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Tracing a Family History Through the Journey of a Tiny Figurine

Tracing a Family History Through the Journey of a Tiny Figurine

This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, about how art institutions are helping audiences discover new options for the future.


The tiny ivory figurine of a hare has had a remarkable journey, traveling from Paris in the 1870s to turn-of-the-century Vienna to a mattress where it was stashed and hidden from the Germans during World War II. It eventually made its way to Tokyo and then to England, when the ceramist Edmund de Waal inherited it from his great-uncle.

Mr. De Waal traced the path of this object, a Japanese decorative carving called a netsuke, in his 2010 memoir “The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance.” Published to wide acclaim and translated into more than 30 languages, the book examines Mr. de Waal’s own journey into memory and research about his family — an influential Jewish one who were descendants of Charles Joachim Ephrussi, who built a fortune in grain distribution and oil in Odessa — and their objects, beginning with the 264 netsuke he inherited.

Now the hare has another stop on its journey, at the Jewish Museum in New York, where an exhibition based on Mr. de Waal’s book will open on Nov. 19, giving the text an unusual second life in physical form.

“It’s a rare opportunity for anyone who writes a book to see a different iteration of your ideas visually,” Mr. de Waal said in a recent phone interview. The show, also called “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” will bring together artwork, ephemera, documents, photographs and other objects that trace the Ephrussi family history beginning in the 17th century through the strife and dislocation of the 20th and into the present day.

One of the central figures in both the memoir and the exhibition is Charles Ephrussi, grandson of the family patriarch and an art historian based in Paris during the 19th century. He collected many of the objects — including the netsuke, which he later sent to Vienna as a wedding gift for his cousin, Mr. de Waal’s great-grandfather. (Mr. de Waal is related to the Ephrussi family through his grandmother Elisabeth, who was married to Hendrik de Waal, a Dutch lawyer.)

The unconventional idea of building an exhibition around the book occurred to Claudia Gould, the Jewish Museum’s director, soon after she joined the museum in 2011 and read “The Hare with Amber Eyes.”

“I really could visualize everything: the Manets, the netsuke, all of it,” Ms. Gould said. “I contacted Edmund out of the blue. I sent him a cold email, and said, ‘I want to do a show based on your book.’”

It would take another decade for the show to come together. In 2019, after Mr. de Waal donated many of his family’s archival materials to the Jewish Museum in Vienna, that museum organized an exhibition that traced the cultural and social history of the Ephrussi family. It became the most well-attended exhibitions in the museum’s history, and served as a kind of reunion for members of the family who had been scattered and separated for decades. “It was this extraordinary moment of revelation,” Mr. de Waal said.

Credit…via Edmund De Waal

Many of the same objects will travel to the Jewish Museum in New York, but the exhibition is conceived and designed differently, hewing closely to Mr. de Waal’s memoir. “It has moved from being a cultural history of a diasporic Jewish family, which I think is what the Vienna exhibition did very effectively, to become much more experiential, immersive experience,” Mr. de Waal said. “It takes the momentum of my book itself and walks you through this discovery of one thing after another.”

That was part of the curatorial intention: to allow viewers to experience something like Mr. de Waal’s own journey in uncovering chapters of his family’s history through objects. To that end, the design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro collaborated with Mr. de Waal and the Jewish Museum to create six galleries that will evoke time and place. One gallery dedicated to Paris will introduce viewers to Charles Ephrussi in his role as collector, historian, patron and inspiration for artists ranging from Manet to Marcel Proust. Another, devoted to Vienna, will highlight the architecture of 19th-century Vienna, including the Palais Ephrussi and the Stadttempel, the main city’s synagogue. And in another, some of the paintings from the collectors will be hung “salon style,” close together and from floor to ceiling in multiple rows.

“That hanging puts the work more into the context of 19th-century ways of looking at paintings,” said Stephen Brown, the curator of “The Hare with Amber Eyes.” “At the same time, it suggests these ideas of presence and absence which are such an important part of de Waal’s memory and memoir.”

Indeed, a central question for the exhibition is how one can represent absence. How can a visual exhibition display things that have been lost and destroyed alongside what has remained?

One way in which the museum has approached those questions is by turning repeatedly back to Mr. de Waal’s text, using it as a kind of narrative retrieval of objects, especially those that were never recovered. There will be relatively little wall text in the exhibition, Mr. Brown said; instead, the show will include an extensive audio component, featuring Mr. de Waal reading excerpts from “The Hare with Amber Eyes.”

And, appropriately, the exhibition will end on 168 of the netsuke, including the hare, displayed in a vitrine that used to sit in Mr. de Waal’s own home.

“In a way, it spins you back through the entire story of this author, and his relationship to these Japanese objects, that formed the basis for his whole journey and discovery,” Mr. Brown said. “The fact that these have passed down and remained with the family, through everything, points to transience and loss, but also continuity.”

The show tells a story about a particular family and their history. But its resonances and implications are farther reaching. “It’s a really beautiful poetic story, and also a Jewish story of migration,” Ms. Gould said. “And I think that this show speaks to anybody who has been displaced and lost their art and their homes.”


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