Friday, February 7, 2014

Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes

I just finished reading a superb book some of you may know: The Hare with Amber Eyes by the ceramics artist Edmund de Waal. It was highly recommended by a former student of mine who was of retired age, and I'm so glad she recommended it. The book is the story of the author's family's ownership of 264 netsuke, including the work you see here, a beautiful ivory hare with eyes inlaid with amber buffalo horn. For those who don't know what netsuke are, they are finely carved and polished Japanese figurines and sculptural objects no bigger than the size of your hand. Often carved in ivory or boxwood, they were originally made as toggles to hold the string that attached a purse/satchel to the Japanese kimono and obi. (You can download for free the Met Museum's excellent collection catalogue of netsuke here.) By the late 1800s, they had become collector's items not only in the West through the influence of japonisme but also in Japan as a form of its cultural past. De Waal's story recounts how his ancestors first acquired the netsuke from a dealer in Paris in the 1870s, and then continues the story of the netsuke as they passed on to relatives in Vienna during the World Wars, then post-War Tokyo, and modern-day London. But the story is not just about these netsuke. It's a cultural biography of his Jewish ancestors, the Ephrussi family from Russia, how they made their fortune and settled throughout Europe, and how they engaged with the art and literature of their day. It's not all high life society, however. The author also tells with pathos the trials his family endured in a world of anti-Semitism and Nazism, and how his family lost everything because of Hitler and the persecution of Jews at the time.

This book is one of those rare stories that beautifully links art and culture with personal experience. De Waal asks questions such as how people from the past felt about life and art, and how they felt to hold these beautifully carved netsuke generation after generation, hand-to-hand, a symbol of a family saga that reaches backward to the unknown makers of these figures, and forward to the author's own children. His personal experience as a craftsman and artist make his telling of the story even more poignant. To quote de Waal: "How things are made, how they are handled and what happens to them has been central to my life for over thirty years. ... How objects embody memory--or more particularly, whether objects can hold memories--is a real question for me. This book is my journey to the places in which this collection lived. It is my secret history of touch." To learn more about Edmund de Waal, his writing, and his exquisite minimalist ceramics and installation pieces, go to his website at

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