SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A set of installations by the contemporary British ceramicist Edmund de Waal has gone on show at a stately home deep in the English countryside. Now, if the name de Waal sounds familiar, may be because of his 2010 book, "The Hare with Amber Eyes." It traces the fortunes of the artist's once fabulously-wealthy Jewish forebears. The book itself set off a chain of events that led to the exhibition, as Vicki Barker explains.
VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: To Edmund de Waal, a maker of delicate and mysterious porcelain objects, objects tell stories. Here, he reads from his book, "The Hare with Amber Eyes."
EDMUND DE WAAL: (Reading) How objects are handed on is all about storytelling. I'm giving you this because I love you, or because it was given to me because I bought it somewhere special, because you'll care for it, because it will complicate your life, because it will make someone envious.
BARKER: To de Waal, stories can also become objects passed from hand to unreliable hand, including the stories that reached him of his vanished ancestors. The hare in the title refers to one of the tiny Japanese netsuke figures de Waal inherited from his great-uncle, just about all that remains of the wealth of the Ephrussis - European Jews at one time as rich and well-connected as the Rothschilds.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Would you like a booklet about the exhibition? Thank you.
BARKER: Visitors to de Waal's exhibition at Waddesdon Manor, the historic country seat of the British Rothschilds, now run by the Rothschild Foundation at Britain's National Trust. It's a fabulous, 19th century faux French chateau 50 miles from London, stuffed from creaky floorboards up to the rafters with priceless porcelain and furniture and paintings and sculptures. One of the curators read de Waal's book and realized he was a distant cousin of the current Lord Rothschild. De Waal picks up the story from there.
WAAL: And the invitation came from them, and also from Lord Rothschild, to do something here, to be in conversation with this house and these collections, and also with, you know, might this shared Jewish history, European history of collecting and the diaspora.
BARKER: De Waal's installations are scattered among the ground floor rooms: white, or sometimes black, cylinders of wafer-thin porcelain, with occasional splashes of gold, arranged inside black-framed display cases called vitrines. The space between the objects as important as the objects themselves. De Waal's skills and his esthetic were honed during early study in Japan and it's a kind of Zen Easter egg hunt looking for these ghostly, minimalist pieces tucked among the clocks and statuettes and rare Meissen porcelain that seem to fill every horizontal surface.
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BARKER: The visitors - many clearly already familiar with de Waal's work - move reverently from room to room. In the breakfast room, two vitrines sit on clear Perspex bases. They seem to hover above the marble-topped 18th century consoles. De Waal calls these pieces "Between Two Breaths."
WAAL: They sit opposite these incredible figures of animals, which were made in Meissen - tremendous, famous bits of porcelain. And so it's simply a dialogue between me, as someone who sits down at my wheel and uses porcelain, and a wonderful, wonderful porcelain artist 300 years ago.
BARKER: The vitrines, he says, are a new departure, inspired by the one that first held his netsuke figures. That was purchased by the Parisian Ephrussi forbear Proust used as a model for Charles Swann in "Remembrance of Things Past." To de Waal's Parisian and Viennese forbears, he says objects weren't just sought for their beauty; they were a way of seeking or asserting acceptance, of anchoring themselves in societies which, it would become clear, never fully accepted them. What little of the Ephrussi fortune that survived the First World War was swept away in the Second.
LORD ROTHSCHILD: I love what you've done in this room.
WAAL: Thank you.
BARKER: Lord Rothschild, viewing the exhibition on its opening day. A tall, erect man with the air of an elegant waterfowl. The Rothschilds made different financial decisions at history's pivot points and have emerged with their fortunes largely intact. Do these themes of collecting and belonging chime with him?
ROTHSCHILD: I'm afraid so.
ROTHSCHILD: 'Cause if you look round here you'll see plenty of that. And, so I think all those themes do chime very much.
BARKER: Some visitors might say de Waal's minimalist forms don't really fit. But Lord Rothschild says that's not the point.
ROTHSCHILD: I mean, do they look beautiful in the context of, say, this room? And if you look at how his pieces here answer that beautiful candle piece there, I think it works very well, and it's very interesting, I think, to see them together.
BARKER: As for de Waal himself, does he think about how, but for a few turns of the karmic potter's wheel, houses like this might have been his? It's certainly brought home to him the scale of what was lost, he says. But de Waal says his real home is his art, and his storytelling.
WAAL: And that's much more important to me than the having of fabulous French furniture. Wouldn't mind a Degas, though. (Unintelligible) my Degas. Wouldn't mind getting one of those back, or a Manet, or a Renoir.
BARKER: Edmund de Waal's work will be at Waddesdon Manor until October 28th. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in Waddesdon, England.
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SIMON: Take a peek inside the Rothschild Manor. You can see Edmund de Waal's work on display throughout the Grand Chateau at our website, NPR.org.
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SIMON: And this is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.
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SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.