during the seventeenth century was a world without pockets. To carry medicines, tobacco, seals, and
other small personal affects required one to hang them from their obi or
sash. From this need sprung various
sets or kits such as the tobacco pouch,
inro, and the yatate (writing set). The inro was a layered box with two to seven tiers that
could contain various small objects.
The inro was held together by braided
silk cords, which ran vertically through the many layers. Keeping these braided cords together was an ojime
or bead, which finally ended in a toggle piece called a netsuke. The netsuke was tucked under the obi
and helped to suspend the inro below.
Through human nature, these elements began to serve as more than just
their utilitarian use, they became expressions of the artist who created them
and the individual taste of the wearer.
the Japanese did not have jewelry in the Western sense of the word, they most
certainly knew about craftsmanship, artistry, decoration, and adornment. These small sets of accessories became
highly refined and reflected great sophistication. Inro were usually made of wood coated in lacquer,
decorated with gold and silver inlays. Ojime
and netsuke were crafted out of wood, ivory, ceramic, or metal. A true inro suite would consist of an
inro, ojime, and netsuke sharing a unified theme.
women today covet their Prada bags and Manolo Blahnik shoes, inro suites
were prized for their artistry and elegance.
Rarely do we find the inro suites intact with their matching
components. In the world of Japanese
art there are collectors who are drawn to the exquisite beauty of the inro
boxes, which often demonstrate the most sophisticated lacquer work to be found.
Bead enthusiasts marvel at the intricacy and refinement of the tiny ojime
beads.Netsuke themselves are
collected for their sculptural nature and ingenious miniature designs.Function provided the stage upon which
Japanese artists could perform their magic.
In form, there are five main types
of netsuke each measuring approximately one inch tall by one inch wide
by one inch deep; manju, ryusa, kagamibuta, sashi, and katabori. Manju, ryusa, and kagamibuta are flattened sphere shapes. As you may have guessed, the manju
netsuke is named after the Japanese confection that it resembles. The ryusa netsuke is similar in shape
but is hollow inside and the design on either side is carved through to the
center. Kagamibuta is more like
a flattened round pumpkin, where the body is made of ivory and the lid is made
of metal. With kagamibuta, the
metal lid is usually incised with a design or inlaid with gold or silver to
create a design in relief.
Katabori netsuke are carved completely in three dimensions, the carving detailing each part of the figure or subject. These are particularly collectible because
of their detail and sculptural quality. Sashi netsuke are easy to identify by their elongated form. They are carved on all sides like the katabori
but are thin and almost seem to be stretched out. These basic shapes lent themselves to the function of netsuke
as well as the materials available. Remember, since they functioned liked oversized buttons, they had to
follow at least a few practical rules. They had to have a means of attaching the braided silk cord (usually
easily identifiable as two holes in the netsuke), and a compact and unobtrusive
shape, which would allow a user to wear it easily without breaking it.
artists, or netsuke-shi created every conceivable sculpture within the
confines of the tiny netsuke form. At first being a simple piece of bamboo and evolving into master works
of artisanship, you are sure to find netsuke that speak to you. For samurai, they may have sported netsuke
illustrating their favorite legendary warrior, executed in iron by the atelier
of their swordmaker.
In all art
forms and all ages, there is a range of quality, from crude shapes to the most
subtle and ingenious. Older antique netsuke
are prized for their style and patina. The subtle wear upon an ivory or wood surface that speaks of hundreds of
years of use. In Hawaii, it would be
interpreted as mana, or a particular energy that a piece acquires
throughout its life. These older netsuke
are also fascinating because of the era which they reflect. Many netsuke allude to famous legends
or favorite subjects of old Japan but they also mirrored the changing
times. During the 19th and
early 20th century, you find rare netsuke that are actually
compasses, flints, or model guns (non-shooting of course). There are also
contemporary netsuke-shi creating brand new works combining the netsuke
traditions and their own inspirations.
A good rule
of thumb for any collection is to create one that you will enjoy. I have always delighted in seeing netsuke
which show a special sensitivity to the natural material. Many netsuke-shi will take the
natural variation of color or shape in the material to subtly enhance the carving
itself. There are others who are drawn
to particular legends or the beauty of a specific substance like ivory.
of authenticity, it is generally agreed that netsuke created during the
time that they were actually used; pre-1920s are termed “real”. Works created after this date were usually
meant as tourist curios for export. There are a few noted master craftsmen who carried on the tradition
during this time period and whose netsuke are considered to be of equal
caliber to the antiques. From the early
1980s until the present there has been a flux of reproduction netsuke
coming out of Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States. These netsuke are most commonly
identifiable by observing the inferior level of carving. They are quickly made with little finesse
but many “tricks” to make one believe there is great detail. Another
clue to its authenticity is its
practicality. If the netsuke has
protuberances that would make it an unwieldy item to wear, it’s unlikely that
it was truly intended for its function.
by contemporary artists, however, are deeply rooted in traditional forms and
often display a level of technical craftsmanship rarely seen. Artists like Gernot Schluifer and Lynn
Richardson have become celebrated contemporary netsuke artists because
of their expressive and sensitive renderings. The Princess and late Prince Takamado were avid collectors of netsuke
and have formed the definitive collection of contemporary netsuke. The collection is finely illustrated in the
color catalog published by Hakuchosha. A portion of their collection will be on display at the Honolulu Academy
of Arts on January 29th, supplemented by selections of contemporary
netsuke from the Robert O. Kinsey collection. During this time, January 26th – 31st, the
International Netsuke Society will be holding its biennial convention at the
Hilton Hawaiian Village. The event will
consist of lectures, workshops, exhibitions, and social gatherings focused on
the many aspects of netsuke. More than
twenty five of the world’s finest dealers of netsuke and leading contemporary carvers will be
exhibiting netsuke for sale during this period. This is truly a rare
opportunity to see so many excellent examples of authentic antique netsuke
as well as the contemporary interpretations of this old art form.▀