On ViewThe Jewish Museum
November 19, 2021 – May 15, 2022
The Jewish Museum’s present show is a spinoff of The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, the best-selling book from 2010 by the British ceramicist and writer Edmund de Waal, an elegant, erudite, auto-biographical, and equal parts devastating and elevating family memoir. Designed by Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro and curated by Stephen Brown and Shira Backer in collaboration with the book’s author, the exhibition documents through 450 objects the rise, fall, and perseverance of the Odessan grain-merchants-turned-bankers Ephrussi family over a century and across three continents, and the odysseys of their prized possessions. The book is great—a ripping yarn that is part historical sleuthing and part moving testament to human and cultural loss, another necessary recording of the comprehensively murderous and ruthlessly bureaucratic destruction of Jewish life and culture by the Nazis. While in the genre of family chronicles and documentation of historical circumstance through revelatory research, the story’s distinctive element is that the stimulus for de Waal’s passion project was 264 netsuke, Japanese Edo period miniature sculptures. These had been bought in Paris by Charles Ephrussi at the dawn of the Japonisme rage of the second half of the nineteenth century, then gifted to Ephrussi’s nephew Viktor—de Waal’s great-grandfather—in Vienna to celebrate his wedding. They miraculously survived the Nazis’ confiscation of Ephrussi property, and then found their way to de Waal’s great-uncle Ignace in Tokyo. On his death they were left to de Waal in London, who procured a deaccessioned vitrine from the Victoria and Albert Museum to house them. It is a particular pleasure of the exhibition to see that glazed bronze case in the final room of the show and, within it, the eponymous white hare with smoldering eyes.
The exhibition is laid out in six rooms that chronologically trace the Ephrussi family tree. There is no catalogue, so all interpretive material comes from wall text. The audio tour consists solely of de Waal reading passages from the book not specifically keyed to the displays, and received through unwieldy apparatuses such that most visitors, like me, gave them up in gallery three: museums, let us have the option to use our own devices! There is an introductory room with a family tree on the wall and the first of three table-height cases of netsuke along with a printed key to identify each one and, if known, their maker, and then a small dark room where you can watch and hear de Waal read from the book on a monitor. The third gallery finds us in Paris in the late-19th century and the world of the aesthete, collector, publisher, art historian, and bon vivant Charles Ephrussi. This was the most engaging section of the book, as de Waal tracked down his ancestors’ various addresses and collections. There are color photographs by Iwan Baan of the present state of the former Hôtel Ephrussi, grandiose spaces intact but for the life spirit that formerly inhabited them, their architectural features evident under whitewash, like the very rooms on the second floor of the former Warburg mansion that house this show. One wall features five paintings and six scaled reproductions of largely Impressionist works from Charles’s collection. Opposite is a large wall with four more paintings above, including Léon Bonnat’s Holbein-like portrait of Charles, and below, glazed wooden shelves containing books and photographs. In the center of the room, in a reprise of the display in gallery one, is another case of netsuke.
It comes as a disappointment that the art in the show is not treated with much reverence, as it is in the book, but more as items in this faux-domestic mise en scène. For example, here was a chance for an audience perhaps unfamiliar with this sculptural genre to learn about netsuke, but the interpretive information about them is limited to a few lines of wall text conveying their use as fasteners and listing their subjects, largely from the animal and human worlds: “portable artworks, fashion accessories, and curious conversation pieces…tactile objects of wonder and desire,” which could just as well describe brooches. The flat-topped rectangular cases are low to the ground—perhaps to afford children a better view? But this means adults must bend over to see the works from any perspective other than directly above, especially the ones in the middle of the cases. And there are no distinctions made in terms of quality, subject, authorship, or dating. Naturally, de Waal goes deeper into their histories and iconographies in the book, but it is frustrating to see them in person and to learn so little. And there is no mention of why that hare in the final room, by Masatoshi from ca. 1880—making it contemporary with the Renoirs and Morisots in gallery three—is more distinctive than the others and earns its titular position. The most suggestive elements of de Waal’s tale, that might have been incisively presented in this show, and that most connect to his own fine art practice, feel neglected.
In the Paris room, there are ghostly reproductions of Manet still lifes and Degas dancers displayed in a Salon hang on a wall, but the greatest painting in the show, Gustave Moreau’s important Jason (1865) on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, is given no mention, except to be identified on the wall text key. Yet this was a great revelation in the book: that public acceptance of nouveau-riche Jews began to wane in the period and that works by artists such as Moreau became associated with decadence, ostentation, and Jewishness in the minds of anti-Semites such as Renoir and Degas, the former writing, “Ah that Gustave Moreau, to think he is taken seriously, a painter who never even learnt how to paint a foot… It was clever of him to take in the Jews, to have thought of painting with gold colours… Even Ephrussi fell for it, who I really thought had some sense!” Renoir’s noxious idea of “Jew art” warrants a mention and some unpacking in this show, in this venue, in our own years of rising anti-Semitism and intolerance, especially since the advanced nature of Moreau’s practice has become more fully understood, most recently in a grand show at the Metropolitan Museum in 1999.
In gallery four, the Vienna room, there are Baan photographs of the present state of the Medici-scale Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse, but the rooms are not identified. I spied one of the ballroom and its ceiling paintings by Christian Griepenkerl of Jewish subjects from the Book of Esther, the kind of thing taboo in synagogue decoration and risky in late-19th century Jewish home décor. As de Waal notes, “It is a long-lasting, covert way of staking a claim for who you are. The ballroom is the only place in a Jewish household—however grand, and however rich you might be—that your Gentile neighbours would ever see socially. This is the only Jewish painting on the whole of the Ringstrasse” (125). Across the gallery in the wall case are Griepenkerl’s original watercolor designs, displayed on a shelf and partially in shadow, with none of their heroic Jewish subjects cited on the wall label. Griepenkerl was a German-born professor at the Vienna Academy, an appropriate choice for the Danish-born architect Theophil Hansen’s Renaissance-style palace. But the radical nature of this commission, in the context of a Christian Austro-Hungarian culture that wealthy Jews were desperate to assimilate into, is elided here: another missed opportunity to tease out a deep and intriguing story from the family’s fine art holdings. But the most interesting artworks in this room are 12 diminutive and very beautiful pen-and-ink Jugendstil portraits of family members by the famed architect Joseph Maria Olbrich (1903) that de Waal’s father had surprised him with at a late stage in his research. These are displayed on two rear upper shelves above head height in the massive wall unit that dominates the room and next to a gigantic Torah shrine or ark curtain made from an Ephrussi wedding gown. They are behind reflective glass and impossible to see.
Around a wall of Viktor and Emmy Ephrussi’s largely middling Austrian and German pictures is a devastating section titled “Debacle”—the only place with object labels. It grippingly traces the Nazi confiscation of Ephrussi property and possessions through facsimile documentation and photographs. The remaining two rooms present family documents and material related to Tokyo and then in the final room de Waal’s case with netsuke, in addition to projected images of the 79 netsuke from the collection that were auctioned off in 2018 to support a charity that works with refugees.
The above may seem small quibbles regarding a deeply-researched show that brings to life a celebrated book and a history that must never cease to be reiterated, in spaces that effectively evoke the domestic environs where de Waal’s ancestors once lived and that housed the netsuke, those potent objects of accrued memory and time. The show recalls moving films about collections and family histories such as Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours (L’heure d’été, 2008), and the ruination wrought by the Nazis on affluent and culturally savvy Jews such as István Szabó’s epic Hungarian lament, Sunshine (1999). But the Jewish Museum is a collection-based institution whose temporary exhibitions, no matter the topic, are based in art, objects, and media. The Ephrussi/de Waal story is boldly and grippingly adapted here. But it is the objects, the very reason that de Waal commenced his earnest, worthy, and compelling genealogical and literary quest, that are left strangely muted.