The latest installation from the Jewish Museum tells the story of a vanished world. But a series of entirely contemporary photographs are among the most striking objects on display.
Captured by Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan, the photos show a series of opulent rooms filled with mundane everyday objects. A hand sanitizer dispenser stands guard at the foot of a vast marble staircase. The rococo murals are partially obscured by red filing cabinets. Near a window overlooking a spacious courtyard, a roaring radiator hums. Currently, the mansion distinguished in these photographs houses a medical insurance agency. But a little over a century ago, it was the Hotel Ephrussi, the Parisian home of one of the most influential Jewish families in Europe and the inspiration for this exhibition, “The Hare in the Eyes of ‘amber”.
If you think you’ve encountered this particular hare before, you’re on to something. The exhibition is based on a memoir of the same name from 2010 by British ceramist Edmund de Waal, a descendant of the famous Ephrussi family. The story of his ancestors begins in Odessa in the 19th century, where Charles Joachim Ephrussi made his fortune in the grain trade. Her newly wealthy children scattered across Europe. They founded banks. They built lavish homes in capitals like Paris and Vienna. (Some of their old homes are tourist attractions today.) They blunted their pushy character by becoming patrons of the arts and amassing vast collections. In their heyday, the Ephrussians rivaled the Rothschilds in wealth and prestige.
But during World War II, the Nazis confiscated most of the family’s property and possessions, and the Ephrussians again dispersed, landing in Britain, Mexico and Japan. In his memoir, De Waal traces this story through a collection of netsuke, tiny Japanese ornaments carved from ivory and wood to resemble people and animals – rats, horses, oxen and, like the title indicates, particularly striking hares. Small and portable, the netsuke were among the few works of art that escaped the attention of the Nazis and remained in family hands throughout the war.
De Waal’s family story is based on and rejoicing in objects, trusting them to tell the stories their owners can no longer tell. The exhibition too. Created by design firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro (known for their work on The High Line), it features Waal’s netsuke alongside art and artifacts from the European mansions where they once resided.
Visitors begin their visit in a room decorated to resemble the Hotel Ephrussi, which in the late 1800s housed another Charles of the family, this one the grandson of the cereal paterfamilias. Armed with good taste and plenty of money, Charles made a name for himself as well living, so much so that his friend Marcel Proust used him as a model for Charles Swann, the urban art critic at the center of “In Search of Lost Time”. A selection of netsuke is displayed on a center table, while the books, letters, and furniture lining the walls evoke Charles’ glittering social life. I was captivated by an exquisite still life by Manet, a bunch of asparagus for which Charles considerably overpaid; in recognition of his generosity, the artist sent him another canvas with a single additional spear.
Charles acquired the netsuke in the 1870s, when he lived in the Ephrussi hotel. In 1899 he gave them as a wedding present to his cousin Viktor, a descendant of the Austrian branch of the family and de Waal’s great-grandfather. The following gallery shows what the netsuke might have looked like in Ephrussi Palace, Viktor’s home on Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse. Charles displayed the netsuke for guest performers to admire; in Vienna, Viktor’s wife, Emmy, placed them in her dressing room, where her four children played with them as she got ready for the day with the help of her maid, Anna. The bedroom reflects the opulent comforts of family life for these Ephrussians. On the walls, canvases of Dutch masters jostle each other with posed family portraits and a snap of Emmy strolling down the Ringstrasse, dressed in a walking costume that it probably took an hour to put on. An entire wall is covered with an elaborate Torah curtain made, as was tradition, from a bridal wedding train.
Of course, the stability and prosperity of the family collapsed with the Anschluss of 1938. Shortly after entering Vienna, the Nazis arrested Viktor, forced him to give up his property and looted his home. . According to family tradition, Anna, informed that she could no longer work for the Jews and tasked with organizing the confiscated property of her employers, hid the netsuke. After World War II, as the family began the painstaking legal process of recovering lost art and property, they returned them to Viktor’s son, Iggie. He exhibited the sculptures, once his childhood toys, in his Tokyo home, where he lived with his partner for 40 years. When he died, he bequeathed them to de Waal, his grand-nephew.
“The Hare with the Amber Eyes” tells a story of immense wealth, and that is part of its appeal. It’s fun to spend a morning wandering vicariously between European mansions, examining things you can’t even aspire to own, before heading back to the metro. But for the Ephrussians, as the exhibition shows, financial abundance does not eliminate social precariousness. To a museum lover with a background, the precarious position of the family seems obvious from the start. In the room dedicated to the Parisian hotel Ephrussi, original works from the family collection are surrounded by sepia images of paintings they might have owned or encountered, such as Renoir’s iconic “Little Irene”. Renoir himself, De Waal notes in an audio tour of the exhibition, did not hesitate to denigrate his boss; he laughed at the Symbolist paintings Charles collected as “Jewish art.”
The photographs of the Ephrussi Hotel are the most pointed allusions to the disappearance of the family. Offering a visual lesson in how a seemingly still dynasty can fall into modern obscurity, they push the exhibition beyond voyeurism and make it a warning. When the Ephrussians needed protection the most, their wealth did not help them.