Saturday, November 27, 2010

Netsuke at the Asian

Bittermelon (aka Jennifer Yin) calls them charms for Edo era Samurai cell phones in her post on the Asian Art Museum's Blog. She is referring to netuske, tiny exquisite pieces of decorative art, designed to be used as fasteners for purses or containers. It's always a delight to revisit parts of the Asian museum and see what new pieces are on display and their collection of netsuke seems to be endless (and an endless source of new treasure for me to covet!).

I think the closest Western equivalent would be snuff boxes. These tiny decorative and utilitarian boxes were an indispensable accessory for every man of birth and breeding from the 18th century through the middle of the 19th century. But they never came in the variety of forms that the Japanese loved to create,

Since Japanese clothing didn't have pockets, netsuke functioned as toggles (fasteners), used to secure a purse or container suspended on a cord from the sash of a robe.  The museum’s labels explain:
An inro (literally “seal casket”) is a small tiered container that a man would suspend from the sash of his kimono on a silk cord. A netsuke threaded onto this cord would serve as a toggle, and a movable bead (ojime) would keep the inro closed. Inro were used not only to hold seals (sometimes called “chops”)—which function in East Asian cultures in much the same way signatures do in the West—but also to hold other small items such as medicines.

Grandfather and grandson

Because traditional Japanese garb lacked pockets, objects were often carried by hanging them from the obi, or sash. Inrō were suited for carrying anything small. Consisting of a stack of tiny, nested boxes, inrō were most commonly used to carry identity seals and medicines,

Recently, ceramic artist Edmund de Waal won the National Book Tokens new writer of the year award with "The Hare with Amber Eyes."  It follows the history of 264 Japanese netsuke, objects crafted as belt toggles for kimonos, which he inherited from a great-uncle. The hare of the title is the whitest and finest of the collection, acquired by Charles Ephrussi in the late 19th century, when the opening of Japan's borders let a flood of japonaiserie into European homes.

There is even a poem (probably more than one), written about netsuke:

A Case of Netsuke, by Mary Jo Salter

Wise, size of a peachpit, nut-
brown, wizened, intricate,
      the Badger Dressed in Lotus Leaf  
stands tall in his sheet: ................a museum-case of obscure
Japanese bibelots. Each
a tangible anecdote, they reach
      first to us from English tags:  
Starving Dog, Herdboy with Flute,  
Dutchman with Moneybag, or Stoat......
they speak to us of a lost life we may have lived once, though  
it’s daunting we should think so—
      for what could we have had in common  
with Seated Demon or Drunken Sprite?   .....*

Uniquely Japanese, these superb little objects of wood, ivory and ceramics, as well as dozens of other materials, run the gamut - the peasant, the fisherman, the beggar rubbing shoulders with the scholar, the samurai, the warrior, as well as an enchanting collection of animals, fish, insects and benign deities and ferocious gods. There are representations of food (as in Jennifer's post), tea bowls, flowers and even couples doing what couples are wont to do. The images above - all from the Asian Art museum are only a tiny fragment of their collection. The variety is endless and should be seen in person to be fully appreciated.
*Selections from Mary Jo Salter, “A Case of Netsuke” from Unfinished Painting. Copyright © 1989 by Mary Jo Salter. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. 

1 comment:

Anne said...

I can thoroughly recommend the de Waal book. It is a gripping read, beautifully written (he got a First in English from Cambridge) and - as befits a potter - shows a deep appreciation of the aesthetic beauty and sensuality of the netsuke. It's a story about discovery of family history that engages world history and literature, and it it's very moving. I love his pottery, so it wasn't a great surprise to find he'd written with such verve and scrupulousness.