Monday, January 18, 2016
Netsuke are carvings of ivory, wood, lacquer, porcelain, metal, or other material. They are generally about 4 centimeters (1^ inches) in size, but vary between 2 centimeters (4/5 inch) and 9 centimeters (31 inches) or larger. This miniature sculpture of a special type was born during the Tokugawa and Meiji periods (1603-1912). For some 300 years, every well-dressed Japanese wore at the sash of his kimono a netsuke as an attachment to his purse, pouch, or lacquer box.
It is the use of the netsuke as an article to be worn that distinguishes it from other miniature sculpture. To be suitable for wearing, it had to be even smaller than most miniature sculpture, it had to be rounded and smooth, and it had to have a passage for the cord that attached it to the purse, pouch, or lacquer box. The word "netsuke" comes from two Japanese characters: "ne," meaning "root," and "tsuke," meaning "to attach." The term is both singular and plural.
1. EARTHQUAKE FISH (NAMAZU). In ancient times prior to the development of science, the terrible earthquakes that terrified and devastated Japan were attributed to the earthquake fish. This huge monster resides in the bowels of the earth from one end of Japan to the other. Whenever it wriggles, the earth above trembles and cracks. Material: ivory. Unsigned. Length: 7 cm. From Hideo Taniguchi, Kyoto.
2. RABBIT CIRCLE. In the West we see the Man in the Moon, but in the East it is the Rabbit in the Moon. The circle formed by the three rabbits may, plausibly, represent the moon, but the Japanese collector sees a deeper significance. He interprets the design as a modification of the three commas or comets (magatama) enclosed in a circle, the origin of which is buried in obscure Chinese metaphysics. It is the endless whirlpool of the heavens around the earth. It is the male and female principle (yin and yang) and the union of the two making the trinity. The three-comma design is often seen on the ends of tiles on temple roofs and in family crests (mon). The illustration represents a substitution of rabbits for commas. It makes an auspicious netsuke for a man born in the Year of the Rabbit. Material: ivory. Unsigned. Diameter: 3.5 cm.
3. SKELETON. The custom of cremating the dead is prevalent in Japan; only the ashes are interred. However, there was a time when the burial of the corpse was common. In accordance with Buddhist custom, the corpse was placed in a small square box in a cramped squatting position with the head bent towards the knees, as in the illustration. The position is thought to represent a final religious meditation, or a return to the foetal position preparatory to a rebirth. The skeleton is a fine example of the solution of the netsuke carver's problem of how to design a dangling, bony object so that it is smooth and rounded for the ideal netsuke shape. Material: ivory. Unsigned. Height: 4.6 cm. 19th century.
4. GHOST. Ghosts play a thrilling part in Japanese literature and drama. In stories, many a conscienceless murderer has been driven to his death by the incessant haunting of the ghost of his victim. Ghost plays are popular in the Kabuki theater, where they are usually performed in the hot summer months. The effects of ghostly make-up and unearthly screams keep the audience in blood-running coolness despite the stifling heat. Japanese ghosts are always portrayed without legs. Material: wood. Unsigned. Height: 8.2 cm. Late 18th century.
5. GHOST AND GOBLIN. The representation is a travesty on mother and child. Mother is a ghost, and child is a goblin (bakemono). Is mother going to nurse the little darling, or is she going to fix him for her supper? In Japan, ghosts are ethereal, their extremities trailing off in legless appendages; bakemono are goblins and monsters of various terrifying shapes and sizes. The little fellow resembles the goblin known as Priest One-Eye, who travels about carrying fire in a sieve. Material: wood. Signed: Masatoshi (Nakamura Tokisada) (Japan, Tokyo, 1915-2001). Height: 6.5 cm.
6. DEMON MASK. There are about 100 masks used in the stately Noh drama and in the comic interludes called Kyogen. It is often difficult to identify the masks of Noh and Kyogen, as the variations are often very slight and the mask carvers exercised considerable license. The Noh masks reveal a much more subtle art than do the ancient Greek masks with their static expressions of joy and sorrow. The Noh masks depict the midway emotion— the expression that is halfway between joy and sorrow,between hope and despair, between pride and modesty, etc. By tilting the mask at various angles and by adjusting his posture, the actor registers the emotion hewishes to convey. Material: wood. Unsigned. Height: 7 cm. 18th century.
7. CORAL NETSUKE. The tools and techniques employed in carving coral are quite different from those used in carving wood and ivory. Netsuke carvers had little experience with this material. It is, therefore, unusual to find a carved coral netsuke made prior to Meiji (1865), though polished red coral branches, uncarved and undecorated, occasionally served as netsuke. After Meiji, artisans began to work in coral. The netsuke illustrated is an exception. It is a carved coral netsuke produced prior to Meiji. The subject is a Toad Sennin. Material: coral. Unsigned, Height: 5.1cm.
8. ONE-HORN SENNIN. One-Horn Sennin was born of the marriage of his father with a deer; hence his horn. His father was also a sennin, but apparently found other diversions in the mountains besides ascetic contemplation. One-Horn Sennin acquired great magical powers through a life of austere regimen and strict celibacy. However, one fateful day, he met a beautiful woman who had lost her way and become exhausted. He carried her pickaback as illustrated.
Seeing her beautiful face reflected in the stream across which he waded and feeling her dear warmth, he experienced carnal sensations and desired earthly pleasures. Alas, poor One-Horn was instantly despoiled of his hard-earned merit and magical powers! Material: ivory. Signed: Hidemasa. Height: 5.8 cm.
9. KUDAN. Interesting sources of subject matter for the netsuke artists were the wildly imaginative drawings of unreal men and beasts found in ancient Chinese books. The animal illustrated is a kudan. It has the body of a bull with a bearded human head, three supplementary eyes on either side of its body, and horns. The kudan is an oracle with a human voice which always utters the absolute truth. In view of the kudan's European face and the fame of the Delphic oracle, Greek influence or a Greek model may well be presumed. Material: ivory. Unsigned. Length: 4.9 cm. 19th century.
10. MERMAID AND CHILD. The mermaid legend may have originated from wishful reports of love-starved seamen about the sea cow, an aquatic relative of the elephant, that feeds on seaweed in shallow waters. Being a mammal, it nurses its young at the breast just as the mermaid is doing in the illustration. The mermaid is called ningyo in Japanese, meaning woman-fish. Alas, the complaint against this beautiful creature is that she is not enough fish to eat nor enough woman to love! Material: wood. Signed: Kokei. Length: 4.7 cm. Late 18th century.
11. FOX-WITCH. The fox dressed in the ancient court robes of a lady is an allusion to a case of royal fox-possession, the story of Tamamo no Mae, in which the fox-witch almost caused the slow death of the emperor by assuming the shape of a beautiful woman. There are many tales of foxes assuming the shapes of beauties and ruining their pitiful mates with debauchery. Even today, a lovely temptress is called kitsune (fox). Material: ivory. Signed: Shiko. Height: 3.1 cm.
12. TADPOLES. Toads and frogs are frequently represented in netsuke, but, unaccountably, the tadpole is extremely rare. The tadpoles of the illustration swim in a conventionalized stream. The type of netsuke is a ryusa, which means that the material is perforated clear through to make the design.
Japan has a great variety of frogs commonly called red, green, rain, and tree frogs, all of which croak as raucously as they do in other countries; but Japan is blessed with one extraordinary variety, the kajika, a tiny denizen of mountain streams that sings in a high sweet voice. The kajika is often kept as a pet, just as the singing cricket is. Material: wood. Signed: Soko. Length: 4.8 cm.
13. DOVE. In the West the dove is the messenger of peace and good will, but in Japan she is the messenger of Hachiman, the God of War. The grain of the carefully chosen wood emphasizes the toylike quality of the netsuke. The unknown artist simplified the design almost to the point of abstraction. Material: paulownia wood. Unsigned. Length: 5.5 cm.
14. OWL. The Chinese and, through their early influence, the Japanese regard the owl as a thoroughly evil bird. Not only is it a nocturnal predator, its call a portent of death and an alert to snatch the departing soul, but, worst of all, it eats its own mother. This is a most unfilial act in a filially devoted society where patricide is punished more dreadfully than ordinary murder. It is no surprise then that the owl was seldom carved.
Who would want to wear an omen of evil and a symbol of ingratitude? As a netsuke it is a rare bird, and the collector is always searching for a good one. Material: wood. Unsigned. Height: 5 cm. Late 18th - early 19th century.
15. HAIRY AINU. The Ainu are the aborigines of Japan. According to their oral legends, they came from a land of snow and ice devoid of forests or birds. The land of their legends is thought to be Siberia. They are a Caucasian race, taller and bonier than the Japanese, with luxuriant mustaches and beards as opposed to the smooth-skinned Japanese.
Originally the Ainu were settled extensively throughout Japan, but today they are concentrated around Shiraoi in Hokkaido, the northern Japanese island, in much the same way as the American Indians on the Arizona reservations. The Ainu's life is one of fishing and hunting. The great annual Ainu festival is devoted to the worship and sacrifice of a bear. In the illustration, the Ainu is carrying a catch of seals on his back. The geometric patterns on Ainu clothes resemble American Indian decorations. Like the Scotsman's plaid, the pattern tells which village or clan an Ainu traveler is from. Material: wood. Unsigned. Height: 7.9 cm. 19th century.
16. FOX-PRIEST. Japanese folklore is replete with fox-demons who assume various disguises, including human forms, causing sickness and even death. The fox-demon is the Oriental version of the legendary werewolf. The fox-demon is especially reprehensible when he assumes the form of a priest, as in the illustration, and hypocritically says his beads like the crafty beast he is. Material: wood, lacquer, and inlays. Signed: Kokoku. Height: 5.2 cm.
17. RYUJIN. Ryujin is the Dragon King who lives in a palace under the sea and rules the waves. He is the Neptune of the Orient. He is often represented wearing a dragon headdress and holding in his hands the jewel that controls the ebb and flow of the tides. Ryujin's assistants usually wear octopus headresses. In the netsuke illustrated, the artist designed one assistant with his features twisted like the face of an octopus and the other with his features curled like the arms of an octopus. No one, neither god nor drunkard, is safe from the vagaries and humor of the netsuke artist. Material: wood. Unsigned. Height: 9.6 cm.
18. NARA DOLL. Nara dolls are usually Noh actors carved in wood and painted in bright colors. The carving technique is always ittobori, sharp angular cutting to produce plane surfaces, and done with a single chisel. Morikawa Toen (1820-1894) brought the Nara doll to a remarkable perfection. His work is preserved at the Tokyo National Museum and the Nara National Museum and is often exhibited.Is Toen a genius? The Japanese critics rank him as one. They say he crossed the shadowy line that separates the artistic dollmaker from the master sculptor. Toen blended material, technique, and decoration in a perfect unison to express the stiff, angular, colorful brocade of the Noh costume. He instilled in his little figures an enchanting spirit of make-believe. Material: painted wood. Signed: Toen. Height: 5.9cm.
19. NITTA YOSHISADA. Nitta Yoshisada was one of the great generals who fought on the side of the emperor against the forces of the shogun during the civil wars of the Ashikaga period. At the battle of Fujishima (A.D. 1300), he was shot in the head by an enemy arrow. His head was severed, taken to Kyoto, and exhibited for public gaze. His devoted wife, who was to meet him in Kyoto after the battle, found instead this ghastly, grisly trophy hanging by the topknot. The bereaved woman retired to a convent and was never heard of again, but both her sons followed in their famous father's footsteps and, like him, were slaughtered in battle. Material: painted wood. Unsigned. Height: 4.7 cm. 19th Century.
20. FARMERS' ART. The fish illustrated is a product of what the Japanese call "farmers' art." By definition, the fish was carved by a man who made it for his own use or for a friend. It is the work of an amateur. While it is devoid of professional elegance, the design is spontaneous and primitive, rough and powerful. Material: wood. Unsigned. Length: 8 cm.