A Hidden Inheritance
I attended a brilliant lecture Tuesday night. Not a typical slide talk, but rather a moving and multi-layered journal of inquiry. British ceramist, writer and historian Edmund de Waal gave a talk about an inheritance, a collection of miniature netsuke figures. Edmund’s discourse was charming, clearly intelligent, thoroughly researched, yet still—and profoundly—touching. At the Getty auditorium, he held everyone’s attention throughout the evening. He captured a sense of history, an appreciation of European culture, and the magic of great periods of painting. He also addressed the central tragedy of the 20th century.
His story centered on his family, their amazing history and their art collections. The Ephrussi family, a Russian Jewish family coming from near the Black Sea in the mid-19th century, moved to France and became patrons of the arts in Paris. They became collectors, and eventually moved to Vienna. But the family fell victim to the Nazi occupation of Austria, their lives were ruined and the art looted. Amazingly, the collection of tiny netsuke survived, because a loyal maid sewed the miniatures into her mattress.
The story was captivating. I was amazed by Edmund’s thorough research, his passion and his humor. He included several images of his own work. He managed to engage his audience on many levels, including touch (he passed around one of the valuable netsuke, the size of a walnut). The applause—an ovation, really—lasted for quite some time. It was a smart audience, too. How did I judge that? By the questions the audience asked about the Franco Prussian War, or the possibly Sephardic derivation of the Ephrussi name. The evening made many other recent art world talks seem rather inane. Somehow, Edmund de Waal has managed to weave a story of his family into the history of art and civilization over the past 150 years. I plan to read his book, The Hare with Amber Eyes.