Although they were originally made as a dress accessory, the lively and intricate carvings of netsuke have been readily accepted as art objects in the West for more than a century.
Though small, netsuke often bear a wealth of decorative detail that is a great part of their charm. Their subjects, ranging from gods and demons to humble plants and animals, have much to say about both the interior and exterior lives of the Japanese people.
By the 1880's, oriental artefacts, and in particular those made in Japan, were in vogue among discerning buyers in parts of western
Europe. The delicate artistic quality of all things Japanese had a powerful appeal. This was particularly true of the tiny carvings known as netsuke (pronounced 'netskee') which collectors would display as exquisite ornaments around the home.
In Japan, netsuke were not ornaments but practical, everyday items of dress. Japanese man and women wore robes held together by a broad sash. They didn't have any pockets, so the sort of small items that needed to be carried about were hung from a cord tucked under the sash and secured with carved toggles. These toggles were the netsuke that were so eagerly collected abroad.
The origins of netsuke are obscure, but they were in general use by the 1600s and became increasingly popular and more skilfully made as the objects that were hung from them took on greater fashionable importance.
POTIONS, PURSES AND POUCHES
The best known accessory was the inro, a small box used by the wealthy for carrying medicine and seals. Fine netsuke were also used to secure the purses of rich merchants and the these became important status symbols, rivalling the totems of the higher classes. However,
netsuke were used most widely of all by the lower classes, to hold the tobacco pouches that became almost universal after the introduction of smoking to Japan.
As everyday functional objects, netsuke were not especially esteemed in Japan. Carvers tended to produce them in spare moments as a way of using up left-over materials which they were working for other purposes. Even so, they were carved with
consummate skill and care despite being small enough to fit comfortably into a closed fist.
There are several types of netsuke, carved into a large variety of subjects. Among the most common are the round or square
button-like boxes known as manju, after the rice cakes which they resemble. Most numerous of all are
katabori, the figures which represent the heroes and villains, mortals and gods, and real and mythical animals which make up Japanese folklore and history. Plants, masks, musical instruments, tools, implements, fruit and vegetables also appear. Indeed, a large collection of netsuke would make up an almost complete picture of life in old Japan.
The materials used were as varied as the subjects, although wood, the most easily carved, was the most common. Boxwood was especially popular, since it was hard and fine-grained. Japanese cypress, sweet-smelling and fine-textured, was also greatly admired.
After wood, ivory was the most widely used material, but great numbers of netsuke were also made from bone, shell, horn, fruit stones and even various kinds of metal.
By the 1870s, the demand for netsuke in Japan was dwindling, since the Japanese were
taking to western clothes and cigarettes were replacing the traditional pipe and tobacco pouch. But it was at just this time that netsuke were becoming known and valued by western connoisseurs
such as the French writers Jules and Edmond de Goncourt, who pioneered the cult of japonaiserie in Britain and France.
The Japanese continued to make netsuke, but increasingly for the export trade and in rather debased forms - reflecting the decline of the traditional culture. However, some skilled carvers did continue to work on into 20th century, and in more recent times there has been a revival of the art.
These days netsuke can be found in specialist dealers or for sale through auction houses. However, collecting is not without problems, since it is almost impossible to authenticate or date netsuke except after many years of close study. Although certain generalizations can be made - such as earlier examples being more simply carved, and everyday scenes being most popular in the 19th century - there are few absolutely accurate guidelines to follow.
Even the signature on a piece may not be much help. Pupils often used their master's signature on their own works. Other markings and inscriptions have been known to baffle native Japanese, due to the frequent use of obscure and complex abbreviations. And to cap all this, copies and ingenious fakes have spread with the steady rise in value of netsuke. All these pitfalls demand placing your faith in a highly reputable and expert dealer, especially if you're spending large amount.