Katabori Netsuke, Traveller, late 18th c., wood, Tikotin collection
March 26th - July 31st, 2005
Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer
Originally, the netsuke was a carved and embellished clothing accessory that was tied with a cord to other items, known as sagemono (hanging things). These might include inro (containers for seals and/or medication), tobacco pouches, purses, boxes for writing implements. The traditional Japanese garb, the kimono, has no pockets, and is fastened with a broad sash around the waist, and all these containers were attached to a cord that was inserted underneath the sash. The netsuke, attached to the other end of the cord, hung on the outside of the sash, and was intended to secure the items from sliding off the cord.
As is evident from the meaning of the word netsuke (neh - root; tsuke - fastening) this was initially a very simple item - a piece of root, bamboo, or bone with a hole in it, through which the cord was threaded. However, it soon became an object for artistic endeavour, a tiny sculpture that embodied every conceivable aspect of life. The netsuke was used by men of all ranks as of the 16th century, and was at its height during the Edo period (1603-1868). After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, use of the netuske declined due to the adoption of western-style clothing, when the small purses and wallets went out of fashion. These items, originally intended for daily use, thus became art items, collectors' pieces, as soon as the craft of creating them ceased. Today there are very few netuske artists who are still practicing this art.
Netsuke are made of various materials. These include: wood - Japanese cypress, box, cherry, plum, and others; ivory, whale and hippopotamus teeth, and the fangs of the wild boar. There are figurines made of horn, bamboo, bone, semi-precious stones, tortoiseshell and metal. Materials said to have medical properties were also used - the jawbone of a particular species of whale to reduce fever; stag antler as an antidote for snakebite. One surface of a netsuke of this type was left undecorated so that it could be scraped, and the medication was made from the powder thus obtained. The artist chose his material according to its availability in the district where he lived, and according to its adaptability, weight, and strength. Netsuke were created by means of different techniques - carving, relief, turning, engraving, filigree, casting, stamping, lacquer, ceramic, inlay, paint, and this was considered as a craft for men. Thirty to sixty days were needed to complete a single netsuke.
The earliest netsuke artists sculpted figures from the world of religion - most of their subjects were deities, fabulous creatures who had become deified, demons and ghosts. But ‘real' and demonic creatures were also represented from the world of the living, as well as those connected with folklore.
In the Edo period, subjects were also taken from daily life, having no connection with belief or religion. The exhibition, from the Museum's collection, concentrates on the techniques of this period, depicting people of all ages going about their various occupations - artisans, travellers, acrobats, children, monks, musicians, people bathing or sleeping, people with their pets or sitting idle. The technical proficiency and exactitude of detail, the Japanese artists' aspiration to perfection, make these works of art completely aesthetic, evident in these tiny figures represented so realistically, with humour and a wonderful vitality. Perhaps the artists' intention was not necessarily to create humorous articles, but many of the figurines do present the comic elements of everyday life. As a rule, this is not achieved by exaggeration, grotesquerie. It is, rather, their naturalness that brings a smile to our lips.