes”. (Jewish Museum / via JTA)

In 1938, the Nazis looted and then occupied the great Viennese palace of Ephrussis, and family members were persecuted, exiled and killed. The netsuke were secretly hidden in a mattress by a loyal family helper. After the war, when the netsuke were rediscovered, the author’s grandmother took them to England, and later his great-uncle took them to Japan, where Edmund first saw and touched this ” very large collection of very small objects “in 1981.

At the Jewish Museum, the amber-eyed hare and other miniatures, which de Waal recalls as “seductively touchable”, are behind glass. Most are signed by the artists who created them.

“I hope that the intimacy of the exhibition allows you to feel and to feel that you are very close to them. You can’t touch them, but you can smell them, ”he says. He describes it as an immersive exhibition.

“The delicate excavation process is part of the whole idea of ​​the exhibition,” he said. “It’s about discovery… a real attempt at storytelling. “

Visitors to the exhibit will hear de Waal read the memoirs on an audio guide while learning about the netsuke and other artifacts.

They include a silk damask Torah parochet (Torah ark curtain) made from a family member’s wedding dress and a nose clip, or glasses, made of glass and metal. The glasses belonged to Viktor von Ephrussi, born in Odessa in 1860 and died stateless in 1945.

A silk damask Torah parochet (curtain) was made from the wedding dress of a member of the Ephrussi family, c. 1833. (Donated to the Stadttempel, Vienna, by Hermann Todesco Collection of the Jüdisches Museum Wien / via JTA)

Among the netsuke are a persimmon with a ladybug, a snake on a lotus leaf, three playing mice, and a monkey eating a peach. There is also a 1978 portrait of de Waal’s father, Victor de Waal, who the author says looks rabbinical.

Elizabeth Diller de Diller, Scofido + Renfro designed the exhibit. Daughter of Holocaust survivors, she worked on Bringing Memories off the Page for 10 years with de Waal.

When asked to imagine what it would be like to display at the Jewish Museum, with so many artifacts he has seen now gathered in one place, de Waal said, “It’s an extraordinary thing, beautiful and lyrical to see something again with new eyes. For me, it is incredibly painful and poignant. There are things I first saw 40 years ago in my uncle’s apartment in Japan, or 50 years ago in my grandmother’s house.

He says he continues to talk to those who have passed away. “Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean you’re not in a conversation yet,” he said.

Behind him in the studio are neatly tidy shelves of many books, and on a Zoom call he points out a few volumes of Rilke’s poetry that belonged to his grandmother and will not be in the show. He moves his computer screen and points to a large installation on a nearby wall, with porcelain vessels arranged in a display case, around a poem by Paul Celan.

De Waal speaks with poetry and parsimony, like his prose and like his art.

“I always wanted to be a poet. Poetry is in everything I do. In my facilities. I read poetry all the time. He recently set up a poetry library for a cancer support center in England and will roll out the idea across the country.

Several years ago de Waal donated most of the netsuke collection to the Jewish Museum in Vienna on a long-term loan.

“This is exactly the right place for them,” he says. Referring to the power of storytelling, he continues: “They can work really hard, talk about the diaspora, about what happened in Vienna. Her family auctioned off 79 more, raising money for refugee charities.

“We wanted to do this while my father, who is 92, is alive. We have decided to honor the fact that we are a refugee family. We have raised a huge amount of money. It’s storytelling too, ”he said. “You are not a passive spectator in this story, but an active participant. These stories are not over yet.

Ivory Netsuke, the amber eyed hare in the title of Edmund de Waal’s family memoir. (Lostrobots [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons)

“People say, ‘So you’ve moved on. The answer is, you cannot move on. [The story] is still ongoing, troubling, unresolved. He kept some netsuke.

When I ask what a netsuke looks like in his hands, he replies, “It’s a real fun experience. There is an expectation of what something looks like. You might know all about dimensionality. You move it around and always discover something else. There is a magnificent moment of delight, when you discover a coiled rat tail or acrobats doing extraordinary things with their limbs. We are always surprised by objects, it’s joy.

For de Waal, writing and artistic creation are intertwined passions. Best known perhaps for his white porcelain vases, he often shapes assemblages, shifting light and space between his delicate and translucent creations. He has also created in situ installations in museums and libraries around the world, notably the Frick in New York and – currently on display – at the Nissim de Camondo museum in Paris.

He is also the author of “The White Road” on the history – and his fascination with – porcelain. His latest book is “Letters to Camondo”, about another Jewish dynasty whose members lost their freedom, property and life to the Nazis.

For the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019, de Waal created an exhibition in two parts: one at the Jewish Museum of the Venetian Ghetto and the second, a ‘library of exile’ built inside a building. 16th century on the Grand Canal. It included nearly 2,000 books by writers in exile, in 70 languages, from 52 countries. On walls covered with liquid porcelain, de Waal inscribed the names of libraries lost across the world, including those in Sarajevo, Mosul and Aleppo, the rabbinical libraries in Lublin and Warsaw, and the library of his great-grandfather in Vienna.

After traveling to other museums, the “Library of Exile” is now in its permanent headquarters in Mosul, Iraq, serving as the foundation for a new university library replacing what was destroyed.

“The Hare with the Amber Eyes” is on display at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92sd Rue, from November 19, 2021 to May 15, 2022.


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