A Jewish family of wealthy art collectors living in France since the 1870s, the Camondos were tragically murdered by the Nazis. Here British artist de Waal writes letters reflecting on assimilation, melancholy, and the vicissitudes of history to the late Moise de Camondo, whose spectacular house in Paris—filled with one of the greatest private collections of French eighteenth-century art—is now the Musée Nissim de Camondo.
The potter Edmund de Waal’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. 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 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 ... 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 ... 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.
Everyone who bought, read and loved Edmund de Waal’s first book. The Hare With Amber Eyes, will find equal interest and delight in Letters to Camondo. It is a beautiful and fascinating book, even if its last pages are painful and depressing. It is also beautifully produced, on good paper with fine illustrations, and how Chatto & Windus can do this at less than the price of many shoddily-published novels beats me ... This is a marvellous book, elegant, tender, loving, appreciative, disturbing, a reminder of both the fragility and resilience of high culture, indeed civilisation.
Letters to Camondo will fascinate anyone who has projected complicated emotions onto objects ... evocative ... Although de Waal sketches the outline of the tragic story, readers looking for a more scholarly study of the Camondos may be better off turning to The House of Fragile Things, a new book by James McAuley on French Jewish collectors...De Waal offers something more personal: As an accomplished ceramic artist, he has created installations in a number of museums where he placed his own Japanese-inspired, minimalist vessels next to masterpieces of European painting, sparking fresh insights into familiar works. With its loose structure, which freely jumps between past and present, Letters to Camondo offers a literary counterpart to these striking exhibitions ... [De Waal] demonstrates, in this slim and elegant volume, how words can hold our memories as well as objects while taking up infinitely less space.