Living among echoes

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 17.09.2021

What is it about the English and the Paris Belle Epoque? Two recent books take the reader straight back to that period in all its opulence and excess. Amorous escapades as well as duels were the order of the day – at least for those moving in privileged circles. The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes is the earlier book. It starts from the highly theatrical portrait by the American artist John Singer Sargent of Samuel Pozzi, a society doctor and pioneer gynaecologist. The latter befriended the right people and collected rare books. He was a free thinker and a notorious womaniser who expected his wife Thérèse to suffer in silence.

In the opening pages we follow Pozzi and two friends – one a Count, the other a Prince – on a trip to London in 1885, where he buys his curtains from Liberty’s and his tweeds from Bond Street. Barnes is fascinated by the sophistication of it all, though you soon sense that underneath the veneer there is a much darker side of political corruption and rampant blood-and-soil nativism stoked by people like the sinister Edouard Drumont. Significantly, the Dreyfus affair was to become the key political event of the period!

Another portrait of the Belle Epoque is drawn by Edmund de Waal in Letters to Camondo. The tone of the book is particularly intimate and lyrical. De Waal, who has long achieved fame as the best-known contemporary British ceramicist and has exhibited his work in galleries all over the world, published a family memoir entitled The Hare with Amber Eyes in 2010. Now he is back on similar ground. His new book consists of a series of imaginary letters addressed to Count Moïse de Camondo, who lived in a splendid hôtel particulier on rue de Monceau, ten doors away from the Ephrussi, the author’s forebears. The letters are accompanied by photographs; some are of the rooms in the Camondo mansion, others are taken from family albums.

The Ephrussi originated from Odessa, while the Camondos were bankers in Constantinople. Both families arrive in Paris in 1869, set up businesses and embrace French culture. Soon their art collections will define them as much as their community does. Yet once anti-Semitism raises its ugly head in the French press, the families living in the golden mansions near Parc Monceau are singled out not only because of their religion, but also for of their wealth. Snobbery and chauvinism target those that are dismissed as upstarts and as not French enough to be granted honours - or even just respect.
There is brutal irony here since Moïse de Camondo saw himself, above all, as a Parisian and as a French patriot. Decades later Nissim, his son and heir, volunteered to join the French army in World War One and was killed in 1917 when his aeroplane went down behind enemy lines. Moïse was left a broken man and turned his house with its exceptional collections into a memorial to be donated to France on his death.

Thus, in 1936 the Musée Nissim de Camondo opened to the public as a gallery of decorative arts. It is also where Edmund de Waal delves into the carefully kept archives in order to recreate the life Moïse led. ‘Did you ever throw anything away?’ he asks the latter at one point, taken aback by the abundance of memoranda, receipts, hunting journals and seating plans. Clearly, the Camondo archives are a historian’s paradise, though they would be a minimalist’s worst nightmare!
In the book Moïse comes across as a relentless collector who had almost impeccable taste and whose passion for 18th-century French furniture, for Flemish tapestries, Dutch paintings and Chinese vases was boundless. Art dealers contacted him with tempting suggestions day after day as more and more French châteaux had to be sold by ruined aristocrats.

De Waal sets out to analyse the psychology of the collector’s mind. A collector who felt utterly humiliated when his name appeared in the newspapers in 1897 because his wife, Irène Cahen d’Anvers, decided to leave him for Count Charles Sampieri, the man who ran the Camondo racing stables. In this context, de Waal refers to Walter Benjamin, who associated collecting with a penchant for control, with the urge to create order. Yes, there is the thrill of acquisition, but there is also the refuge you can retreat into – away from the gossip you might encounter at the jockey club, away from the chaos in the outside world.

Art offers solace, yet it can never protect or insulate. The bubble of perfection Moïse had created was thus brutally burst by history a second time, namely during Nazi occupation, when the German military were allowed to act with impunity, too often with the active help of French officials. Once again, history proved all those that believed in assimilation and moral progress wrong as hatred, resentment and primitive instincts were let loose.

In 1943 Béatrice de Camondo, Moïse’s only surviving child, was deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered. Her husband and two children were also killed in death camps. All that is left today is this stunning labyrinth of rooms with their splendid collections of objets d’art and the archives documenting a cosmopolitan world that has long been smashed to dust. The Camondo hôtel particulier is a spectacular memorial, but also a haunting reminder of the monsters humans and their nation states can create. As de Waal puts it: ‘We become spectators of absence, strangers who do not belong in the house.’

Julian Barnes, The Man in the Red Coat, Jonathan Cape, 2019 (ISBN 978-1-787-33216-4); Edmund de Waal,
Letters to Camondo, Chatto & Windus, 2021 (ISBN 978-1-784-74431-1)

Janine Goedert
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