Edmund de Waal at the Musée Nissim de Camondo : the fragile poetry of the house museum

PARIS. Letters to Camondo is both a book of letters de Waal wrote to Moïse de Camondo and the title of his temporary exhibition, the first ever to be held at the hôtel particulier the count turned into a museum. The book and the installation draw a mirror portrait of the collector and visual artist as poets : both « put down one object and it has assonance with another. » (Letters 60)

Without dust, Monsieur, it is harder to find the traces.
Letters to Camondo (17)

 In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal explores the history of his ancestors, the Ephrussis, through the history of the collection of netsuke he inhnerited. It is  a story about exile and belonging, acquisition, collection-building, and integration, about betrayal, breakage, and loss. There are many resonances with the story of the Camondo family which, unlike the Ephrussi family, is memoralised in the Musée Nissim de Camondo in the rue de Monceau.

In 1924 Count Moïse de Camondo donated to the Ville de Paris the mansion he considered both the precious showcase of his eighteenth-century collection and a place of remembrance of his son, who died in World War I, and his father, both called Nissim. Visitors today also see it as a state-of-the-art early twentieth-century family mansion as well as a memorial to the family which was annihilated during World War II, and perhaps to other likewise shattered Jewish families.

He donated it with the injuction that nothing ought to be altered or moved. However, Olivier Gabet, director of the Musée Nissim de Camondo and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, invited de Waal to the museum not so much in residence as to « inhabit the interstices of the residence » (exhibition leaflet, Gabet). His “sensitive, inframince exhibition” (exhibition leaflet, Gabet) attempts to pick up the “Ariadne’s thread” of the “story” (Letters 22) Moïse de Camondo left hanging, not to alter but to add, palimpsest-like, to what already is a palimpsest of times, memories, and possible readings.

To respect. How to avoid betraying Moïse de Camondo’s will : “Don’t lend things. Keep the blinds down, keep the dust away, don’t add objects to these collections” (quoted in exhibition leafleft, de Waal) ? The installations fleetingly tip-toe their way into the deliberate architectural combinations or arrangements of objects. Visitors might not see some of them, white ceramic staged in front of white walls, black ceramic set against dark wood backgrounds, small pieces at the far end of the study barred by a red rope. Are we not meant to miss some ?  They’re there, we know that there’re there, and have to accept that we won’t see all of them – unless we turn to the leaflet’s list of “Hidden works” for guidance. What is perceptible and what not, and “what is off limits” (Letters 19)?

To revive. De Waal slips fragments onto or into spaces that are usually bare, such as desks, or closed, such as drawers. His delicate pieces in ceramic, gold, and lead, are abstract shapes, circles, squares, rectangles, as well as solid shadows of everyday objects. Bowls, boxes, sheets and envelopes, pieces of torn paper draw attention to the practicality of what visitors usually see as collection pieces with no use value, and conjure up the long gone inhabitants. This revives the tactility of the eighteenth-century museum the Camondos lived in: “These are surfaces to be caressed and let go, pressed and released. Drawers for secrets, a desk for the life you keep close. You open to a vacancy.” (Letters 50)

To rearrange. Even though visitors are fobidden to touch, let alone caress, anything, a gesture is being reenacted. That of the collector patiently assembling the objects of his collection to capture, inhabit, and share beauty, balance, and harmony. Even before it became a museum, the house illustrated how “[o]bjects are not seen by themselves but discovered among others” (52), how we create and understand in series. Like the collector, the ceramist experiences

[t]he pleasure of putting things next to each other.

And watching. (Letters 57)

De Waal’s art is about grouping ceramic shapes that are like conversation pieces. Here, he explores this poetical, dialogical gesture further: “I think of where I can place them so that they gently amplify some of the echoes of the house, hold some of the silences” (exhibition leaflet, de Waal). He adds ceramic bowls containing purposely fractured pieces of ceramic bowls and letters into the showcases of the petit salon where the count had dinner when alone, alongside the collection of Sèvres services.

To restore. The museum house in which the Camondos lived was a hybrid, yet organic space, an idealised materialisation of eighteenth-century French art de vivre. It did not merely absorb and blend objects but entire architectural ensembles : “[t]he Count de Menou’s first-floor drawing room at 11 rue Royale is transplanted to your large drawing room.” (Letters 67) It was an attempt at restoration and at integration, a Benjaminian gesture towards “the art of citing without quotation marks” (Letters 111). De Waal puts 8 polished stone benches in the yard, with cracks repaired with gold leaf in the kintsugi manner. Like any human-made thing, the house and all the objects in it are poised between preservation : “This is the house in the act of becoming a museum. It is becoming its record. It has its aura” (Letters 121) and inevitable destruction: “the world is full of shards, fragments of colour” (Letters 55).

Don’t we, de Waal asks, all live in self-made vitrines, doll’s houses we keep rearraging in an attempt to control time and preserve memories ?  In the end, is there a difference between Joseph Cornell’s box art from found objects and Moïse de Camondo’s period museum house ?

Cornell used the detritus of the world to make boxes, spaces, stage sets of affinities and discords. And he haunted the junk shops and flea markets of Flushing in Queens and you are here on the rue de Monceau with the dealers of the Place Vendôme ; you are both playing with memories. (Letters 60)

Don’t collectors, ceramists and poets all “see a World in a Grain of Sand” as William Blake famously pout it in “Auguries of Innocence” ?

  • Blake, William. “Auguries of Innocence”, 1963, posthumous.
  • De Waal, Edmund. The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. London: Chatto & Windus, 2010.
  • De Waal, Edmund. Letters to Camondo. London : Vintage, 2022.
Caroline Marie
Université Paris 8

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Caroline Marie (3 avril 2023). Edmund de Waal at the Musée Nissim de Camondo : the fragile poetry of the house museum. . Consulté le 22 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/roq2

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