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« Letters to Camondo » by Edmund de Waal book review – « a superb, sensitive account »

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Edmund de Waal is a contemporary English artist, master potter and author. He is known for his large-scale installations of porcelain vessels often created in response to collections and archives or the history of a particular place. In Letters to Camondo, it is his own history, quietly revealed as he probes Moïse de Camondo’s life, the collectionner from Constantinople.

The potter’s multi-prize winning 2010 family memoir The Hare With Amber Eyes uncovered the story behind a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke – small, intricately carved ivory figures including the eponymous hare – and along the way became a subtle investigation of inheritance, the Jewish diaspora, the glories and horrors of European history and the relationship between objects and memory. This new book features several of the people first encountered in Hare and again De Waal uses objects – this time the lavish collections of 18th-century French art, porcelain and furniture assembled by Moïse de Camondo in early 20th-century Paris – to explore a richly dramatic era.

Also read:Les Camondo, l’Eclipse d’une Fortune

While Letters to Camondo would most obviously be described as a companion to the earlier book, perhaps more accurately it should be called a neighbour. It was while living on the Rue de Monceau in Paris that De Waal’s great-great-grandfather’s cousin, Charles Ephrussi of the banking family, bought the netsuke. It was also on the Rue de Monceau that Camondo put together his collections and where he built the mansion in which they are housed to this day. It was no coincidence that the two men, linked by friendship and family ties, lived so close to each other. Part of an 1860s development of a then undistinguished area of Paris, the Rue de Monceau and the park it bounds attracted many very wealthy, often Jewish, families seeking to find a place in “secular, republican, tolerant, civilised Paris”.

The Ephrussis had come from Odessa via Vienna. The Camondos were bankers in Constantinople. Both bought plots on the Rue de Monceau in 1869. Moïse was nine when they arrived and the neighbours included “a couple of Rothschilds” as well as members of the Reinach family, who were “absurdly rich, even by Camondo standards”. Émile Zola, in La Curée, his 1871 novel skewering nouveau-riche excess, described the mansions as “still-new and pale” and “an opulent bastard of every style”. But these families embraced culture as well as commerce and, among other things, immediate members were variously the subject of portraits by Renoir (Camondo’s future wife when she was a girl) and buyers of paintings by Manet “straight off his easel”. Proust, who lived round the corner, was an acquaintance, and they were in correspondence with Rilke, and exchanged poems in their letters.

It is through 58 imaginary letters to Camondo that De Waal tells the story of the man’s life and death, his house, his collections, his world and what became of it. The author reassures the old man of his knowledge of the Dreyfus Affair and the antisemitic French press, of “duelling, Bizet, beards, moustaches, flâneurs” and the fact he knows “far too much about who my cousins slept with a century ago”. Unadvertised, but consistently illuminating is also his artist’s, and connoisseur’s, eye for the practical details of how and why things are made, bought, collected and displayed.

The house at 63 Rue de Monceau that now houses the Camondo collections was not the first on the site. As soon as Moïse inherited his father’s home he demolished it and in 1911 built a new one of his own, supervised by the architect René Sergent, who had just finished refurbishing Claridge’s hotel in London. He also disposed of most of the treasures his father had brought from Constantinople, including many precious Jewish religious artefacts. But this wasn’t a straightforward erasure of his roots. Camondo remained a prominent figure in the Jewish community, prominent enough to be accused of “trespass” by an antisemitic newspaper when hunting in ancient “French” forests.

Camondo’s own overwhelmingly French treasures – carpets and clocks, silver cutlery made for Catherine the Great, porcelain aviaries – fitted well with his view of himself in which Jewishness was just one part of an identity that also entailed being a French patriot, and more specifically a Parisian. He was a member of dozens of eminent societies and clubs and a benefactor to many public causes. “You become part of the street, the neighbourhood, the city, the country, so perfectly, so delicately aligned,” muses De Waal, “that you disappear.”

Camondo made a high society marriage to Irène Cahen d’Anvers, complete with an eight-month honeymoon in Cannes, before going through a high society divorce. Both of their children, Nissim and Béatrice, stayed with their father. Nissim was thought not suited to banking but was “charming and devoted and loyal” and his father was proud when he enlisted in the nascent French air force during the first world war. He was soon promoted but, while on a reconnaissance mission in 1917, his plane went missing. The family received a letter from Proust expressing the hope that Nissim would be found safe and well, but a few weeks later news came through that he had been killed and was already buried.

His death marked the beginning of the transition of 63 Rue de Monceau from a home into a monument. Camondo decreed that his son’s rooms were to be left untouched, and over time what had been a dynamic collection became ever more fixed. When Camondo died in 1935 the house and everything in it were donated to the nation, a gesture echoed by many of the neighbouring Jewish families. These donations are explored in James McAuley’s recently published The House of Fragile Things (Yale), which is a more conventionally scholarly study than De Waal’s, but a comprehensive and accessible account of one of the great communal acts of generosity – and then betrayal – in modern history.

The ceremony handing over the new Musée Nissim de Camondo took place at the end of 1936 with daughter Béatrice, by this time married to a Reinach with two children of her own, representing the family. The event made the papers with photos of the dignitaries. In the same paper that day were reports of the pact between Germany and Japan and Hitler’s support for Franco.

The cataclysm that arrives a few years later is dealt with in De Waal’s longest letter, all sense of politesse gone, his cold anger delivered in almost bullet-point directness as the Nazis and the French state first remove rights and property from Jews – the Renoir portrait was soon passing through Goering’s private collection – before removing freedom and lives. The Camondo-Reinachs’ efforts to avoid their fates, from seeking intercessions from powerful friends to divorce and conversion to Catholicism, fail. Like all Holocaust stories, theirs is both unique and familiar. Among the last photographs in an excellently illustrated book are those of the simple manila arrival cards issued to the four members of the family at a French internment camp ahead of their murders in Birkenau, Auschwitz and Monowitz. Irène survived the war and inherited Béatrice’s fortune. She died in 1962.

De Waal’s excavation of the meanings of assimilation is considered, compassionate and appreciative of its costs, not only in blood and treasure, and its benefits, “a welcome of sorts and tolerance, a place to settle, a hill of friends and cousins, conversation among equals”. As an artist best known for his installations of multiple porcelain vessels, he is authoritative on how objects work together and what they can mean to the people who own them and see them. But it is his own history, quietly revealed as he probes Camondo’s life, as much as his knowledge and expertise, that enriches this book.

We learn of his father’s application for Austrian citizenship 82 years after leaving the country and that De Waal has donated part of the netsuke collection to the Jewish museum and sold the rest in aid of the Refugee Council. With a family story spread over continents and centuries, allied to his Jewish ancestry, Anglican upbringing, Quaker sympathies and Buddhist reading, he is a wise guide to people and things that are dispersed and are collected. As he concludes: “I think you can love more than one place. I think you can move across a border and still be a whole person.” This book is a wonderful tribute to a family and to an idea. Later this year, Covid restrictions allowing, De Waal will be the first living artist to have his work displayed at the Musée Nissim de Camondo.

 Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal is published by Chatto & Windus

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