Cheryl's Reviews > The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
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's review
Sep 17, 12

bookshelves: art-history, family-memoir
Read in August, 2012

Suppose you inherited a collection of Japanese miniatures that have been in your family for a century. What would you do with a treasure of 264 exquisitely carved wood and ivory nutsukes that had been Ephrussi owned for five generations?

Edmund de Waal began THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES: A FAMILY'S CENTURY OF ART AND LOSS with, "I realize how much I care about how this hard and soft, losable object has survived." And with the permanence of the netsukes will come the story of de Waal's ancestors and the history of art, literature, architecture, politics, wars and migrations that have lead him to his home in England.

Besides the artistic appreciation of the intricately carved netsukes, they served a practical purpose when invented in 17th century Japan. Pockets were absent in traditional kimonos, so netsukes were made to store tobacco, money, or medicines toggled on cords hanging from the waist of the robes. But to de Waal who enjoyed turning them over in his hand and carrying a favorite in his pocket each day, the netsuke was beyond the practical. They linked him with his descendants, where they had lived, how they had thrived and eventually what they lost.

The collection was acquired by Charles Ephrussi in 1870. The 23 year old bought the entire nutsuke collection while experiencing the Grand Tour through the canon of Renaissance art. Charles lived in Paris at 81 rue de Monceau at the family owned Hotel Ephrussi. Charles' priviledged life included invitations to the principal salons of the day despite his young age and ethnicity. He was a friend of Marcel Proust and was the probable model for the Charles Swann character.

Charles witnessed the Dreyfus Affair unfold with fabricated evidence finally dismissed after Dreyfus served twelve years on Devil's Island. Emile Zola and others were accused of overthrowing natural justice and being Jewish first and French second. Zola fled to Great Britain, an escape from the growing anti-Semitism in France.

In 1899 Charles gave the netsuke collection to his cousin Viktor and wife, Emmy as a wedding present. The gift was delivered to the Palais Ephrussi on Vienna's Ringstrasse just 400 yards from the front door of Freud's apartment. Franz Josef proposed the majestic avenue, home to an opera house, theatre, museums, a Parliament and university. It was on "the grandest public space in Europe" that Viktor and Emmy lived. It is also where the young Adolf Hitler spent hours painting the great buildings around the Ring.

Hitler would return to Vienna in triumph, riding in an open car around the Ringstrasse. The Anschluss would be legitimized by the citizens, and a time of terror for the Jewish people would begin with the loss of liberty, possessions and their lives. As de Waal re-lives this horrific time, he weeps.

What happened to the netsuke collection during the Holocaust? Who survived the conflagration, and to what ends of the earth did they wander? The family memoir continues in Mexico, Japan, the US, Russia and finally England. This powerful story of a Jewish family over a century satisfies on many levels. It is a reminder of the horrors of fascism, the consequences of innocence lost and what remains, and a detective story of five generations of a family.

As de Waal says, "Netsuke are small and hard. They are hard to chip, hard to break: each one is made to be knocked around in the world." These words describe a beautiful art object and a noble people. Highest Recommendation!

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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Susie (new)

Susie Chalom I'm just starting to read this and I'm finding the beginning a bit slow. I'm plodding along because it was highly recommended by someone I respect.

message 2: by Cheryl (last edited Mar 16, 2013 11:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Cheryl I remember thinking at the outset that the author's voice was more deliberate than simple entertainment. Initially, I wasn't sure my focus could be held with the author's knowledge level, but eventually more than my intellect was engaged, and I was rewarded for the journey. Thanks for letting me know how you are doing with the story.

message 3: by Trish (new) - added it

Trish Feehan Thanks for the recommendation, Cheryl. Looking forward to reading this!

Cheryl You're welcome, Trish and take along an eye for history of this period and curiosity of how these objects endured.

message 5: by Tanya (new) - added it

Tanya Off on a 2 1/2 plane trip between Perth and Adelaide with the amber eyed rabbit under my arm.

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