In his best seller “The Hare With Amber Eyes,” the writer and ceramicist Edmund de Waal traces the journey of his Jewish family and their art collection from the late 19th century to the 21st. The book combines history and memoir with a kind of object-oriented ontology, drawing parallels between the diaspora of Jews after World War II and the Ephrussi family’s dispersed possessions (many of them looted by the Nazis). It begins when the author inherits a collection of Japanese netsuke, palm-size carved sculptures dating from the Edo period that had been with his Ephrussi relatives for generations.
“I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling in my fingers — hard and tricky and Japanese — and where it has been,” he writes of the feeling of handling one of the netsuke. “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.”
Admirers of the book can now get almost that close to the netsuke and other pieces of the Ephrussis’ collection in a compelling and immersive exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, also titled “The Hare With Amber Eyes.” Based on an earlier show at the Jewish Museum in Vienna (“The Ephrussis: Travel in Time”), it uses art, design, photography, sound and ephemera to re-create the family’s cultured, sophisticated and at times extravagant life, and the efforts of various family members to salvage pieces of that life in exile.
The cleverly designed installation by Diller Scofidio + Renfro takes full advantage of the fact that the Jewish Museum was once a banker’s private residence, playing up the architectural features that have been in place since the museum was the Felix M. Warburg House so as to evoke the Ephrussi homes. (De Waal worked with DS+R’s Elizabeth Diller, as well as the Jewish Museum senior curator Stephen Brown and associate curator Shira Backer.)
The installation is also closely modeled on de Waal’s storytelling, with a sound component that matches displays to readings of excerpts. There are large sections on fin-de-siècle Paris and early-20th-century Vienna, where the Ephrussi family maintained palatial homes and was socially and financially on par with the Rothschilds. (They were also bankers, although the family business originated with grain distribution in Odessa.)
And like the book, the show keeps circling back to the netsuke — unveiling them in groups, with four different glass cases placed at intervals — to underscore the endurance of these objects across a century of violence, discrimination and dispossession.
Also placed throughout the galleries are images taken this year by the Dutch photographer Iwan Baan, showing the interiors of the former family residences in Paris, which now houses law and medical insurance offices, and Vienna, recently the headquarters of Casinos Austria and now partially unoccupied with a Starbucks on the ground floor. In an image from Paris, ornate cornices are barely visible above rows of filing cabinets and stacks of paper; in Vienna, gilded, chandelier-lit rooms have empty bookshelves and bare curtain rods. With their attention to the banality of the present, these photographs keep the show from becoming the kind of story de Waal is anxious to avoid, “some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss,” as he writes.
In the installation, as in the book, the story of the family’s collection unfolds from the late 19th century, and its most passionate art enthusiast: Charles Ephrussi, the Parisian art historian, critic, journal editor, Salon regular and friend to Degas and Manet. This distant relative of de Waal was so thoroughly enmeshed in artistic and literary circles that he appears in the background of Renoir’s famous painting “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” overdressed for the occasion in a dark jacket and top hat, and was said to be an inspiration for Proust’s character Charles Swann from “In Search of Lost Time.” These credentials did not stop the increasingly emboldened antisemites of his day from sniping at him, including Renoir, who described a Gustave Moreau painting in Charles’s collection as “Jew Art,” with an emphasis on its golden palette.
The Moreau is part of a salon-style installation here, which somewhat awkwardly combines actual paintings with sepia-tone reproductions. Mary Cassatt’s “At the Theater,” once in Charles’s collection and now at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, is here only as an image, as is Manet’s bundle of asparagus, commissioned by Charles (and part of a humorous exchange in which Manet, feeling that he had been overcompensated for the painting, sent Charles another painting of a single asparagus stalk). Berthe Morisot’s vigorously brushy “Young Girl in a Ball Gown” is on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, accompanied by a snippet of Charles’s writing on the artist: “She loves painting that is joyous and lively, grinds flower petals onto her palette in order to scatter them on her canvas with light and witty touches.”
The Viennese branch of the family, established by Charles’s uncle Ignace von Ephrussi, is the focus of another gallery of art and ephemera — much of it centered on the Palais Ephrussi, the “absurdly big” (in de Waal’s words) and equally opulent five-story home on the Ringstrasse designed by Theophil von Hansen, the architect of the Austrian Parliament. Hansen’s preparatory drawings for the building’s elaborate ceilings are on view, along with designs for the ceiling paintings Ignace commissioned from Christian Griepenkerl (the decorator of Vienna’s opera auditorium); among the scenes that adorned the ballroom are stories from the Book of Esther, in a nod to the family’s religious and cultural heritage.
Ignace did not seem to have the same kind of eye for the art of his time as his nephew Charles did, preferring old masters and later works in that style by Netherlandish, German and Austrian artists; among the examples on view are the German artist Balthasar Denner’s portrait of an old woman and a muted street scene from 1870 by the Dutch landscape painter Cornelis Springer. Ignace’s son — and de Waal’s great-grandfather — Viktor, who inherited the family business and the Palais Ephrussi, was more of a bibliophile. Viktor’s wife, Emmy, meanwhile, had a flair for fashion, as photographs attest. (In one she is dressed as the Renaissance noblewoman Isabella d’Este; in another she poses as a schoolmistress from a Chardin painting.)
Emmy was, however, the keeper of the netsuke, which she and Viktor had received as a wedding present from Charles and which she displayed in a vitrine in her dressing room. And according to family stories, it was Emmy’s maid, identified in de Waal’s book only as “Anna” — although the catalog of the Vienna exhibition suggests, intriguingly, that no such person existed — who protected the netsuke when the Gestapo marched into the Palais Ephrussi. She stashed them in her apron pocket and later hid them under her mattress. This show does not solve the mystery of Anna, or how the netsuke remained with the Ephrussis, but it presents document reproductions — including a meticulous Gestapo inventory of the family home — that make the extent and thoroughness of the looting painfully clear.
The war’s dispersal of the family, with Edmund’s grandmother Elisabeth (one of Emmy and Viktor’s children) landing eventually in England and her siblings taking up residence in America, Mexico and Japan, is represented in a cleverly designed gallery of family photographs surrounding a weathered attaché case. Many of them relate to Edmund’s great-uncle Iggie, a clothing designer turned banker who gave the netsuke a new home in Tokyo (incorporating them into fashionably Pan-Asian postwar interiors with low-slung sofas and Korean and Chinese artworks).
In general, the exhibition could have taken a more critical look at “Japonisme,” the West’s obsessive fascination with Japanese art and design objects, as de Waal does in his book. The show, in comparison, doesn’t tell us much about the netsuke or what they may have “witnessed” before Charles acquired them, as a 264-piece collection, from a Parisian dealer. By the time we get to the eponymous hare with amber eyes, in the final gallery, we can only marvel at the preciousness of its raised paw, tucked ears and ever-alert expression.
But as a family portrait, or a look at how collections evolve over generations, the museum version of “The Hare With Amber Eyes” is deeply moving. At a time of so much loss, isolation and separation, it’s heartening to see the Ephrussis reunited, with one another and with their art.
The Hare With Amber Eyes
Through May 15, the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave at 92nd St., (212) 423-3200; thejewishmuseum.org.
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