Edmund de Waal’s house in south London features a 19th century display case that once stood in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Made of bronze and mahogany, six feet high, it was bought by the British author and ceramic artist to hold a fabled collection of carved netsuke miniatures from Japan that were passed down through four generations.
It was always kept open so that his three children, now in their twenties, could touch the treasures and hear their father’s stories drawn from family history. One is a tiny piece of ivory and buffalo horn from Osaka, signed by its maker Masatoshi and dated around 1880, Waal’s acclaimed bestseller memoir from 2010. This carving and the showcase will be on display in an exhibition in the Jewish Museum on November 19 , which is based on de Waal’s book “The Hare with Amber Eyes”.
As a literary phenomenon that has been translated into more than 30 languages, the book has occupied a fundamental place on any reading list on family history, the legacy of art collecting, and the role that remembering the past, lost, looted, forgotten, or violent scattering plays in the reconstruction of a period between a restless dynasty and the Jewish diaspora, as in the case of de Waals.
To commemorate the book tracing the fate and fate of the influential Ephrussis – de Waal’s paternal ancestors and one of Europe’s great Jewish banking families in the 19th and early 20th centuries – the museum turned to the architect Elizabeth Diller. In 2016 she directed the design of the museum’s groundbreaking exhibition “Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design.” She is responsible for the conception, design and implementation of the new exhibition with a team that not only comes from her own company Diller Scofidio + Renfro, but also with the author.
“Liz is the great dramaturge of space,” said de Waal, when he was talking about Zoom from his studio, behind him a high lattice window
For Diller, working with de Waal in illuminating the many corners of the hidden story in his book has opened up important aspects of her own past.
With the exhibition design, Diller scripted the space from the outside in, starting with the palatial residences that the Ephrussis built and their signal art and objects, above all the Hôtel Ephrussi in Paris and the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna. They are shaped on the one hand by the family’s origins in Odessa and on the other hand by the Holocaust story that led de Waal to Japan. The show will unfold in six rooms on the second floor of a younger cousin of the Ephrussi Palaces, the former Warburg mansionwhere the Jewish Museum is located.
“We don’t see it as a museum, but as a home environment,” said Diller. The continuous line of the exhibition is the legendary collection of Japanese netsuke made of wood, ivory and porcelain, which de Waal inherited in 1997 from his uncle Ignace de Waal or Iggie. The high museum rooms will contain many of them art, objects, furnishings and ephemera that animated “The Rabbit with Amber Eyes”. Recorded passages from the book read by de Waal will clarify and enrich the exhibition for visitors on their way from one exhibition to the next. The design, Diller said, boils down to an exercise “that also shows the inside of Edmund’s mind.”
In line with this idea, the design has thrown the traditional sequence of long wall texts and curatorial inscriptions overboard and interwoven the numerous works in the exhibition into a cabinet of curiosities that Diller referred to as a cabinet of curiosities. Paintings hang in the closely grouped salon style of the 19th century.
Showcases relating to the bright black cabinet that housed the 264 netsuke, which were first assembled in Paris by de Waal’s great-great-great-uncle, the collector, art critic and art patron Charles Ephrussi, will showcase the figures and other small objects. “As an artist and author, Edmund intervenes deeply in the personal,” said Diller.
The personal was never a trademark of Diller’s work in architecture and design. Her biographical information is consistently sparse, she leaves it to contemporaries like Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind or Zaha Hadid to frame her work autobiographically. But working with de Waal’s emotionally charged travelogue had a transformative effect, she said. “Seeing his family’s world through Edmund’s eyes,” she said, “I’ve seen my family history too.”
“Edmund has been digging in his past,” added Diller. “I haven’t. I couldn’t stand it. ”The design of an exhibition based on de Waal’s book changed that.
“This was a way for Liz to recognize her past,” said Claudia Gould, director of the Jewish Museum.
Framed by a zoom call with a view of the lake in the weekend house she shares with her partner and husband Ricardo Scofidio in New York State, Diller said, “I never knew my grandparents. After the Holocaust, there were only two survivors on both sides of my family. “
Her mother Anna was Polish, her father Edmund a Czech. They married in the decade before the war.
Diller’s mother escaped the Holocaust in Poland by moving to Vienna and hiding her Jewish identity. While the Nazis began evicting de Waal’s great-grandfather Viktor von Ephrussi and his wife, Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla Ephrussi, from their ornate residence on the Ringstrasse, they sent them into exile that was cut off for the increasingly fragile people by Emmy her likely suicide, her own mother, said Diller, “went as a steel worker and then as a nanny. Her husband should follow her, but she lost him. He was sent to a concentration camp. “
After the war her mother went back to Poland, to Lodz, where she came from. “She couldn’t find her family,” continued Diller. “Your house had been stripped of everything. Then one day my father came to her door. He had been a great, great man. When she saw him again, he weighed about 90 pounds. I never got to know the full story from him because it is too painful for survivors. You can never understand the whole story. A few photos of my family from the pre-war period are all I have left. “
Like the Ephrussis, Diller’s family was also ravaged by anti-Semitism. Her parents “decided to move to Paris,” she said, “but they couldn’t find a job”.
They moved back to Lodz. “My father was a good businessman and ran several large textile factories there,” she says. Diller was born in 1954; she also has an older brother, George. “We ran a nice household in Lodz,” she said, “but my parents gradually tried to get out of Poland. There was a lot of anti-Semitism. My father was thrown in jail the whole time. “
In Diller’s portrait of her father there are some hints about the architect and designer who would become his daughter. “He didn’t go with the flow, he was an agitator,” said Diller, who last worked at the Wade Thompson Drill Hall in the Park Avenue Armory. The project enabled her to transform a Gilded Age military hall “designed to suppress insurgency” into the setting of a production touching on “Racial Justice, Civil Rights Movement, Freedom of Expression and Liberation.”
Her parents eventually obtained visas to the United States through her father’s remaining brother, who was in New York, and in 1959 her family came to that country and settled in the Bronx, then Inwood, and finally Greenwich Village. Diller attended High School of Music and Art, followed by Cooper Union, where she studied art before turning to architecture. “My mother tongue was Polish,” she says. “I spoke Polish to my mother for the rest of her life. I feel culturally European and culturally Jewish. It’s cultural history that I identified with when I read Edmund’s book. “
As extensive as the content of the exhibition may be, from a huge parochet or Torah shrine curtain, from the City Temple Synagogue in Vienna on canvases by Auguste Renoir and Berthe Morisot and two finely bound volumes from Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”, for which Charles Ephrussi served as the inspiration for the character of Charles Swann, Diller thought it was important to add one more Perspective. She wants the viewers in the rooms within the Ephrussi building to feel the displacement, exile and disappearance that de Waal is recording. “The buildings are empty,” she said. “The architecture is full of gaps. These are the buildings as they are today. “
To capture this, Diller hired the Dutch photographer Ivan Baanwho lives in Paris to photograph the interiors in the present, the past of which is hidden due to the current conversion into offices and retail spaces. “There’s a Starbucks on the ground floor in Vienna,” said Diller.
“There is a sense of historical loss,” added Diller, “and there is the loss from Covid.” In one of the large-format photographs in the Hotel Ephrussi, there is a column with a dispenser for hand disinfectant at the foot of a large marble staircase.
At the same time, both Diller and de Waal said that the present places the exhibition in an inseparable political context that shapes their personal common ground.
“Firstly, there is a great and painful polarization in the world,” said de Waal, “and with it a return to all sorts of toxic language and not just to anti-Semitism in all its grotesque forms. Second, the stigmatization of refugees and migrants. And as a child I speak of refugees who had to cross borders in order to survive. “
Diller said she saw the exhibition as a reminder that “history happens in cycles. It’s very scary where we are right now in terms of racism, anti-Semitism and the various neo-Nazi parties that are developing. This is not without reference to the stories in this exhibition. These stories need to be retold. History cannot be forgotten. “