Objects as antidotes to loss in the work of Maira Kalman and Edmund de Waal
Empty boxes, some child-made, some commercial. Sponges from around the world. Postcards from the Hotel Celeste in Tunisia. A suitcase that belonged to a man who fled Danzig in 1939. Whistles. A figurine of a stag scratching his ear with a hind leg. A snake curled on a lotus leaf, in ivory. Three sweet chestnuts. A hare with amber eyes. These are items in the respective collections of Maira Kalman and Edmund de Waal, two very different artists and writers who turn traditional Holocaust memoir-writing on its head by telling the stories of their Jewish families through objects like the ones above.
An Israeli-born, New-Yorkraised illustrator, designer, children’s-book author and artist across many media, Kalman is best known for her December 2001 The New Yorker cover with Rick Meyerowitz, a map of ‘New Yorkistan’ including such neighbourhoods as Botoxia and Upper Kvetchnya. Her two year-long series of monthly blogs blending image and text for The New York Times are now available in two books, And the Pursuit of Happiness (2010) and The Principles of Uncertainty (2007). In a visual essay for the latter, ‘Collecting Myself ’, Kalman calls the objects she collects ‘tangible evidence of history, memory, longing, delight.’ The history and memory evoked by the Danzig suitcase are all too familiar; of it, Kalman writes, ‘as if I need reminders of the Holocaust. That’s all I think about.’ Grief runs through her work, which draws on the partial survival of her own family, but by grounding her stories in objects, she tempers her grief with the longing and delight these objects elicit. In the beautifully written The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), de Waal tells the story of his ancestors through a collection of 264 netsuke, tiny Japanese carvings, purchased in the 1870s in Paris and passed down by Charles, a cousin of de Waal’s greatgrandfather Viktor, to Viktor, to his son Iggie, and to Edmund himself. De Waal, a renowned British ceramic artist, has been making pots since he was a child and left school at seventeen to apprentice in England and Japan. ‘How objects get handled, used, and handed on is not just a mildly interesting question for me. It is my question,’ he writes. It is a desire to understand the netsuke better that leads him, albeit warily, into his family story. Inheriting the netsuke, he writes, ‘means I have been handed a responsibility to them and to the people who have owned them. I am unclear and discomfited about where the parameters of this responsibility might lie.’
Objects used to memorialise the Holocaust usually represent absence; they are invoked as traces of the dead and reinforce a story of destruction. Quantity plays a vital role in this process of reinforcement. Twenty-five thousand pairs of shoes sit in the Auschwitz Museum, representing one day’s collection at the peak of the gassings. The museum also contains 3,800 suitcases and 12,000 pots and pans. The artist Christian Boltanski, whose Jewish father hid under the floorboards during the Nazi occupation of Paris, emerging in 1944 to beget Christian, has made a career out of memorial art. His work The Children of Dijon uses blurred, anonymous photographs of children’s faces to create dozens of tiny shrines; his 2010 installation, Personnes, includes a 50-tonne pile of old clothes. Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial in Vienna’s Judenplatz, Nameless Library, works on a similarly vast scale; it is a cast of the inside of a reading room with hundreds of books.
By ballasting their stories with the specificity of objects, Kalman and de Waal counteract this traditional narrative of loss with a celebration of the stubborn ‘thinginess’ of these things. This celebration both pulls the viewer repeatedly back to the present and plays with the darker desire to experience history and memory through these remainders of the past. Under Kalman’s brush, the Danzig suitcase, part of her suitcase collection, does not become a symbol of lost multitudes, as in the piles of suitcases at Auschwitz. Rather, she delights in the specifics of this one suitcase, announcing that it was made by Josef Winker and Sons, who owned a shop on Himmelpfortgasse. This irreducible thinginess, with its random humour, cannot be abstracted into the symbolic. Rather, the vibrancy of detail draws the viewer into the unique world of each object, a rich world replete with creativity, taste, humour, and individuality that counteracts absence with presence and loss with discovery.
The writer and scholar of Jewish philosophy Philipp Blom suggests in his book, To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting, that collecting is a way of building up meaning, a way to ‘make sense of the multiplicity and chaos of the world’ while also allowing collectors to ‘overcome the limits of their time and upbringing.’ For Kalman and de Waal, objects provide novelty and memory, meaning and escape. Kalman juxtaposes her image of the Danzig suitcase with other ordinary things she has amassed—egg slicers, pieces of white linen, notes on the mosses of Long Island. De Waal’s collection of netsuke—‘figures and animals and erotica and creatures from myth: they cover most of the subjects that you could expect in a comprehensive collection’—testifies to the fact that ‘someone with knowledge has put this group together.’ Kalman’s oeuvre contains collections within collections: her father-in-law, ‘transplanted in 1957 from soigneÅL Budapest to lumpy Poughkeepsie,’ collected insults in a tiny notebook, and her friend collects air from around the world in labelled jars.
The netsuke, and the exacting attention their individuality demands, help quell the unease de Waal feels about telling his family history; he catches himself turning it into dinner-party conversation and feels ‘slightly sickened by how poised it sounds.’ Recording his great-uncle’s memories of Vienna feels ‘formal and inappropriate…also greedy: that’s a good rich story, I’ll have that.’ Wary of falling into the nostalgia trap, he writes in the preface, ‘I really don’t want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss.’ As he rolls a netsuke of a medlar fruit between his fingers, he muses, ‘melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness…and this netsuke is an explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return.’ Tracing the netsuke allows de Waal to tell the story of his ancestors through the art, clothing and houses they acquired, loved and lost. De Waal’s ancestors, the Ephrussis, parlayed their success as Odessa grain merchants into a banking empire in the late nineteenth century, marrying into the Rothschild family and building fabulous residences in Vienna and Paris. Charles, a ‘spare son’ and the model for Proust’s character Charles Swann, avoided the world of finance to become an art collector and critic, planning assignations with his lover in Parisian dealerships at the height of Europe’s craze for Japonisme. He gave the netsuke as a wedding present to his Viennese cousin Viktor, de Waal’s great-grandfather, in the 1890s, and Viktor’s wife installed the figurines in her dressing room at the Palais Ephrussi for her children to play with, where they remained until World War II.
In March 1938, hope for an independent Austria was crushed by the Anschluss; the Palais Ephrussi was raided on the first night in an ‘unsanctioned Aryanisation.’ Next month, the house was turned into Gestapo headquarters, and most of de Waal’s family fled Vienna. His grandmother Elisabeth returned after the war to find that Austria, considering itself the ‘first victim,’ was unwilling to help her trace her family’s belongings. But back at the Palais Ephrussi, an ‘emptied house,’ she is reunited with the family maid Anna, who produces the 264 netsuke. She had smuggled them past the Gestapo and hidden them under her mattress during the war. Elisabeth takes the netsuke back to her home in England, where her brother Iggie claims them and takes them with him to Tokyo, where he spends the remaining forty-seven years of his life. De Waal now keeps them in an unlocked cabinet for his children to play with. Throughout the text, the immediacy and charm of the netsuke short-circuit the vagueness of nostalgia. They provide a touch of gentle, selfreferential humour; the medlar is a hard object made from a fruit only edible when rotten, and another, of a cooper at work, is about ‘finishing something on the subject of the half-finished.’ Moments given over to description of the netsuke provide interludes of delight; there are rats, ‘because they give the maker the chance to wrap those sinuous tails round each other,’ and ratcatchers, erotic carvings and beggars bent over bowls. De Waal picks up this teasing humour; when his glasses break in Vienna, he jokes, ‘I am 400 yards… from the front door to Freud’s apartment, outside my paternal family home, and I cannot see clearly. Bring on the symbolism.’ Nostalgia depends on an idealisation of the past, but this humour precludes fogginess; the netsuke give shape to the stories of this reluctant biographer, allowing him to work with specific memories rather than a vague concept of memory.
On the level of story, de Waal resists using the netsuke as tokens of hope to recuperate his memoir from loss. He writes, ‘the survival of the netsuke…is an affront. I cannot bear for it to slip into symbolism. Why should they have got through this war in a hiding-place, when so many hidden people did not?’ The netsuke do not redeem his family story, but create a space for its telling while circumventing an overfamiliar Holocaust narrative of gradual loss. Like de Waal, Kalman uses ‘explosions of exactitude’ as points of entry into her family memories, saving them from spiraling entirely into a story of disappeared worlds by providing moments of contrapuntal humour. In ‘Heaven on Earth,’ Kalman’s aunt tells her the story of Maishel Shmelkin, the genius of Lenin (the Russian village her family comes from), who once went for a walk wearing no trousers. Maishel recurs—again with no trousers—in Kalman’s stories for children. This story invokes a certain sadness for a vanished world of such characters, but an illustration of Maishel (from the chest up) shares space with drawings of Tolstoy, fruit platters from around the world and Kalman as a rabbit wearing shoes. The blog begins with an image of the Princesse de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette’s best friend; playing with autobiographical expectations, Kalman writes, ‘she is not my relative…there is no obvious reason she is here, other than that we may linger for a moment and say, “How extraordinary.”’
After an illustrated discussion of Dostoevsky’s love life (he was infatuated with the writer Polina Suslova, who hated him) Kalman’s conversation with her aunt becomes more personal. ‘We talk about my mother and why she did not marry the man she loved, but instead married my father, who accidentally fell out of the 2nd-floor window of our apartment in Tel Aviv, but bounced and did not get hurt. Perhaps that is why he was a little crazy.’ Food punctuates these family stories, sometimes introducing and sometimes banishing gloom—the honey cake she shares with her aunt, baked in a Bundt pan (invented, as Kalman notes, by the late H. David Dalquist, who ‘had a very good obituary’), the Mocha Cream Cake from Mother’s Bakery on Johnson Avenue in Riverdale, N.Y. served at a 1963 tea party at which her parents were barely speaking, attended by a mustachioed lady ‘dentist [who] served meatloaf sprinkled with colored cookie crumbs.’
The randomness and humour of these surprising juxtapositions allow Kalman to conjure up but not surrender to loss, addressing it in her trademark tangential fashion. Sometimes, she achieves this within a single image. In ‘The Impossibility of February,’ Kalman evokes the lost world of Jewish Europe with an image of two matching objects:
‘twin sisters…there are black stripes on their sleeves. One sister…will become my mother-in-law.’
The setting is not depicted in the image but written in careful curlique—Budapest. The vanished pre-war community is recalled, but as backdrop; Kalman’s reference to the sisters’ matching yellow dresses with black trim protects the image from the vagueness of nostalgia and introduces a note of delight. The final instalment of The Principles of Uncertainty, ‘Finale’, is a masterpiece of selective juxtaposition and object celebration. Her depictions of Robert Polidori’s photographs of New Orleans post-flood sit alongside a cheeseburger deluxe from her favourite coffee shop (Joe Junior, where ‘you cannot order a deluxe grilled cheese sandwich—there are limits to deluxe’) and Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, balancing a giant wig on her head ‘at the tender age of nine or ten. She did it. Amazing.’ At the close of The Hare with Amber Eyes, de Waal notices that the netsuke—a sleeping rat, the medlar, the eponymous rabbit—have been moved around by his children. ‘It is not just things that carry stories with them,’ he writes. ‘Stories are a kind of thing, too. Stories and objects share something, a patina.’ Fittingly, he is unsure whether this patina is a process that adds or rubs away. In Kalman and de Waal’s stories, it may be both.
Fran Bigman is a PhD student in English at Cambridge studying the representation of abortion in British literature and film. After university, she spent two years teaching English at a high school in rural Western Japan.