Sunday, 2 October 2011

Nothing impressionistic about hatred of Jews

There he is. Charles Ephrussi. In the black top hat at the back of Renoir's 1881 painting Luncheon of the Boating Party. Charles loves art, collects it, writes about it, surrounds himself with it. He's the scion of a rich banking family. He employs Proust as his secretary at one stage in his life. He's a flaneur and a socialite and a womaniser. It's the final decades of the 19th century and Charles buys a collection of Japanese sash toggles - netsuke (pronounced NAY-tsu-kay) - with his lover but he's a bit tired of them now so he gifts them to a nephew in Vienna who has just got married. In Vienna at the Palais Ephrussi, the Austrian branch of the family is a bit embarrassed about the gift and the nephew's new wife relegates the showcase to the dressing room. Here, each day in the evening, while Emmy dresses for dinner, the children will be allowed to play with the objects for an hour. For decades the netsuke remain there, sequestered away from the public's gaze in plush comfort. Then the catastrophe arrives after Hitler annexes Austria and the Gestapo arrive to Aryanise the household. Everything is lost. Emmy and her husband eventually get out, Viktor ending up in England with his daughter Elizabeth, whose grandson will one day inherit the netsuke.

He is Edmund de Waal, an English potter. The gift comes from his uncle Iggy, a rich expatriate who lives in Tokyo and who took the netsuke there from England after WWII when he was demobilised. Edmund will end up practising his craft out of a studio in London but he has other accomplishments that enable him to write a book about the netsuke and their history. Edmund has also studied literature at Cambridge and, importantly, he knows French and German. With the 264 netsuke in his possession, Edmund sets out on what he thinks will be a few months of research but it turns into a multi-year quest to chronicle the story of the netsuke and the people who came into contact with them. They are objects to be touched, and touch implies people doing the holding, and people implies societies that nurture and punish them.

What de Waal does is to write a history of anti-semitism from the middle of the 19th century to WWII. Anti-semitism began a long time before Hitler began to mobilise the masses in his quest for total global domination. It was present in Paris while the Impressionists were painting their most important work. It was present during the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a product of the new status afforded to Jews by enlightened European rulers who, in the new spirit animating Europe since the American Revolution, took it upon themselves to dismantle old barriers to full participation in civil and commercial society as they remodelled legal frameworks that embodied social structures and prejudices dating back centuries. In England, the Catholic Church was reanimated due to changes made to laws that had been in place for hundreds of years. In France, full citizenship was granted to Jews for the first time. The Ephrussis of Odessa took advantage of these changes to move west, where they took up residence within the growing economies they had previously dealt with only from the sidelines, along with the Rothschilds and other rich Jewish families originating in the East. But there was a backlash from people who resented the wealth these families commanded and these people animated others to protest, which led in the end to the Final Solution. In his book de Waal describes this progress from ugly undercurrent to official policy by concentrating on the people who had owned and loved the netsuke.

Because they are objects with an aesthetic value de Waal is able to depict these individuals in detail as he describes the special relationship between the owner of the objects and the objects themselves. Anti-semitism is an inescapable element of life and so it enters the narrative at multiple points through the years. In promotional videos and reviews of the book this aspect may not feature prominently but this is the most insistent theme it bears. It emerges time and again as shouts in the street, magazine headlines, comments written by an artist in a letter to a friend. In the end this vocal tide of hate and fear ends up destroying the Ephrussi family in the form it had taken from the time of its migration out of Odessa into the big European cities which provided the massive profits it used to fund its lavish lifestyle. Again and again de Waal notes the existence of these voices expressing displeasure. Again and again the sound of crowds enters the story. There are only 264 netsuke but there were millions of people who benefited from the inhuman crackdown that Germany inflicted on Jews in Europe from 1938 onwards. Surely de Waal must regret many things that he has investigated.

It was de Waal in a YouTube video who mentioned the Renoir painting that I have attached to this post. When I look at it I cannot help but wonder how many of those happy boaters would one day turn on the likes of the debonair Charles Ephrussi in order to undertake the systematic process of tearing his life apart. This is the canonical moment that I experience from reading de Waal's book, Hare With Amber Eyes. Please do so if you value the unusual and the beautiful.

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