“How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving this to you because I love you. Or because it was given to me, Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten? There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories.”

Have you ever read a book, assuming you would like it but not expecting it to completely rock your world? Well that is the way it was for me upon reading Edmund de Waal’s family biography The Hare With Amber Eyes. Numerous friends had recommended it to me, assuming I would be interested in the collection of 264 antique Japanese netsuke that are the theoretical protagonists of the book, which I was, but I had not realized how every bit of it would seem to tie in with my own writing and collecting and that reading it would become a very personal journey.

The story itself is like an onion, with layers that peel away, yet link back up with each other. Sometimes it feels almost too fantastical to be true, impossible that such detailed records remain, that the life of these tiny objects can be tracked so clearly. The netsuke themselves are a conceit, used to tie a multi-generational, multi-national story together. Edmund de Waal, the renowned British potter (who makes Japanese inspired pieces himself) inherits an extraordinary collection of Edo period netsuke from his Viennese Uncle Iggie, who actually lived out his adult life in Tokyo. Yet the netsuke were originally acquired by Iggie’s father’s cousin in Paris in the 1870s, then given as a wedding present to Iggie’s father in Vienna at the turn of the century. As we read, we know that war is coming, so it becomes hard to imagine how they eventually make their way onward, and I will not spoil that surprise. But there is also a kind of magic in knowing from the very beginning of the book that these netsuke are a sort of sick punch line, in that they survive even when people don’t, and that somehow they even make it back to their country of origin over 100 years later.

Netsuke, the tiny toggle sculptures used to anchor small carrying cases called sagemono to a kimono sash (obi) are extremely coveted and collectible, and thus by default, quite valuable. Most commonly made of ivory, wood or bone, these lifelike inch long sculptures are detailed works of art, depicting everything from people engaged in everyday rituals of every sorts, to animals, plants and even mythological creatures. I occasionally see them at shrine sales, more often at the better antique shows – Heiwajima would be a good place to look this weekend – but I think of them in the same category as obidome (the jeweled belt clips which I adore) and tsuba (sword guards). In other words, small and beautiful, but somewhat useless. In the last few days I have been to a few shrine sales and really kept my eyes peeled for them, getting lucky with one dealer who had some in complete sets, strung on cords with their inro (a stacked compartment carrying case) and ojime closure bead. The two examples below demonstrate the range of netsuke, from the simplest disk on the left, to a detailed, although fairly crudely carved figure on the right. Both inro are made of lacquer, with maki-e sprinkled gilding.

The original collector of the netsuke, Charles Ephrussi, the cousin of De Waal’s great-grandfather, was at the heart of the art and salon scene in late 19th century Paris. Originally from Odessa, the Ephrussi’s were one of the great Jewish banking clans, second perhaps to only the Rothschilds, that fanned their way out through Europe in the 19th and early 20th century, establishing places of business and grand houses in France, Austria, England, Greece and elsewhere. Charles was a writer and editor of art magazines and collector of fine works of art. Like many of his contemporaries, he became enthralled with the Japonisme craze sweeping through Europe in the 1860s and 1870s. In addition to his 264 netsuke, he had a collection of 33 black and gold lacquer boxes and an extraordinary group of Impressionist paintings, supporting artists whose names we all know now at the very start of their careers. The list of Charles’ paintings reads like the home runs of the Impressionist world, a forty piece collection accumulated in just three short years. Solidifying his fame, Charles himself appears in Renoir’s masterpiece Luncheon of the Boating Party, the man in the top hat towards the back, and served as inspiration for Proust’s Charles Swann in Remembrance of Things Past.

“I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers – hard and tricky and Japanese – and where it has been. I want to be able to reach to the handle of the door and turn it and feel it open. I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and thought about it – if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.”

Just like de Waal, I too want to see exactly where and what the netsuke lived with, to imagine them all crowded into his rooms on the rue de Monceau in Paris, so I could not resist pulling up the images of his paintings, now scattered in the world’s finest museums, to share in just that way. All of the paintings below, and many more that I do not show, had places of pride in Charles’ home.

The most charming story centers on Charles’ purchase of Edouard Manet’s Une botte d’asperges, for which Manet charged 800 francs but Charles sent 1000.

In grateful response to his over-payment, Manet sends on second small painting of a single stalk of asparagus!

The influence of Japanese prints on the Impressionist perspective can clearly be seen in Degas’ portrait of Edmund Duranty, painter and subject both friends of Charles, that hung in his study.

Charles also owned Monet’s Les Baines de la Grenouillère that now hangs in The National Gallery in London.

A personal moment for me, as this painting is the sister to the Monet below – La Grenouillère – which has been hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and long been my favorite Monet. I wrote a huge paper about it for an art history class in college. I wonder if it is packed up in a box somewhere?

He also owned Manet’s Portrait de Constantin Guys…

…and General Mellinet and Chief Rabbi Astruc by Degas. I imagine them all hanging (out) on the wall together, chatting, like the portraits at Hogwarts.

I am not sure if this Degas pastel At the Milliner’s is the actual one Charles owned…

…or this one, or perhaps even both.

Charles owned many works by Degas including In a Cafe, better known as L’Absinthe. Their friendship, and many others, ended over the Dreyfus Affair, as the roots of anti-Semitism in French society became exposed.

At the turn of the century, Charles packed up the netsuke and sent it to his nephew Viktor in Vienna on the occasion of his marriage.  Viktor’s new home, the Palais Ephrussi, was so grand that one cannot imagine these tiny figures making any statement there. And they do not. The netsuke were no longer displayed publicly, instead they were kept in Viktor’s wife Emmy’s dressing room, where the children took them out and played with them as they watched her dress.

Here I will stop the tale for a while and recommend that anyone planning on reading the book should not research any further into the story. As we know who and what is coming, in the form of Hitler and the Anschluss, I will leave that tale to de Waal. I find it all too painful to write about anyway.

And so we return full circle, as not only have the netsuke made their way back to Japan with Uncle Iggie and his partner Jiro as the book opens, but de Waal himself studies Japanese ceramics as a young man, a result of that historical Leach-Yanagi friendship that ties British and Japanese pottery together. In the aftermath of the earthquake last year, the Leach Pottery was quick to start a foundation to help rebuild the historic kilns at Mashiko. And ironically for me, the book opens with de Waal taking Japanese language courses at the very school here in Tokyo that I currently attend for the same reason.“Iggie and Jiro’s life was lived in another kind of Real Japan,” and I like to think that we do too.

Just like Charles and Viktor, Iggie keeps the netsuke in a glass vitrine, a display case, which is another conceit for de Waal’s story and one that influences his own work highly. At first, he thinks vitrines “exist so that you can see objects, but not touch them.” But what he comes to realize is that “the vitrine – as opposed to the museum’s case – is for opening. And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric.”

I have not been able to find any formal writing on the influence of the netsuke and his family’s history on de Waal’s own work, but it clearly has played a major role. He creates huge installations, full of similar but different pots, often grouped on shelves. Does that sound familiar?

“He is an interesting example of a potter who has not left the studio but has been determined to escape that solitary plinth with its unique object atop. You will all be familiar with his move from domestic porcelain to a series of installations that ‘animate’ (his word) particular interiors and to interventions in museum collections. 1999 was the decisive year in which de Waal arranged his pots in cupboards and on tables in Howe and Lescaze’s High Cross House at Dartington in Devon; he described this as a ‘personal conversation with iconic modernism’. De Waal’s post-plinth strategy is based in part on massing. Thus he references the richesse and generous display of the eighteenth century porcelain room.” (quote from a lecture by Tanya Harrod in 2009)

Edmund de Waal’s place in the lexicon of British ceramics is confirmed by his centrally located Signs & Wonders installation in the new ceramic galleries at The Victoria & Albert Museum. To learn more, there is a great 5 minute video and a wonderful article by A.S. Byatt about them.

De Waal will not allow himself any “melancholy” or “nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago,” he doesn’t want “to get into the sepia saga business.” But after reading the book I find that I am angry for him and I am surprised at the strength of my feelings. My forebears came from the same places as his. I had a great-grandfather from Vienna on one side and a grandfather from Odessa on the other. My grandfather left Russia in 1917 to avoid the Revolution as he was from well-heeled family – he spoke French and was studying to be an architect – and he worked his way across Turkey, through France and onward to America. But I know little more than that about his story and have no objects to tie me to him. In fact, there are no family objects that tie me to any of my ancestors – the little bit of jewelry that remained was stolen out of a parking lot sometime in the 1960s before I was even born. And the truth of the matter is that I sometimes believe that lack of connection through items is what propelled me into being an antiques dealer. As a girl my favorite books were those where the characters explored their grandmother’s attics, opening trunks filled with clothes and talismans from long ago, feeding a fantasy of connection with those long gone. If you think about it, so many books for kids and teens, even the Harry Potter series, rest on those kind of connections.

I did have an exciting inheritance moment last year though, not long after buying the beach house in New Jersey. I was at my in-laws in Florida, packing to fly up to New York and then home to Japan. I looked up in the guest bedroom closet and saw a group of quilted dish protectors, clearly stacked full of a china service. In the back of my mind a little voice said “those are yours” but I couldn’t imagine what they were. I took one down and unzipped it, while simultaneously remembering that my grandmother had a set that no one needed or wanted when we were forced to move her out of her apartment and into a home. At the time, I couldn’t bear to get rid of them while not having enough space in my New York apartment to take them, so I left them in Florida and forgot about them. As I lifted the dish out of its case, I couldn’t believe it – they were absolutely perfect – having just the colors and soft feel I wanted in the beach house. It was as if my beloved grandmother was right there with me in that moment!

When asked by a neighbor if really the netsuke should stay in Japan, de Waal answers no. “Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters.”

Related Posts:
Artist Spotlight…Dancers, Degas and the Demi-Monde in Yokohama
Artist Spotlight…A Final Dose of Japonisme for the New Year
Artist Spotlight…William Merritt Chase’s Japonisme Interiors

Image credits: 1. de Waal’s netsuke, photo credit unknown, 2.via AW Antiques and Collectibles, 3. me, 4. via The Phillips Collection, 5. via Impressionism Art Org, 6. via Musée D’Orsay, 7. via Glasgow Museums, 8. via The National Gallery, 9. via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 10. via Wiki Media, 11. via Wiki Paintings, 12. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 13. via Wiki Paintings, 14. via Musée D’Orsay, 15. via Planet Vienna, 16. via The Economist, 17-18. via My Mama’s Table, 19. via The Victoria & Albert Museum, 20. me.