Monday, December 27, 2010

"It's how you tell their stories that matters"


Works of biography and history, that are more than biography, for me began with John Rewald's History of Impressionism and History of Post-Impressionism, respectively 1946 and 1957, though I read the second one first.  He brought me nearly daily life of the artists themselves, their life as artists.  Several years later, when the book was no longer new but a friend sent it to me, I thought that Nancy Mitford's Voltaire in Love, 1957, might have been written for me.  Both of these, while focused on their subjects and carefully researched, brought the authors themselves, their minds, to the reader.  And there have occasionally been other works, though I often have been disappointed in highly regarded books on Virginia Woolf as increasingly concerned with the authors' agenda, since, as for Proust, except for Tadié's Life, I really like to simply re-read the author himself (though never playing a roman à clef game, which would spoil them; they are like Genji in that respect).
This year another friend sent me, in Kindle format, another book that might have been written just for me, considering the above.  Besides, I have spent my life largely concentrating on pottery, primarily Greek vases, but my second area of concentration in studying art history was China and Japan, so as I traveled I never omitted the pleasure of other ceramics as well as Greek, not excluding, either, Meissen, et al.  I am an impenitent dilettante.  I also love bronze, above all other metals.  Luckily, museums that have rich collections of any of these usually have the others, too.  Besides, for me, any history includes all the arts, everything that the artists and the amateurs had inextricably as coherent parts of their cultural lives—intellectual and aesthetic.  One of my oldest and dearest friends, Claude, inducted me (so far as possible) into his experience in MacArthur's post-war Japan, which shaped much of his life.  And as for Paris, it is essential to my own, almost as much as Athens.

My new Christmas book, uniting and enriching all my travel experience and art historical and archaeological and imaginative life, much of it shared with my oldest and dearest friends, is, as you may have guessed, Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes.  Part I opens on the Rue de Monceau, Paris, VIIIme.  Now, Paris is not just the Louvre, and besides the Musée Guimet I just had to see the Musée Cernuschi.  Taking the Metro to Monceau, I found myself in a quite different Paris, and the museum was wonderful:  all I knew was that it had Shang bronzes I wanted to see.*  So de Waal's book opens in the part of Paris that I recall from one of my pleasantest days there.  And soon all these familiar names were knit together by his history, in a way that Tadié, exhaustive as he is, does not even attempt, and I was back wandering around these streets that I had discovered by accident, without knowing why three formerly private museum collections, inter alia, were concentrated there.  De Waal's book is a perfect complement to Rewald, too, since it is with Charles Ephrussi, the editor, then owner of the Gazette des Beaux Arts,  that Part I is mostly concerned.  And so it goes, too, for Vienna, where, though I was professionally interested in some of the Greek pottery in the Kunsthistorisches Musum I twice spent most of my time in the Vienna of Olbricht and Loos and simply walking.  One year there was a very large Sezession exhibit.  I tried to go to all the museums, but above all I was happy just to study the city.  A couple of years ago, simply because I can read modern Greek, I tried to be helpful to a former colleague who was interested in Greek expatriates in Bulgaria who had connections with Paris, and I remembered the insight into the Ottoman world where, before Greek Independence, scholarly Greeks lived in Orthodox Bulgaria, Greek expatriates all over the place, I learned, and when I read the final section of de Waal's book, that familiarity helped me to understand Odessa.  I have never been to Odessa, and I was very glad for an author who realized it for me, putting the Potemkin steps, which were all I knew of Odessa, in perspective in the city of which they are a part.
You see, practically all my rich but partial imaginative life based on recollections of everything I've visited and become attracted to or read about (and that lovely portrait by Renoir of the little girls, just to name one specific thing) is brought together and made sense of and made coherent by this wonderful biography-memoir of Edmund de Waal.  I like his ceramics, too, and I also added his volume on 20th Century ceramics to my long shelfful of World of Art paperbacks.  He is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the great museums for everything delightful and interesting, in London.  How many authors can be artists and fine writers and cultivated Jews and Anglicans all at once?  And own 264 of the finest netsuke imaginable.  My friends who have some netsuke have later and commoner ones.

I don't want to tell too much about this book, lest I spoil it.  I bring a lot of baggage of my own and all my 76 years to reading it, but others who have enjoyed it equally are young and not so burdened.  I even, myself, refrained from reading the account from the Guardian of his lecture shortly after the book was published, less than a year ago.  I also refrained from learning how he happened to have Anglican parents, until at the end of the book he made it plain himself.  Besides, using Wikipedia you have to look out for the all-Dutch (so to speak), Dutch Reformed and/or anthropological de Waals.  So far as I have been able to ascertain they aren't even related (Waal is a toponym) or so remotely as to make no difference.

I took the title of this Post from de Waal's response to a person in England who told him, Shouldn't the netsuke go back to Japan?  (Questions like that are really accusations).  As a person who collects bronze coins with a view to gathering ones that go together, whose study can contribute to their understanding (since they came to me already devoid of context and are not of truly "collectable" quality as regards condition), I fully appreciate what he said:
"No, I answer.  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."

* There has always been a question about the caption in Sherman Lee's History of Far Eastern Art, that the Yu in the shape of a bear (or feline) is in the Sumitomo collection (which is in Kyoto).  The Cernuschi acquired it in 1920, and, clever as Japanese craftsmen are, I am quite sure that there aren't two of these, of which one would be a replica.  I bought a poster, but I can't find it.  When I do, I'll scan and post that image.  Meanwhile, the photo above, which is probably older than I am and perhaps out of copyright, should be regarded as for 'fair use' only.