Expressions of Style: Netsuke as Art
New York, NY
This fall Scholten Japanese Art will be holding an exhibition of important Japanese netsuke from private collections.
Japanese netsuke are small, exquisite carvings that served to anchor daily accoutrements such as tobacco pouches, pipe cases, and lacquer inro (medicine and seal boxes) to the broad sash worn with the traditional Japanese kimono. Until the arrival of European fashions following the landing of America's Commodore Perry in 1853 and the restoration of the Meiji emperor in 1868, Japan was quite literally a "world without pockets" and sagemono (hanging things) were the universal style.
A highlight of the exhibition is a figure obviously inspired by Chinese carvings, a netsuke of an androgynous foreigner. Her elaborately looped hairstyle and the angle of her head echo the line of the Chinese counterparts. This figure dates from the early 18th century.
Animal netsuke were also very popular, perhaps representing an astrological year or the birth sign of its owner. This exhibition is particularly strong in the bold Kyoto school netsuke of the 18th century, with several works by the acknowledged masters of this art form, Masanao and Tomotada. The carvings of these early artists are typified by the somewhat eccentric conceptual exaggeration of their design. A good example of this is the startlingly malevolent cat on a cushion, an unsigned work by the unmistakable hand of Masanao of Kyoto.
Mythological subjects also enjoyed great popularity. Often they appear to be a mixture of different combinations of various creatures, both real and imaginary. This is well illustrated by a painted wood figure of a Shokuin. The design for this almost certainly came from a Chinese illustrated book that appeared in 1666, the Shanhaijing chatu in which 144 different types of mythological beings were depicted. Living on Mount Zhong, the Shokuin was believed to control the daylight with the opening and closing of his eyes, and the seasons with his breath.
Moving into the 19th century, netsuke became more intricate and smaller in size, showing a greater degree of the artist's technical "wizardry." A 19th century small ivory carving of an eji (porter) by Otoman resting with his master's rolled banner over one shoulder is a consummate example of such perfection.
This exhibition will coincide with the biennial Netsuke Convention, which will this year be held in Boston just prior to New York's Asia Week, and where Scholten will also be exhibiting. A fully illustrated color catalogue of over 200 netsuke is available to accompany the exhibition. This exhibition opens September 20, 2001 and continues until October 20, 2001.
Netsuke specialist Rosemary Bandini will speak at the gallery in September as part of their ongoing monthly lecture series, The Aesthetics of Edo Japan.