Earlier this year I read this beautifully written and illustrated book by Edmund de Waal. When the author inherited a collection of netsuke from a great uncle, he felt he had to know the history of the collection in his family. So this book combines family history with an examination of changing taste and art appreciation.
From it I’ve learned new ways of looking at and thinking about three dimensional art. I would never have thought to look at a pot or building and work out how much of the world it displaces, nor to look for
… the play between discretion and opulence, a sort of breathing in and breathing out of invisibility and visibility.
The language is rich and the descriptions, instead of flat statements, relate the items or rooms to their owners – as in describing a renaissance bed owned by Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of the author’s great-grandfather and the original purchaser of the netsuke.
… a lit de parade also hung with broderies. A high canopy with putti embowered in intricate patterns … a bed from which to rule a city state. What kind of young man would buy a bed like that?
Thus we learn a great deal about Charles’ character as a youth.
I love the descriptions of scholarship:
… a mad expense of days unspooling in the dimness of Periodicals.
and later in another library
… my stack of Gazettes builds around me, a tower of new questions …
The chapter about the rich dropping in on a series of salons on their way to purchase more pictures, furniture or bibelots for their collections reminded me of teenagers checking Twitter or Facebook before setting off on a shopping trip. Social networks on the web may not be much of a replacement for erudite conversation in a fashionable salon, but they probably fulfill much the same function.
From fashionable 19th century Paris the netsuke and their vitrine (a glass-panelled display case) travelled to fashionable Vienna as a wedding present to Charles’ cousin, Viktor von Ephrussi and his bride Emmy. Here too is a life of luxury and the best society.
The nesukes’ successive owners are not aristocracy. They are bankers and work hard to earn their luxuries.
But they are Jewish bankers and in the 20th century tragedy, fuelled by racism, awaits them and their lifestyle. The first world war and the following collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire costs them money. The second costs them everything. Fortunately many of the author’s relatives escape to Britain or America where they rebuild their lives on a more modest scale.
The netsuke returned, temporarily, to Japan with Great Uncle Ignace, before arriving in their current home in Britain. They have outlasted generations of owners, the collapse of empires, changes in fashion and several long journeys. They are still together, amusing, beautiful and full of variety.