Hare with Amber Eyes (de Waal)

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance
Edmund de Waal, 2010
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780312569372

Winner, 2010 Costa Book Award for Biography
Winner, 2011 Ondaatje Prize

Edmund de Waal is a world-famous ceramicist. Having spent thirty years making beautiful pots—which are then sold, collected, and handed on—he has a particular sense of the secret lives of objects. When he inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, called netsuke, he wanted to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive.

And so begins this extraordinarily moving memoir and detective story as de Waal discovers both the story of the netsuke and of his family, the Ephrussis, over five generations. A nineteenth-century banking dynasty in Paris and Vienna, the Ephrussis were as rich and respected as the Rothchilds. Yet by the end of the World War II, when the netsuke were hidden from the Nazis in Vienna, this collection of very small carvings was all that remained of their vast empire. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Nottingham, England, UK
Education—B.A., Cambridge University; post
   graduate studies, University of Sheffield
Awards—Costa Book Award; Ondaatje Prize
Currently—lives in London, England

Edmund Arthur Lowndes de Waal OBE is a British ceramic artist, and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). He has worked as a curator, lecturer, art critic and art historian and is a Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster, He has received several awards and honours for his work.

De Waal was born in Nottingham, England, the son of Rev. Dr Victor de Waal, later Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. His grandfather was Hendrik de Waal, a Dutch businessman who moved to England and from whom he got his distinctly Dutch family name. His grandmother Elisabeth was a member of the Ephrussi family, whose history he would chronicle in The Hare with Amber Eyes.

De Waal made his first pot at the age of five after persuading his father to take him to a ceramics evening class. He was educated at The King's School, Canterbury, where he was taught pottery by the potter Geoffrey Whiting, a disciple of Bernard Leach. Aged 17, de Waal obtained a place at Cambridge University and deferred entry to take up a two-year apprenticeship with Whiting. During the apprenticeship he repetitively made hundreds of pots, such as casseroles and honey pots, telling BBC radio interviewer John Tusa, "It’s a bit like doing scales as well—you’d never be surprised by a musician spending five years doing arpeggios, and there is a sense in a ceramic apprenticeship that that’s really what you’re doing."

In 1983, de Waal took up his place at Trinity Hall, Cambridge to read English, being awarded a scholarship in 1985 and graduating in 1986 with first class honours.

Following graduation de Waal followed the path he had decided upon before going up to Cambridge: to make inexpensive domestic pots with good earth colours. He moved to the Welsh borders where he built a kiln and set up a pottery making functional stoneware pots in the Leach tradition, but the enterprise was not successful. He moved to inner-city Sheffield and started to work with porcelain, describing it as “the great taboo material; it doesn't do any of the 'proper' work of a pot. In using it I was trying to find a way out."

In 1991 he obtained a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship, under which he spent a year obtaining a post-graduate diploma in Japanese language at Sheffield University and then another year continuing his study of the language in Japan. While in Japan he also worked on a monograph of Bernard Leach, researching Leach’s papers and journals in the archive room of the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum, and continued to make pots, porcelain jars with the pushed-in, gestural sides that were to epitomise his style.

On returning to Britain in 1993, de Waal began living in London and made his distinctive ceramics, porcelain with a celadon glaze. Their shapes were essentially classical but with indentations or pinches and subtle variations in tone and texture. The pots became very fashionable, and in 1995 he had his first of many solo exhibitions.

De Waal's book on Bernard Leach was published in 1998. He described it as "the first 'de-mystifying' study of Leach."

The great myth of Leach is that Leach is the great interlocutor for Japan and the East, the person who understood the East, who explained it to us all, brought out the mystery of the East. But in fact the people he was spending time with, and talking to, were very few, highly educated, often Western educated Japanese people, who in themselves had no particular contact with rural, unlettered Japan of peasant craftsman.

He noted that Leach did not speak Japanese and had looked at only a narrow range of Japanese ceramics. These opinions attracted criticism from some of Leach's followers.

His work remained broadly within the Anglo-Oriental tradition but he also studied the modernists, and the Bauhaus movement in particular. In visits to gothic cathedrals as a child de Waal had attended to small spaces within large buildings. While at university he began to consider how his work might help to re-order the interior space of the museums and art galleries he visited.

In his current work he has moved away from making single objects to the production of groups of objects to be viewed in relation to openings and spaces. Most of his work consists of cylindrical porcelain pots with pale celadon glazes. He believes that the East and West may meet in porcelain; for example, that there the ethos of China's medieval Sung Dynasty may encounter the modernist ethos of the Bauhaus.

His family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance was published in 2010. In it he tells the story of his relatives, the once wealthy Ephrussi family, through the history of a collection of Japanese netsuke sculptures that are handed down through the generations. As he notes in the book, the collection ended up back in Japan, through de Waall's great-uncle Ignace "Iggie" Ephrussi, who settled in Tokyo in 1947 and towards whom de Waall felt great affection. The book received critical acclaim including the Costa Book Award (Biography 2010) and Ondaatje Prize (2011).

De Waal, who has made installations for Chatsworth, Kettle's Yard, Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum, works and lives in West Norwood, south London. He is represented by the Alan Cristea Gallery, London and the New Art Centre, Wiltshire. He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2011 Birthday Honours for services to art.

In October 2011, de Waal was asked to choose and describe music that inspires him in his work. Speaking about music he described how...

you can get yourself into the loops of music... I did a huge porcelain wall—500 porcelain vessels—and there are rhythms in that wall that completely come out of baroque music. More recently there’s installations where things are in very minimalist, black lead-lined boxes, 12 of them in a row with the same number of vessels in each but they're arranged in different ways. That’s the porcelain equivalent of Steve Reich's systems music! It’s the same notes and the same tones repeated and just slightly different each time and it only makes sense if you’ve got all of it. One of them by itself is just a black box with a few pots in it.

The playlist includes Keith Jarrett, Johann Sebastian Bach, John Adams and Franz Schubert. (Author bio from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
The author was apprenticed as a potter…and his aesthetic sensibility extends to language: there is much wit and dramatic instinct to relish in these pages. But the intelligence and creativity with which de Waal constructs a family history are what make this special book so supremely ­winning.
Megan Buskey - New York Times

The Hare With Amber Eyes belongs on the same shelf with Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, Andre Aciman's Out of Egypt, and Sybille Bedford's A Legacy. All four are wistful cantos of mutability, depictions of how even the lofty, beautiful and fabulously wealthy can crack and shatter as easily as Faberge glass or Meissen porcelain—or, sometimes, be as tough and enduring as netsuke, those little Japanese figurines carved out of ivory or boxwood.
Michael Dirda - Washington Post

At one level [Edmund de Waal] writes in vivid detail of how the fortunes were used to establish the Ephrussis’ lavish lives and high positions in Paris and Vienna society. And, as Jews, of their vulnerability: the Paris family shaken by turn-of-the century anti-Semitism surging out of the Dreyfus affair; the Vienna branch utterly destroyed in Hitler’s 1937 Anschluss.... At a deeper level, though, Hare is about something more, just as Marcel Proust’s masterpiece was about something more than the trappings of high society. As with Remembrance of Things Past, it uses the grandeur to light up interior matters: aspirations, passions, their passing; all in a duel, and a duet, of elegy and irony.
Richard Eder - Boston Globe

A beautiful and unusual book...[and] unique memoir of [de Waal’s] family.... De Waal has a mystical ability to so inhabit the long-gone moment as to seem to suspend inexorable history, personal and impersonal.... A work that succeeds in several known genres: as family memoir, travel literature (de Waal’s Japan is the nearest thing to being there, and over decades), essays on migration and exile, on cultural misperceptions, and on de Waal's attempt to define his relationship with his own kaolin creations. His book is also a new genre, unnamed and maybe unnameable.
Veronica Horwell - Guardian (UK)

(Book of the Year.) From a hard and vast archival mass of journals, memoirs, newspaper clippings and art-history books, Mr. de Waal has fashioned, stroke by minuscule stroke, a book as fresh with detail as if it had been written from life, and as full of beauty and whimsy as a netsuke from the hands of a master carver. Buy two copies of his book; keep one and give the other to your closest bookish friend.

In this family history, de Waal, a potter and curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, describes the experiences of his family, the Ephrussis, during the turmoil of the 20th century. Grain merchants in Odessa, various family members migrated to Vienna and Paris, becoming successful bankers. Secular Jews, they sought assimilation in a period of virulent anti-Semitism. In Paris, Charles Ephrussi purchased a large collection of Japanese netsuke, tiny hand-carved figures including a hare with amber eyes. The collection passed to Viktor Ephrussi in Vienna and became the family's greatest legacy. Loyal citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Vienna Ephrussis were devastated by the outcome of WWI and were later driven from their home by the imposition of Nazi rule over Austria. After WWII, they discovered that their maid, Anna, had preserved the netsuke collection, which Ignace Ephrussi inherited, and he settled in postwar Japan. Today, the netsuke reside with de Waal (descended from the family's Vienna branch) and serve as the embodiment of his family history. A somewhat rambling narrative with special appeal to art historians, this account is nonetheless rich in drama and valuable anecdote.
Publishers Weekly

A duel, and a duet, of elegy and irony (Boston Globe), de Waal's extraordinary family memoir brings his forebears vibrantly to life. To augment his research, de Waal visited his surviving relatives and toured his ancestors' palatial homes, and these intimate explorations, relayed in self-assured and unsentimental prose, imbue his story with the solemn, awe-inspired air of a pilgrimage. The critics praised this sensitive and richly detailed history, particularly de Waal's powerful account of the Nazis' atrocities. While the San Francisco Chronicle, the sole voice of dissent, found de Waal's story boring, the Christian Science Monitor declared that "there isn't a dull moment" in it. The Hare with Amber Eyes—part biography, part travelogue, and altogether a rip-roaring good story—should appeal to readers as well.
Bookmarks Magazine

(Starred review.) Not only did ceramicist de Waal inherit an unusual collection—264 netsuke, miniature figures exquisitely carved in Japan—he was also given the key to the remarkable history of his father’s Russian-rooted, cosmopolitan Jewish family, the Ephrussi, who made a fortune exporting grain. Charles, a cousin of de Waal’s great-grandfather, acquired the netsuke just before the Japonisme craze crested in late-nineteenth-century Paris. A well-known collector and critic, an early champion of the impressionists, and the primary model for Proust’s Charles Swann, he gave his netsuke and vitrine, a customized glass display case, as a wedding gift to his Vienna-based first cousin, Viktor, and Emmy, his much younger, avidly fashionable wife. Their daughter, Elisabeth—a poet who exchanged letters with Rilke, a trail-blazing lawyer, and de Waal’s grandmother—rescued her family from the Nazis. Elisabeth’s brother Iggie, an intelligence officer, brought the collection back to Japan. As today’s keeper of the storied netsuke, famed artist and curator de Waal tells a spellbinding and perceptive tale of extraordinary accomplishment and loss, beauty and terror, reinvention and survival in an intricately dimensional, profoundly involving first book, a sensitive and astute inquiry into culture and family, inheritance and preservation, and the secret life of objects. —Donna Seaman

A nimble history of one of the richest European families at the turn of the century. De Waal, a notable London potter, is a descendent of the wealthy Ephrussi family. He seized on an inherited collection of Japanese netsuke—small decorative figures made out of wood or ivory—and traced its ownership down the family line, from patriarch Charles Ephrussi, originally from Odessa, to Great-Uncle Iggie, of Tokyo, who left the 264 elegant figures to the author upon his death in 1993. The family's fabulous wealth derived from the grain-trading business, operating between Paris and Vienna. Charles, who assembled the collection, was a dandyish art collector who settled in Paris at the age of 21, wrote art criticism and a book on Durer and patronized the early Impressionists. He was quite possibly the real-life character on whom Proust modeled his Charles Swann. Subsequently, the netsuke was given to Charles's cousin Viktor on the occasion of his wedding in 1899—just at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, when French anti-Semitism burst forth in full force—and the collection passed to Vienna, where the family resided at the surpassingly beautiful Ephrussi Palais on the Ringstrasse. Anti-Jewish feeling pervaded all facets of their lives, and two world wars wreaked havoc on the Ephrussi fortune. Eventually the netsuke was saved from the rapacious hands of the Nazis by a servant who stuffed it in her mattress. De Waal keeps a pleasantly ironic tone throughout this remarkable journey and nicely handles the clutter of objects and relatives. The roster of characters is daunting at first, but this narrative proves a marvelously absorbing synthesis of art history, detective story and memoir.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Charles, like the rest of Paris, became swept up in the fad of "japonisme", which led to the original purchase of the netsuke. What did these objects represent to their collectors in the Belle Epoque?

2. In addition to his passion for Durer and the Old Masters and Japanese art, Charles radically embraced the Impressionists. What did he love about that new style? Which of these art spheres seems most quintessentially "Charles"?

3. Did you develop any new impressions of the major French art figures—Degas, Renoir, Proust—in light of their interaction with Charles?

4. How did the relationship between collector, patron, and artist evolve from Charles's Paris to Viktor's Vienna to Iggie's Tokyo? Where does Edmund fall in these roles?

5. The word "insatiability" was used by anti-Semites as a way to propagandize against Jewish families' material success. Why does this word become such a slur? How might the term apply more positively to collectors of things—and stories?

6. Why did Charles give away his beloved netsuke to Viktor and Emmy?

7. Edmund remarks on the coldness and lack of texture in the Palais at Vienna. What do the differences between Charles's salon in Paris and Viktor's grand Palais say about the two men?

8. Do you agree with Edmund's assessment that the netsuke need not go back to Japan; that their travels and stories have given them an identity of their own?

9. Are stories more important than objects in a family legacy? How are they related?

10. The Ephrussi patriarch Charles Joachim had a vision for his family, but it was dependent upon the future generations' aptitude and willingness. How do the Ephrussi childrens' responses to their "calling" vary? How does Edmund's book fit into the Ephrussi legacy?

11. You've likely read many accounts of Nazi raid and Jewish persecution at the start of the occupation, but did anything surprise you or stand out in this account of the takeover of the Palais?

12. Viktor and Emmy received vague warnings about the coming threats and were encouraged to flee their home. Would you have been able to walk away from such history and treasures without knowing what was ahead?

13. Viktor essentially sacrificed the Ephrussi dynasty for the sake of his new home country, Austria. Do you think anti-Semetic pressure drove him to become a perfectly loyal citizen, or did Viktor's allegiance represent his true feeling?

14. Edmund originally thought that all the Ephrussi "vagabonding" stemmed from a desire to develop culturally and grow from the provincialism of Odessa. But he realized that Odessa itself was a very culturally rich city. Why do you think it was so important for the Ephrussis to send tendrils of their families to different cities?

15. Why do you think Iggie renounced his American citizenship, a purely symbolic act?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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