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Netsuke in my Pocket

Over the last few weeks, it’s all been monumental scale with the works of Yayoi Kusama or Richard Deacon (still showing at SDMART until July 25, 2017 – click the link for more info). Today, let me shrink your world to the size of a netsuke 🙂

are very small in size (1-1.5 inch / 2.5- 3.8cm, think smaller than your thumb) and yet they are probably more exquisite in details than anything I have ever seen. Even the world of jewels that I know so well can look static and stiff compared to the movement and life that netsuke convey.

During my recent trip to Japan, I visited the Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Art Museum.

With netsuke being so small, forget about grand scale architectural landmarks: the word “museum” takes on a very different connotation.

I entered the only surviving samurai house in Kyoto, dating from 1820. I stepped back in time, or rather stooped.

There is no other choice but to bend respectfully, making progress on the tatami floors on your knees to admire the netsuke of this delightful home. Vitrines are kept low but once you’ve become accustomed to the Japanese way, looking with your eyes (or through some of the magnifying glasses provided) is an experience not to be missed.

Consider the Edo Era (1603-1867) marked by the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, keeping Japan voluntarily isolated from the rest of the world. This house was built towards the latter years, at a time when samurai became farmers and not so long before Japan would be reopening itself to the West with a bit of harsh help from US Commodore Perry.

This was a time when kimonos were worn everyday. But beautiful kimonos don’t have pockets. To remedy this situation in a very practical way, Japanese people used small multi-compartment boxes called inro to carry tobacco, cosmetics or money.

This refined ancestor to post-WWI vanity case (French minaudière) and our modern purse was attached to the kimono belt (obi) with a small cord. A small carving (netsuke) would be used as toggle, precluding the cord from slipping from under the obi.

Netsuke, as part of inro, were beautifully carved in wood or ivory but tended to be rounded to fulfill their function and not damage the fabrics of kimonos.

And as such, this is quintessential Japan: even the smallest of practical details deserving artistic attention and care.

Word of advice as you read this : pictures can make things look deceptively big so look at your thumb and imagine what’s entailed to achieve such carvings.

Progressively, netsuke became stand alone miniature works of art as carvings on such small scale required minutiae and undeniable talent. They became worthy to collect, as Japanese people did at the time.

With Japan reopening itself to the West during the Meiji Era, traditional fashion changed and kimonos were worn less. Japanese demand for netsuke evolved: from practical everyday use, they would go on display in a small glass cabinet as treasured collections and conversation starters.

Europeans newly exposed to such an intricate Japanese form of art, also started collecting netsuke, keeping Japanese craftsmen busy.

From traditional Japanese designs to whimsical cuteness and outright eccentric, netsuke are little be-jewelled sculptures depicting a wide range of subjects to suit wearers idiosyncrasies and collectors tastes.

Movement of lines and small size make them a portable form of art, allowing solitary contemplation to become easily shared if so wished. No wonder owners would choose one to carry throughout the day, as described by Edmund de Waal in The Hare with Amber Eyes – a gem of a book if you have not yet read it as it’s an ode to refinement and the many facets of being a collector.

Such tactile quality make netsuke the luxury equivalent of a favourite pebble or conkers that people sometimes keep in their pocket to fidget with, for strength, concentration or inspiration. I could not believe my eyes when I saw one of these marrons (conkers) crafted as a netsuke. Nature providing art everywhere and art striving to replicate Nature, as always…

And in a sense, netsuke have always been deeply rooted in the natural world: this is where their apparent flicker of life and interior strength must be coming from. Always asymmetric, their original designs are perfectly crafted out of an imperfection in the wood or a curve or depression in an ivory piece. These are the “accidents” which fuelled the artist’s inspiration to sculpt away until a pocket-size life was revealed and immortalised.

So, if you can’t have a netsuke in your pocket, don’t forget to find beauty in small things.

© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.

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