“Lost time is found only among the rich”: that was Camus’s rejoinder to Proust. Wandering among the Aubusson tapestries, Louis XVI furniture and ormolu clocks in the gilded Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris, James McAuley pondered Camus as he embarked on his debut book, a history of the Camondo family.
The House of Fragile Things answers that objets d’art can speak beyond their privileged milieux: the museum, writes the Washington Post correspondent, preserves “a worldview that defined the French-Jewish establishment at a moment of crisis” — a moment resonant amid Europe’s turmoils of identity, race and belonging today.
Bizarrely, given the secluded, almost secret character of the Musée Camondo on the fringe of the Parc Monceau in Paris’s elegant 8th arrondissement, another researcher was treading the same grand marble staircase, coveting the crimson duchesse brisée, “an armchair with an extended footstool [ . . . ] I like the name and I want one”, fingering the “scullery doorknobs grooved to fit the hand of a kitchen maid in a hurry”. This was Edmund de Waal, conceptual porcelain artist and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, an account of his Ephrussi ancestors and their netsuke miniature Japanese sculptures.
Charles Ephrussi was neighbour to Isaac de Camondo; both belonged to banking dynasties, and were intertwined with other fabulously wealthy cosmopolitan Jewish bankers in the late 19th-century Paris of Dreyfus: the Rothschilds, the Reinachs and the Cahen d’Anvers, who founded what became Paribas.
Letters to Camondo tells de Waal’s version of the Camondo story by fancifully addressing, interrogating and hectoring Moïse, Isaac’s son. Moïse married, then was humiliatingly divorced by, Irène Cahen d’Anvers. He created the Camondo mansion, and bequeathed it to France in memory of their son, Nissim, who was killed in the first world war. De Waal, archly self-mocking, plays on the elite connection: “I am getting proprietorial about your house if I’m honest.”
Both books are micro histories homing in on objects to demonstrate outlooks. Both delineate the exquisite, the whimsical — Jewish collectors favoured the rococo of the Ancien Régime because it seemed to offer the outsider ties to the historical core of what Moïse called the glory of France. But not even sons morts pour la patrie — losses which devastated the Camondos and Reinachs alike — truly assimilated these families within their adopted country.
From the start, shadows fall across every object amassed and displayed. It is not to give away the plot to say, as a plaque at the Musée Camondo entrance records, that Moïse’s daughter Béatrice, a Catholic convert, her husband Léon Reinach and their children perished in Auschwitz. An unspeakable absence, a soul ripped out, at this museum of their home, is what sparked de Waal and McAuley’s narratives, what they evoke and attempt to explain.
For even now, blood threads through paint. The major exhibits for both authors are Renoir’s portraits of Irène Cahen d’Anvers and, in “Pink and Blue”, her sisters Alice and Elisabeth: froths of lace, stiffly lovely, locked between Persian carpets and damask curtains. Alice escaped, marrying a British officer. Elisabeth died at Drancy internment camp. Renoir fumed about “horrible Jews” and, after Dreyfus, cut dead his Jewish friend Pissarro. Göring acquired Irène’s portrait, which wound up in Nazi arms dealer Emil Bührle’s collection. This story is still live: “Irène” will star when Zurich’s Kunsthaus welcomes Bührle’s paintings into its permanent display this coming autumn.
Poverty and ignorance — and therefore inability to flee or anticipate the urgency to do so — helped annihilate the ghetto Jews of eastern Europe. By contrast, the Camondos, Reinachs and Cahen d’Anvers were prisoners of wealth, objects, status, erroneously believing these set them apart and granted protection.
McAuley, in an engrossing, emotional if meandering account, traces the long, vexed relationship of these families with materiality, their faith that they could “create something beautiful in an increasingly hostile environment”, their attempt to control works of art as they could not control life. The prodigiously intellectual Reinach brothers, for example, dubbed in a know-all pun drawn from their initials as Je Sais Tout: Joseph, the lawyer who defended Dreyfus; Salomon, the archaeologist and collector; and Hellenist scholar Théodore, who built and gave to France the magnificent classical revival Villa Kerylos in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. None of it saved the next generation of Reinachs from the Holocaust.
Back in the Musée Camondo, de Waal anatomises ornaments as precisely, deliciously, as Moïse chose and placed them. A “gorgeous cadenced” hexagonal room was designed solely to house seven pastorals by Jean-Baptiste Huet. The marquetry of a table chiffonier, “dizzyingly thin slithers” of seasoned wood on which the luxury cabinet maker constructs “an arpeggio”, is “a way of making one thing look entirely other”.
Eventually, de Waal tells Moïse that the immigrant Jewish experience is about dressing up, acting a part. “Your house is a place where everything is something else,” he writes. “One material segues into another, your hand touches gold on the arms of the chair on which you sit. There are plaques of porcelain set into the furniture. This is an interior as performance in which you too are a protagonist, catching sight of yourself in the mirrors.” De Waal, simultaneously, watches himself evoke all this: like it or leave it, the chief trope of “letters” is that the writer can be as precious, mannered, indulgent, as his aesthete subject.
De Waal’s porcelain installations pivot on the ambiguity of preciousness: the fragile yet enduring quality of the material — “you can break it but you cannot destroy it. That is why the world is full of shards, fragments of colour.” So the Musée Camondo: frozen in time as Moïse left it in 1935 — and really as it was in 1917 when life stopped for him with Nissim’s death — yet in our perception fractured, changed unalterably, by his daughter’s and grandchildren’s fate. Their tragedy in turn reshapes understanding of Dreyfus France, the climate in which fantasias such as Camondo’s were conceived.
De Waal concludes that “when I write I think of palimpsests, the writing over of one text by another”. McAuley’s last words are that the “house of fragile things still stands”. It does, twice over: layers of memories, hopes, fears embedded in the Musée Camondo brought alive by two remarkable, intriguingly different, historical imaginations.
The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France, by James McAuley, Yale, RRP£25, 320 pages
Letters to Camondo, by Edmund de Waal, Chatto & Windus, RRP£14.99, 192 pages
Jackie Wullschläger is the FT’s chief visual arts critic
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