Wednesday, January 12, 2022

10 works, Japan’s Tiny Netsuke Carvings, with footnotes

Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan
Kaigyokusai Masatsugu
Reclining goat by (late 1800s)
Ivory with eyes inlaid in coral and dark horn pupils
Osaka, Japan British Museum,

Kaigyokusai Masatsugu was born in 1813, the fitst son of Shimizu Kichibei of Sugishitadori, Osaka. In 1829, he was adopted by Yasunaga Kichirobei. After the death of his adoptive father, he succeeded to the name of Yasunaga. Yasunaga had no teachers in the study of carving techniques. His sketches were made from life. Carved wood and ivory. He used the name of Masatsugu until approximately his 20th year, Kaigyokudo until approximately his 20th year, Kaigyoku until about his 50th year, and Kaigyokusai thereafter. Yasunaga died in 1892 in Osaka at 80.

Masatsugu carved different types of animal, especially those represented in the zodiac cycle. His famourite material was ivory, of which he used only the finest quality. More on Kaigyokusai Masatsugu

A netsuke  is a miniature sculpture, originating in 17th century Japan. Initially a simply-carved button fastener on the cords of an inro box, netsuke later developed into ornately sculpted objects of craftsmanship.

Sōshin (early 1800s)
Mikoshi Nyūdō and a scarecrow
Wood with eyes inlaid in dark horn
Height: 5.60 centimetres
British Museum

Mikoshi Nyudo is one of the many ghostly monsters of Japan that are generally known as bakemono. This monster is usually portrayed with a bald head and a jutting tongue. Although there are many variations of this ghost story across the different regions of Japan, the plots are roughly similar. Essentially, when a person is walking alone at night, the form of a monk suddenly appears. The ghost grows taller every time the person looks up at it and gazing at it for too long invariably results in death.
There is another netsuke attributed to Soshin, which depicts what occurred following on from this netsuke More on Mikoshi-nyūdō

Sōshin was a Netsuke carver. Although little is known about the him, his netsuke are very individual with distinctive traits such as the dramatic eyebrows carved in exquisite high relief. More on Sōshin

Traditionally, Japanese clothing - first the kosode and its later evolution, the kimono - did not have pockets. Though the sleeves of the kimono could be used to store small items, the men who wore kimono needed a larger and stronger container in which to store personal belongings, such as pipes, tobacco, money and seals, resulting in the development of containers known as sagemono, which were hung by cords from the robes' sashes. 

Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan
Mermaid holding a sacred jewel, c. about 1790
 Width: 4 centimetres
British Museum

Natsuki  was a maker of netsuke. Active in Wakayama prefecture in the late 18th century.

These containers may have been pouches or small woven baskets, but the most popular were crafted boxes (inro) held shut by ojime, sliding beads on cords. Whatever the form of the container, the fastener that secured the cord at the top of the sash was a carved, button-like toggle called a netsuke. Netsuke, like inro and ojime, evolved over time from being strictly utilitarian into objects of great artistic merit, and an expression of extraordinary craftsmanship. Netsuke production was most popular during the Edo period (1615-1868). More on Netsuke Carvings

Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan
Naitō Kōseki, 1871-1948
Ubume holding Jizō by (early 1900s)
Height: 10.50 centimetres
British Museum

Ubume is the ghost of a woman who has died in childbirth and cannot find peace as she worries about her child. Here she is holding in her arms a stone sculpture of the Bodhisattva Jizo (Sanskrit Ksitigarbha), a patron deity of children. More on Ubume

Naitō Kōseki was a Buddhist sculptor, resident in Kyoto. Not a regular carver of netsuke, but created a few works at the request of Western collectors. His great skill acquired from the study of ancient sculpture fascinated collectors, and his works made for export helped introduce Japanese carving abraod. More on Naitō Kōseki
Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan
In the style of Kaigyokusai Masatsugu
Twelve zodiac animals, unsigned, c. around 1880
Ivory with eyes inlaid in different colors of horn
British Museum

Kaigyokusai Masatsugu; see above

Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan
Masanao of Kyoto
Sleeping rat, c.  by late 1700s
British Museum

Masanao (mid-late 1700s) was a noted Japanese sculptor of netsuke from Kyoto area. He is thus associated with the Kyoto school. His works often depict animals, and he is considered to have been one of the greatest artists working in the netsuke art form. More on Masanao

Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan
Attributed to Matsushita Otoman (early 1800s)
Snarling tiger
Ivory with eyes inlaid in horn
3.5cm (1 3/8in) wide, Height: 4.40 centimetres
British Museum

Although this ivory tiger is unsigned, it exemplifies the special characteristics of the artist Otoman, who often did not sign his works. Tigers were a speciality of the carver and are highly prized by collectors. More on this Netsuke

Matsushita Otoman was a Nestuke carver. Active in Hakata in Kyushu. He was born into a family of hairpin and ornament makers. He travelled to Edo (present-day Tokyo) as well as working in Kyoto and Osaka, before taking over the Hakata family business. Hakata was close to the trading port of Nagasaki, and a collection of Otoman's works is known to have been taken to Holland by the German physician and botanist, Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), who resided in Nagasaki from 1823-1829. More on Matsushita Otoman

Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan
Matsuda Sukenaga (mid-1800s)
Boar and snake
Wood with eyes inlaid in dark horn, Hida province
British Museum

In Japan the boar occupies the last position among the twelve animals of the zodiac cycle. In China the pig is traditionally assigned this last position, but as the pig is not a species native to Japan the indigenous boar took its place. The boar rushes headlong into attack, and is therefore regarded as a symbol of courage that is occasionally reckless. The snake is exactly six animals apart from the boar in the twelve-year animal cycle, and the two were therefore considered companions. Wearing a netsuke that featured paired zodiac animals was believed to combine the strengths of the animals and thereby enhance good luck. More on this Netsuke

Matsuda Sukenaga was a carver of netsuke. Came from Takayama, Hida. His family made chopsticks. Studied carving with Yoshida Suketomo, and became proficient. He is regarded as the originator of the ittobori style of carving characteristic of Hida. More on Matsuda Sukenaga

Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan
Hōshunsai Masayuki (1870s)
Raccoon dog dressed as a priest, c. 1870s
Stag antler
Width: 4 centimetres
British Museum

The racoon dog or tanuki appears in various Japanese folklores as one of the most mischievous animals. With its ability to shape shift, the tanuki often transforms itself into human form or inanimate objects in order to play tricks on people. Here a tanuki, wearing a priest's robe, dozes while holding a Buddhist wooden gong (J. mokugyo) under its clothing, with the stick clutched to its breast. When we examine the underside, we recognize a crying face, with two cord holes forming a nose and open mouth. More on this Netsuke

Hōshunsai Masayuki was a carver of netsuke. One of the most talented carvers from the Asakusa district of Tokyo. He worked at about the same time as Kokusai and Rensai, and all three favoured the use of stag antler. More on Hōshunsai Masayuki

Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan
Kawahara Meishu (late 1900s)
Wood and tortoiseshell or horn with eyes inlaid in dark horn
Height: 4.20 centimetres, Width: 3.70 centimetres
British Museum

A large Japanese rhinoceros beetle or kabuto-mushi is fighting with a stag beetle or kuwagata-mushi over part of a branch from a tree. Insect fighting has always been a popular pastime among children. This netsuke is accompanied by an original wooden storage box, inscribed with the title and signature of the artist. More on this Netsuke

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Acknowledgement: Allison MeierNetsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan by Noriko Tsuchiya is out from Overlook Press.

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