Japanese artists starting in the 17th century cleverly, invented the miniature sculptures known as netsuke (Japanese:根付) to serve a very practical function. (The two Japanese characters ne+tsuke mean "root" and "to attach".) Traditional Japanese garments—robes called kosode and kimono—had no pockets. Men who wore them needed a place to keep personal belongings such as pipes, tobacco, money, seals, or medicines.
The elegant solution was to place such objects in containers (called sagemono) hung by cords from the robes' sash (obi). The containers might take the form of a pouch or a small woven basket, but the most popular were beautifully crafted boxes (inro), which were held shut by ojime, sliding beads on cords. Whatever the form of the container, the fastener that secured its cord at the top of the sash was a carved, button-like toggle called a netsuke.
Netsuke, like the inro and ojime they were associated with, evolved over time from being strictly utilitarian into objects of great artistic merit and extraordinary craftsmanship. Such objects have a long history reflecting important aspects of Japanese folklore and life. Netsuke production was most popular during the Edo period in Japan, around 1615-1868. Today, the art lives on and carvers, a few of whose modern works command high prices (US$10,000 or more), are in the UK, Europe, the USA, Japan and elsewhere. Prices at auctions in the USA for collectible netsuke typically range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. Inexpensive molded, faithful reproductions are available in museum shops and elsewhere for $30 or less.
Like many other art forms, netsuke reflect the nature of the society that produced them. This is particularly true of Netsuke. The reasons why this is so include long periods of isolation imposed both by geography and internal politics and limited avenues of self-expression for Japanese citizens due to custom and law. As a result, netsuke display every aspect of Japan culture including its rich folklore and religion, every craft, trade, and profession, all types of people and creatures, both real and imagined, and every kind of object. As in other aspects of Japanese culture, the subjects portrayed by netsuke trend, over the long term, away from an initial emphasis on motifs of Chinese derivation toward a focus on objects of more strictly national interest.
- people - famous and anonymous, current, historical, real and fictitious, children, warriors, priests, etc.
- craft, trades, professions - often depicting actions (fishermen catching fish, woodcutters cutting wood), or examples(i.e., a stylized apple for an orchardist or apple merchant).
- animals - zodiac animals and others; it is worth noting that tradition netsuke style depicts octopus figures as having a tube like siphon protruding from the "face" similar to a mouth. If you examine closely, you'll find that some octopuses have nine tentacles instead of 8. These octopuses will usually be found embracing beautiful women; you can guess what the ninth tentacle represents.
- plants or plant products - small ones, such as beans or chestnuts, are often carved life-size.
- deities and mythical creatures - often from Chinese myth and religion
- non-living things - the smallest category. Common examples include roof tiles, coins, and tools
- abstract - mon patterns and other designs
- sexual - "shunga" netsuke may depict a male and female in sexual conjugation, or may contain only subtle or symbolic sexual references
Some netsuke represent single, simple, objects, and some depict entire scenes from history, mythology, or literature.
Monday, May 5, 2008
Small Brilliances: Netsuke
Posted by M. Christian