Even after nearly a decade, the still-surprising success and readers’ continuing adulation of the award-winning 2010 memoir The Hare with the Amber Eyes (historian and ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s reflections on a long-past world, and his search for his own Jewish family, the Ephrussis, wealthy aesthetes and art patrons steeped in the literary and visual culture of late 19th c. Paris and Vienna) is at least partly responsible for his high visibility in the art world.
This is a very good thing for those who know at first glance that de Waal’s reputation is well-deserved. Through his groupings of pottery, housed in beautiful vitrines of his own design, as well as site-specific installations intended to interact with the environment or its purpose as a library, chapel, concert hall or gallery, multi-leveled layers of meaning emerge. In these, the pottery whose dimpled imperfections, subdued monochrome color and minimal shapes—referencing his grasp of Oriental decorative arts and philosophy – are transformed, becoming vessels of suggestion, that impress and move.
A great-grandson of the Ephrussi patriarch, the banker and financier Viktor, grandchild of English novelist Elizabeth Ephrussi, and the son of an Anglican clergyman, de Waal has inherited his ancestors’ rarefied taste and passion for Japanese art and crafts—embodied by the exquisite little carved hare in the now famous family collection of 264 netsuke, ivory and wood figures that adorn the kimono sash or obi.
Despite tremendous wealth, assimilation and erudition, the Ephrussis could not escape from the continually escalating cloud of anti-Semitism which enveloped Europe from the turn of the 19th century. In 1938, its Viennese home, the Ephrussi Palace, with its books, furniture and art, was seized by the Nazis, while the family scattered to all continents, losing awareness of its past. It was “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” that brought them together again.
And what of the netsukes? Hidden by a servant, the collection survived intact through the war. As a student in Japan, the young De Wall saw them displayed in the home of his uncle Iggie, who had settled in Tokyo, and who would bequeath them to the young man.
Complimenting the 2019 museum installations of de Waal’s own work in Madrid, Venice, New York, Berlin and Dresden—all touching on the themes of exile and immigration—will be the display of 157 of the netsukes themselves, as part of the exhibition called “The Ephrussis: Travel in Time” at Vienna’s Jewish Museum through March 8, 2020, opened last month by Austria’s president, Alexander Van der Bellen, and attended by 41 Ephrussi family members. The show’s contents focus on selections from the donation made to the museum last year by Mr. de Waal and includes archival documents, photos and souvenirs.
Another highly desirable acquisition has just been made in America, by the University of Texas at Austin’s amazing Ransom Center, whose holdings now include the complete archive of 20th century master, playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005), author of such classics as “Death of a Salesman,” “All My Sons” and “The Crucible,” works that changed the course of the American theater. Despite their settings, either in the post-World War II era or in a time that calls up the pressing issues of the 1940s and 50s, younger audiences can still identify with their themes of generational conflict, and the moral imperative that must be adhered to—even by the most ordinary of people.
Along with prior gifts from Miller himself, this now-unified 300 box collection of his personal and professional papers is considered the primary record for research and study into his life and work, from his earliest writing as a son of poor immigrants at the University of Michigan to the drafts and scripts for his last theater works, including materials which have not been previously known or examined. Its dovetailing with the subject matter of dozens of other Ransom archival collections enhances the university’s reputation as one of the foremost institutions for the study of theater history in general, and 20th century American drama in particular.
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