The Musée Nissim de Camondo is a house full of treasures from the past: 18th-century French antiques carefully collected by its former owners. The museum’s current exhibition, “Letters to Camondo,” is a treasure hunt for a very different type of valuable object: porcelain pieces created by British artist, master potter and writer Edmund de Waal.
De Waal’s minimalist pieces couldn’t be more different from the plush, elaborate furnishings and decorative objects that fill the house. The connection between them is not artistic but historical and familial. De Waal, the author of the hugely popular book The Hare with Amber Eyes, is a scion of the Ephrussi banking family, which once lived 10 houses up the hill on the Rue Monceau from what is now the Camondo Museum. The two families were linked in many ways, and the Camondos played a major role in de Waal’s story.
The now-extinct Camondo family lives on through its house/museum, and de Waal is helping to keep its memory alive through his latest book, also called “Letters to Camondo,” which he addresses to Count Moïse de Camondo (1860-1935), the man who left the family mansion in Paris to the French state on condition that it remain just as it was, a promise that has largely been kept. Says de Waal: “I write to Moïse about collecting, about being Jewish, about food and dogs and Proust and family and belonging. And mourning. The letters multiply until there are fifty-eight Lettres to Camondo, a book.”
Moïse named the museum after his father and his son, who both bore the name Nissim. The latter was killed while fighting in World War I, breaking his father’s heart. Later, his remaining child, Béatrice, along with her husband Léon and their two children, Fanny and Bertrand, all perished in Auschwitz.
This is the first time that contemporary art has infiltrated this bastion of 18th-century design and craftsmanship, and the first time that de Waal has had a solo show in France. His presence in the museum is nothing if not discreet. We visited the entire ground floor, admiring the Downton Abbey-like kitchens, staff dining room and butler’s pantry without noticing any of his contributions. Finally, we discovered that a map on the flyer we held in our hands pinpointed the location of his works, and had to retrace our steps.
You will definitely need that map to find these small, delicate porcelain pieces, some of which are “framed” by tall vitrines, making them slightly easier to see, while others have been intentionally hidden away by the artist in secret places where they are not visible.
These are not usable objects. The most touching are the additions to Moïse’s desks, de Waal’s messages from the future to the house’s former proprietor. Many are just porcelain shards or paper-thin fragments with mysterious messages written on them – one of them says, “I find this difficult.” Some are ennobled with pieces of gold leaf. The five black vitrines containing lead and shards are memorial “stelæ” for the last generation of the family.
Do read de Waal’s text in the flyer before wandering through the house. This poignant treasure hunt for sometimes invisible artworks will make much more sense to you. And when you leave, take a close look at the eight stone benches in the courtyard, which you may not have noticed when arriving. Made of smooth, mottled golden Horton stone, each one has hammered lead and gold on one of its edges, which de Waal, who studied pottery in Japan, says are “markers of loss and repair … a form of kintsugi – the art of visible repair of an object with a line of gold and lacquer.”
The last word also goes to the eminently eloquent de Waal: “You cannot mend this house or this family,” he writes. “You can mark some of the broken places. You can mark them properly and with dignity, with love. And then move away again, let the house be.”Favorite