Netsuke Exhibitions In London And Budapest
All great art should evoke reaction and the netsuke in these collections certainly are evocative!
Invented in 17th century Japan netsuke are miniature sculptures carved in a variety of mediums such as ivory, wood and bone that were used to secure the cords attached to small boxes, sagemono (the most popular of which were called inrō) which were hung from the sash, or obi, of a kimono and in which were carried personal items.
Though to start with their function was strictly practical they developed artistic merit and were used to display the carvers’ skills and craftsmanship, and occasionally carried subversive messages which could not otherwise have been publicly voiced.
The subjects of the carvings are many; folklore, everyday life, nature, monsters or bakemomo, actors, and foreigners to name a few. They are carved in the round and can be viewed from any angle something which will in some cases reward the observer by revealing some otherwise hidden detail (a face or a mask perhaps) that sometimes helps to expand on the theme or subject of the netsuke; politically, allegorically or simply by alluding to some folkloristic aspect of the subject of the carving.
Two recent exhibition of netsuke took place in Europe; one was at the Japanese Embassy in London, drawn from European Collections and the other, drawn from Hungarian Collections, was at the Moró Antik Gallery in Budapest.
One netsuke on view at the London exhibition was ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’ (cat. 141), now famous as a result of the book of the same name by its current owner, the writer and ceramicist Edmund De Waal. For a fan of De Waal’s book there was nothing quite like absorbing the beautifully subtle and masterful artistry of the carving of this netsuke whilst pondering the trail of vicissitudes of its various owners, De Waal’s ancestors, from 1871 to today. The exhibition in Budapest had its own ‘Hare with Amber Eyes’ (cat. 72), though they were quite different. The ‘London hare’ in ivory, one of its paws lifted, its ears flatted in a posture of nervous anticipation evoked curiosity; what it could be reacting to? Whilst the ‘Budapest hare’ in boxwood seemed intently focused on, and just about to start, nibbling grass.
Foreigners were considered exotic and sometimes made fun of. Alongside figures of Chinese men the Dutch were represented in the exhibitions by three cartoon like figures in London, two of which were companion pieces portraying Dutch hunters with big noses and raised heels on their shoes (cat. 1 & 3), whilst in Budapest one portrayed a Dutchman playing with two boys (Cat. 119) and another a Dutchman in a contorted pose (cat. 18).
The exhibition in Budapest was dominated by a large group of Sennin (immortals) and animals both mythological and natural. Various other netsuke represented characters from everyday life as well as gods and monsters, bakemono. Most startling of the netsuke portraying everyday life were those of the rat catchers (cat. 103, 104 & 105) and though they may have been representative of people from a particular trade their depiction was caricatured to the extent that they appeared more like bakemono. Two notable Manga-like netsuke (cat. 69 & 70) of tengu (gobilns) were shown breaking out of their eggs. One section of contemporary netsuke (cat. 158-180) on display were mostly figurative albeit with one, an Eagle (cat. 179), which was distinctively contemporarily geometrical in form, all of which rightly deserved their place in the Budapest exhibition, which exhibited a technical skill and humour which is obviously still being practised today. The group included three beautiful and charming netsuke of Kabuki actors in the roles of Soga no Goro from the play ‘Ya no Ne’ (Sharpening the Arrow) (cat. 176), the head substitution from the play ‘Moritsuna Jinya’ (Moritsuna’s Battle Camp) (cat. 177) and the character Kumedera Danjō from the third act ‘Kenuki’ (The Tweezers) (cat. 178) of the play ‘Narukami Fudō Kitayama Zakura’ (Priest Narukami and the God Fudō).
The London exhibition covered similar ground with a display of mythological creatures, gods, monsters, ghosts, animals, and commoners. Noticeable amongst these for their characterful portrayals was one of Songoku (cat. 31), the monkey character from ‘Journey to the West’ popularised by the TV series ‘Monkey’ as well as a couple of netsuke depicting tengu breaking out of their eggs, though they were not quite as humorous as the similar tengu figures in the Budapest Exhibition. Two groups in the London exhibition also covered the distinctively styled Kyūshū based Hakata carvers of which the Songoku netsuke was one, and the curiously unusual style of the Tōkyō based Asakusa carvers.
There was a wonderful range of bakemono and ghosts which were both startlingly eerie, as with the ‘Ghost with a Baby’ (cat. 165), and starkly barmy as with the Karakasa one eyed monster umbrella (cat. 170). Also included in the London exhibition were a group of netsuke by contemporary British carvers which though fewer in number than the contemporary group in Budapest also conveyed both the humour and technical skill associated with the production of netsuke. The London exhibition also exhibited the Japanese modern day equivalent of netsuke in small figures which are attached to mobile phones, a fashion that in a similar way to the earlier more traditional netsuke is meant to convey, even in some small tokenistic way, the sumptuously fashionable tastes of their owners.
All great art should evoke reaction and the netsuke in these collections certainly were evocative, eliciting melancholy, horror, fascination but more often than not great humour, the most evocatively humorous figures were those of Daruma (the Buddhist figure Bodhidharma) of which special mention should be made of the figure of Daruma plucking hairs from his nose with a pair of tweezers which appeared in the Budapest exhibition (cat. 114).
The technical skill on display in both exhibitions was breath-taking and had to be seen to be believed. It was a real privilege to be able to see both exhibitions with a few days of each other.
A big thank you to Rosemary Bandini in London and Csaba Moro in Budapest for permission to use photographs from the respective exhibition catalogues.
The catalogue for the exhibition at the Japanese Embassy in London , ‘In a Nutshell: Japanese Netsuke from European Collections’, by Rosemary Bandini, £40, is available from Rutherstone & Bandini, and Amazon
The catalogue for the exhibition in Budapest ‘Netsuke Selected from Private Hungarian Collections II’, by Árpad Majoros, 4,500 HFT, is available from Moró Antik Gallery
Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.