My father was one of those people who always found things on the ground. Maybe it came from being over 6′ tall, but he was always looking at where he was walking. He’d find money in parking lots but mostly what he found were rocks. When he would go hunting with my brother, he would find little stones that he would pick up and bring home. They were never anything special, no gems or geological artifacts, just stones that felt good in the hand. He’d slip them into his pocket, reaching in occasionally too feel the shape of them. When he died while sleeping on the couch, he had a stone in his pocket, and I have it now.
Like him, I am always drawn to the tactile nature of objects, from the things I hold every day to paintings and sculpture. I never find money on the ground, but I do still pick up stones. I think that my love of the touch of things is probably why I became an art historian. Granted, museums never let you touch things (I used to stand with my hands behind my back to keep from getting myself into trouble,) but if a painting moved me, I would stare for hours at the brushstrokes and the texture of the paint. I would try to feel the works with my eyes.
Edmund de Waal is a potter, probably one of the most tactile of art practices. From my little experience throwing pots, it is something that is entirely done by touch. You have to wedge the clay until it feels ready to throw, determine if the clay has enough moisture (or too much) as you shape the form between your hands. When he inherited a large heirloom collection of of Japanese ivory and wood carvings called netsuke from his great uncle, he became interested in their history, not as valuable art, but as objects that were touched, admired, and had a history of their own.
His research traces the history of his family, the Ephrussis, whose fortunes began in Odessa, Russia and ended up becoming a very wealthy and powerful international empire through trading grain and banking. It is his great-great-uncle Charles Ephrussis, an art connoisseur, historian and collector who first purchases the collection of 264 netsuke at the end of the nineteenth century. Within his tale of opulent living and collecting comes the underlying darkness that continually haunts the Ephrissis family, their Jewishness. Beneath every success is the continuous reminder of “otherness” of the family, the only recent granting of citizenship and land ownership to Jews, the lightning-fast anti-semitism that arises over the least mis-step. A particularly ugly example comes from Auguste Renoir, who had long benefited from Charles’ support as patron and friend. Entering Charles’ apartment and seeing a recent purchase of a Gustav Moureau painting, writes to his friends of Charles’ “Jew attraction” to the gold in Moureau’s works.
The tension and fear grows steadily as the netsuke pass to Charles’ cousins Viktor and Emmy in Vienna. There they become private objects is Emmy’s dressing room, where her children hold and play with them as she dresses, and where each can become the starting point of one of Emmy’s stories. But this is mere background to the developing nightmare in Europe, as Victor and Emmy’s world, and the Ephrussis empire, is destroyed by the Nazi’s annexation of Austria and “Aryianization” policies. I found myself terrified for them (and thinking of my own family who, while not wealthy, lost everything, including their lives, to the Nazis) and waiting with dread for what would happen next. When the Nazis seized their home and property, it was only after they escaped Vienna that I thought about the netsuke.
Amazingly, the family’s devoted maid, thinking they were toys, smuggled them out of the home in the folds of her skirt and kept them safe in her mattress. When de Waal’s grandmother returned to Vienna to see what could be retrieved, the maid gave her the netsuke that she protected through the entire war. This, to me was the climax of the narrative, the miracle that kept this one legacy in the family. Each little object was safe and protected in the intimate space of a gentile woman who loved the jewish family she served for so many years and wanted to save the children’s toys.
Frankly, the rest of the tale felt like an extended denouement. His grandmother moves the family to England and de Waal’s great-uncle is given the netsuke when his company moves him to Japan, where they resume their role as art in a collector’s vitrine to be touched and admired. The pieces’ Japanese lineage emerges as they learn the names of the artists who produced them and his great-uncle lives a comfortable, smart life in Japan with a longtime partner, Buddhist, gay, and safe. When he dies, the netsuke pass to de Waal.
Throughout his tale is woven his own story as he researches the history of his family. de Waal tells us of his reactions to reading virulent anti-Semitic writings that mentioned or illustrated the experiences of the Ephrussis family. He describes the lure of tangential explorations and threaten the work of any researcher and his father’s tendency to magically produce more letters, journals and photographs he’d forgotten he had. He also talks about his grandmother’s shift toward the Anglican church and his siblings’ entry into the clergy in England.
In the end felt a little like his great-uncle and grandmother escaped their “otherness” by adopting the faiths and cultures of their new homes, an otherness that is part of de Waal’s heritage, but not his current life. Even the netsuke is away from home, and sitting, waiting to be touched, in a vitrine in London.