"DodO iS noT dEAd"

A punk Naturalist

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Netsuke: Japanese Art in Miniature at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Small is beautiful

Toad with puffed throat. 19th century, stag antler.
The Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge is hosting a small, but noteworthy exhibition of netsuke (Japanese:根付), miniature sculptures invented in 17th-century Japan. These delicately carved objects, often made of ivory or wood, were used as toggles securing pouches called sagemono to kimono' sashes (obi). Some 250 items are on display in the Octagon Gallery on the third floor of this fantastic museum, covering a variety of subjects such as everyday life, myths, legends and tales, animals, and Noh masks. Although the netsukes on display are organized thematically, one case is devoted to unusual material, such as lacquer or pottery.

Octopus with twisted tentacles. Late 20th century.Two rabbits eating loquats. Late 18th century to 19th century, ivory with stained detail. A wasp eating a pear. Mid -19th century.

Eleven items were singled out as the finest in the Museum, and proudly displayed in a case right in the middle of the gallery. One of these, a resting monkey, was chosen – very rightly in my uninformed opinion – to adorn the poster for the exhibition. It is difficult not be fascinated by the perfect purity of the lines and shape, combining with the meticulous details of the eyes and hairs.
An adult monkey and its young, with pomegranate fruit and figure of Daruma. Late 19th-early 20th century. A resting monkey. Mid-19th century.An itinerant musician playing a flute, a samisen and a percussion instrument.Figure of dutchman. 18th century.

I had to go back several times to the exhibition for my sketches; focusing one’s attention on such diminutive and elaborate things is very tiring indeed. I usually find that sketching works of art make me see them better, but this was even truer for the netsuke. In particular I was fascinated by the patterns on the dress of the sculpture of Ono no Tofu, a 10th century calligrapher. When you first set eyes on it you encompass the figure with its hat and an umbrella and fan and the toad at his foot. The clothes are patterned, and soon you distinguish the different patterns for the jacket and the trousers and the hat; the pattern for the jacket, you see, combine complex arabesques and huge floral motives; then you realize that the flowers are finely ribbed, and that the line for the arabesque is not a continuous line, but composed of very short scratches. An almost vertiginous experience…

Ono no Tofu wearing ceremonial garments and holding a fan and an umbrella. Late 19th century.
Be sure to check the Museum’s online exhibition on netsuke. I also heartily recommend catching up on a previous, remarkable exhibition about the influence of Darwin’s ideas on the 19th century visual arts.
Manju formed of a group of 7 noh theatre masks; Late 19th century, ivory.

Netsuke: Japanese Art in Miniature
Until Sun 30 May 2010
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Octagon Gallery (Gallery 10)