The exhibition The hare with amber eyes It comes out of a book that was once a legacy. As in the game of matrioskas or mirrors, the exhibition on the Ephrussi family at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, open until May 15, offers a detailed account of their life events, but at the same time presents a journey through the most outstanding of art history late 19th century. It was then that the Ephrussi knew splendor before the Nazis dispossessed them of everything beautiful they possessed, including their roots.
The exhibition of the Jewish Museum, exquisite and intimate as a cameo or a chamber quartet, is based on the book that a descendant of the Ephrussi family, Edmund de Waal, published in 2010 with the same title and that was edited in Spanish by Siruela. De Waal’s story came about after he inherited from a Tokyo-based great-uncle a collection of natsuke, delicate carved miniatures from the Edo period (17th-19th centuries) that were originally used for the attire of kimonos. One of them, the one that gives title to the book and to the exhibition, was a lively reproduction of that animal, which left the author dazzled when he was 17 years old, when he saw it for the first time.
The vicissitudes of this family collection of more than 200 wooden and ivory figurines, none of them larger than a box of matches, hold the memory of the most luminous and also most atrocious moments in the history of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. . From the spleen from Proust’s Paris to Nazi horror, passing through the lives in exile in America or Japan of the different members of the family, fleeing the persecution of the Jews, to the London workshop of the potter and writer De Waal.
The New York sample is short, but substantial. There are works by Fragonard, Monet, Renoir, and Moreau; decorative arts, documentary material; manuscripts and the 168 miniatures still in the possession of the family of a group that once made up 264. The objects relate the rise and splendor of the Ephrussi throughout the 19th century, when the esthete and art historian Charles Ephrussi (1849- 1905) formed the bulk of the collection; the bleak Interwar period, with increasingly rampant anti-Semitism, and finally World War II, which meant the loss of fortune and collection due to Nazi looting. As interesting as the paintings are the photographs, the faiths of life or the travel documents that portray the battered existence of the family. The New York show is based on the exhibition The Ephrussi: travel back in time, organized by the Jewish Museum in Vienna and which closed its doors in March 2020, just before the pandemic.
All the culture that goes with you awaits you here.
Originating from a shetl (a majority Jewish town) in Russia, the Ephrussi made their fortune in Odessa by trading grain and later as bankers in Vienna, where they left a first architectural mark: the imposing palace that bears their name on the Ringstrasse. Around 1860 they moved to Paris. The French capital was his particular path of Swann: Charles, the heir, not inclined towards the world of finance and yes to that of dilettantism, was the real character on which the writer Marcel Proust was based for the character of Charles Swann of In Search of Lost Time.
Charles Ephrussi Swann, grandson of the founder of the dynasty, he was a regular at Parisian salons and parties; Mentor to Manet, Degas, Renoir and Monet, many of whose paintings he acquired. Some can be seen in the exhibition; others, lost to Nazi looting, only through sepia copies. Charles also encouraged, as a regular publisher and firm, the Gazette of Fine Arts, reference for decades. And he was the introducer of japonesism in France in that period, when he completed his collection of natsuke.
The interior of the Jewish Museum, the creaking wooden floors, chandeliers and majestic ceilings that characterize the rich mansions of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, evokes the environment in which the social and economic rise of the Ephrussi of Vienna unfolded. imperial to his residence next to the Parc Monceau in Paris. Fragments of De Waal’s book, read by the author himself, envelop the visitor in the atmosphere of nostalgia and at the same time consanguineous warmth that runs through the entire exhibition. The objects act as narrators, as symbols of resistance and landmarks of destiny. In the center of each of the three large rooms, the 168 tiny natsuke from De Waal’s private collection. Another 79 were auctioned in 2018, benefiting a British NGO helping refugees and asylum seekers. A nod to the wandering existence of a dynasty whose memories finally find rest, even temporarily, within the walls of an old New York mansion, not too different from those that housed all their broken dreams.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.