Edmund de Waal is a potter, so sensitive to the fell of objects, to their place in a room, to their use. The little Japanese sculptures that give The Hare with Amber Eyes are purchased by a one of the great French collectors of Impressionist paintings. The netsuke sit in a glass case along with
Two fans by Pissarro, solidly constructed of painstaking small strokes. The Sisleys, the Seine and the telegraph wires and the sky in springtime, The barge near Paris, with that loafer in the lanes. And Monet’s flowering apple trees scaling a hill. And Renoir’s dishevelled little savage…* (67)
And a Morisot, and “another Morisot,” and “the other Renoirs,” and Cassatt, Degas, and later more of everything, including a Monet and, surprisingly, a pair of Gustave Moreaus, mythological scenes – Jason and Medea – done in gold and gauze, perhaps out of place among the Sisleys:
I realise that I am trying to police Charles’s taste. I am worried by gold and by Moreau.
The Moreaus actually made me warm to Ephrussi, and they eventually work on de Waal, too.
Charles buys what he likes. He is not buying art for the sake of coherence, or to fill gaps in his collection. (87)
So, also, somewhere among these paintings in Ephrussi’s study is a first-rate collection of Japanese lacquer boxes, a yellow armchair, and the netsuke in their vitrine, the case an object almost as interesting to the potter as the sculptures:
This is what I realize now I failed to understand about vitrines. I spent the first twenty years of my life as a potter earnestly trying to get objects out of the glass cases in which my pots were often placed in galleries and museums. They die, I’d say, behind glass, held in that airlock…
But the vitrine – as opposed to the museum’s case – is for opening. And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric. (66)
Incidentally, de Waal’s book must set some sort of record for the use of the word “vitrine.”
De Waal is foreshadowing the netsukes’ eventual move to Vienna as a wedding gift, where they find themselves in, if possible, more rarefied surroundings, making them a problem to be solved (brilliantly, it turns out, by the new bride). The objects are no longer handled by Charles’s artist friends but by the Ephrussi children who are allowed to play with them and arrange them while mama dresses. This kind of handling is also foreshadowing. It turns out actual life uses foreshadowing and other literary devices.
Charles Ephrussi’s Paris mansion is gone, but in Vienna, de Waal is able to tour the palace, to figure out the layout and distribute the furniture and art. Then the people – how do they use it?
All I can see is marble: there is lots of marble. This doesn’t say enough. Everything is marble… Everything in this place, I realise, is very shiny… This is aggressively golden, aggressively lacking in purchase. What was Ignace trying to do? Smother his critics? (124-5)
But then de Waal discovers, in the ballroom, ceiling paintings from the Book of Esther, “the only Jewish painting on the whole of the Ringstrasse,” “a long-lasting, covert way of staking a claim for who you are,” and he finds his way into this house and this family, his family.
* This passage is not written by de Waal but is from a letter by Jules Laforgue, who for a time worked as Ephrussi’s enthusiastic assistant. Jules Laforgue, one of the great French poets, inventor of vers libre, that Laforgue, yes.