Published: October 24, 2000
SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. – Long before they sported power suits and briefcases, Japanese men wore kimonos with narrow cloth sashes tied in back. Because kimonos had no pockets, men carried their personal belongings – tobacco pouches, small cases for medicine or seals, and money bags – suspended by a braided silk cord from the sash. To prevent the cord from slipping, a small toggle was attached to the opposite end. This toggle was called a netsuke (ne: root; tsuke: to fasten) in Japanese.
At first, netsuke were found objects – a polished nut, a piece of root, or a shark’s tooth. Soon artists began to carve highly detailed and powerful masterpieces on a miniature scale. Most netsuke were carved from ivory or wood, but artists also used more exotic materials including stag’s antler, coral, and amber.
The exhibition, “Netsuke: The Japanese Art of Miniature Carving,” organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, will be on view at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through November 19. Featuring more than 300 extraordinary netsuke on loan from private collectors in Japan, Europe, and the United States – all of whom are members of the International Netsuke Society – this major exhibition explores the beginning of netsuke production, major artistic developments, and contemporary netsuke carving. Most of the netsuke on display have never been publicly exhibited before.
Netsuke first became fashionable accessories for samurai and wealthy commoners during Japan’s early Edo period (1600-1868). The admiration these men had for culture was reflected in their netsuke portraying Buddhist deities, Taoist immortals, and mythical characters and beasts. Other subjects include animals, insects, plant life, and objects from daily life.
By the middle of the Eighteenth Century, popular culture was on the rise in Japan. Extended peace and a thriving economy fostered the growth of a middle class of skilled artisans and merchants. For the first time in Japanese history, ordinary townsmen could enjoy some of the luxuries of life, including fine fashionable clothing and exquisite netsuke.
Following the 1868 opening of Japan to the West, netsuke quickly became one of the most popular forms of Japanese art among Westerners. Charmed by these miniature windows onto Japanese culture, tourists collected both old and new netsuke. Connoisseurs from Europe amassed great collections during this time, and the famous Russian goldsmith Peter Carl Faberge emulated the Japanese love of compact design in his own jewelry and sculptures.
Today, the grand tradition of netsuke carving continues with fresh ideas and new techniques. International restrictions on the use of ivory and other products from endangered animals have been a catalyst for seeking out other interesting materials. With carvers active in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia as well as Japan, subject matter has expanded to include the myths, legends, and even pop culture of other countries.
Written by Matthew Welch and Sharen Chappel, the catalogue Netsuke: The Japanese Art of Miniature Carving (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1999) accompanies the exhibition.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, is at 1130 State Street. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday 11 am to 5 pm, Sunday, noon to 5 pm, and Friday, 11 am to 9 pm. For information call 805/963-4364.
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