Friday, September 09, 2011

‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’ by Edmund de Waal

9 September 2011

Netsuke are the tiny carved fasteners that were used to secure cords to traditional robes in 17th century Japan. These intricately carved pieces of ivory, boxwood or metal are miniature sculptures that became highly valued as works of art. ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’ by Edmund de Waal is an unusual and enthralling family history which focuses on a collection of netsuke bought in the late 19th century and handed down through generations of the author’s family. The wealthy Jewish Ephrussi family, originally from Russia, settled across Europe in the second half of the 19th century and, much like their contemporaries the Rothschilds, established a network of banks. The collection of netsuke are bought by Charles Ephrussi in Paris in the 1870s. Charles was a patron of the arts who commissioned works by many of the most famous impressionists – and appears as a figure in the background of some well-known paintings. Indeed the whole Ephrussi family has a Zelig-like ability to appear in the background of major historical events. Charles passed the netsuke, as a wedding present, to his nephew Victor in turn of the century Vienna where they go on to witness the trauma of two world wars. From here the netsuke end up returning to Japan, with Edmund de Waal’s great uncle Iggie, illuminating a fascinating account of post-war Japan. The book is like an extended episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and the story of the Ephrussi family provides a compelling insight into European and Jewish history. Edmund de Waal is a potter and the netsuke are more than a mere device for him: he writes enthusiastically about the objects themselves and the artistry involved in their creation. Throughout the book he focuses on works of art, furniture and architecture as well as the personal and political history of his family. For me, the early chapters on Paris in the 1870s felt a little slow because of this fascination with the objects his ancestor commissioned and collected. But once we reached Vienna and the First World War the narrative became truly gripping. ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ is an amazing true story told in an interesting and artistic way.



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