New York

View of “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” 2021–22. Photo: Iwan Baan.

View of “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” 2021–22. Photo: Iwan Baan.

“The Hare with Amber Eyes”

Based on writer and artist Edmund de Waal’s acclaimed 2010 memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, this show is a poignant history lesson about assimilation, anti-Semitism, dispersion, and exile. Images, objects, and words are deftly woven together to create a portrait of de Waal’s ancestors, the Ephrussis, a cosmopolitan Jewish banking family who famously owned a collection of Japanese netsuke—miniature carved sculptures from the Edo period, used to fasten pouches to the sashes of a kimonos. These exquisite items were passed down from generation to generation and traveled to different cities—Paris, Vienna, Tokyo, and finally to London, where de Waal now resides. Conceived by architect Elizabeth Diller, along with the Jewish Museum’s Stephen Brown and Shira Backer in collaboration with the author, this Wunderkammer-like exhibition contains art, ephemera, personal effects, and photos belonging to the family that reconstruct the style of their residences in Paris and Vienna. It additionally features an audio component with de Waal reading passages from his book and presents a group of large-scale pictures by Dutch photographer Iwan Baan taken in 2021 that capture the Ephrussis’ mansions in their current state.

In the first room of the show we meet Charles Ephrussi (1849–1905), an art historian who had a passion for Albrecht Dürer and who co-owned the Paris-based arts publication Gazette des Beaux-Arts. During the height of French Japonisme in the 1870s, he acquired 264 netsuke, which he displayed in a wooden cabinet in his Paris residence on the rue de Monceau. These delicate objects, carved from ivory, wood, and buffalo horn, depict fauna, warriors, naked women, monks, children at play, and even artisans busily at work. Exquisite, exotic, and sometimes erotic, meant to be preciously handled and caressed, they also embody something that was very dear to Ephrussi: his torrid liaison with Louise Cahen d’Anvers, the wife of a prominent French banker. It should be noted that Ephrussi inspired the character of Charles Swann in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913–27). The netsuke are displayed in the salon of Odette, Swann’s spouse, in the novel’s second volume and are described as “little animals of precious materials, her fetishes.”

In the book’s third volume, Proust refers to Édouard Manet’s painting Une botte d’asperges (Bunch of Asparagus), 1880—which was commissioned by Ephrussi but appears in this exhibition only as a sepia-toned photograph (the pandemic prevented a number of artworks from being loaned), alongside canvases by Claude Monet, Gustave Moreau, Berthe Morisot, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Hung salon style, these paintings attest to Ephrussi’s refined aesthetic vision. Yet, even though he was a patron of the avant-garde, Ephrussi moved within an increasingly hostile social climate. (At this time, art collecting by upper-class Jewish families was being stigmatized by virulently anti-Semitic critics because it was seen as a threat to France’s national identity.)

In 1899, the netsuke were given as a wedding gift by Ephrussi to his cousin Viktor and his fashionable young bride, Emmy, who took up residence in the enormous Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna, which we see via documentation in the exhibition’s second room. Yet there was no space for these petite objects within the opulent confines of this Austrian Palast, so they were relegated to a private setting: Emmy’s boudoir. While Charles Ephrussi found himself living in the anti-Semitic milieu of late-nineteenth-century Paris—a period that might be best emblematized by the hideous Dreyfus affair (1894–1906)—his Viennese cousins, only a few decades later, would be crushed by the Nazi regime. Eight letters in the show reveal how Nazi authorities stripped the family of all their properties and possessions. Only the little netsuke were salvaged, though no one is sure how. According to one story, a maid in the Palais Ephrussi concealed the objects in her mattress when the Gestapo arrived to take stock of what remained in the house (by that time, Viktor and Emmy had fled Vienna). The show’s namesake hare with amber eyes finally is revealed to us in a vitrine in the exhibition’s last room, next to a video projection featuring seventy-nine of the netsuke, sold at auction in 2018 with the proceeds donated to the UK-based Refugee Council. This generous gesture by Edmund de Waal, honoring his great-grandfather Viktor, who died a refugee in England, offers some consolation not only to his family, but to generations of Jews who suffered death, destruction, and dislocation under the Third Reich.

The enthusiasm inspired by the delicate, undeniable beauty of the netsuke, set here against the tragic circumstances underpinning the Ephrussi family’s losses, is inevitably shrouded in sorrow, prompting us to reflect on similarly wretched contemporary events. The issues surrounding this exhibition—the violent rejection of the Other, the destruction and expropriation of culturally significant artworks and objects (I am thinking of the actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of the Chinese in the Tibetan and Uyghur territories)—are grim reminders that humankind has utterly failed to understand, respect, and embrace inclusion.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.