2013 / Thru February / LACMA / Bushell Netsuke: The Evolution of 18th-century Netsuke

LACMA Tomotada Tiger

Tomotada (Japan, active before 1781) Tiger and Cub, Ivory with staining, sumi, inlays. 4.0 x 3.5 x 2.7 cm. © LACMA

Bushell Netsuke: The Evolution of 18th-century Netsuke

October 27, 2012 – February 2013

Pavilion for Japanese Art, Level 2, Raymond and Frances Bushell Netsuke Gallery

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036

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Precisely when netsuke were first used in Japan is not known although historic documents and pictorial evidence suggest that they were in use by the mid-late 17th century.

The earliest netsuke, however, were not the detailed carvings that most people today are familiar with. Rather, they were purely utilitarian objects, rarely carved specifically for use as toggles but more often small, readily available items that were adapted for use as netsuke.

Any small and compact object around which a cord could be tied could suffice. Small pieces of wood—sometimes resembling an animal—or coral were often used as netsuke as were other suitably shaped, small items such as silk seals.

The first items produced specifically for use as netsuke were simple forms—round and compact, or ring-shaped—followed by the development of the miniature sculptures (katabori) that would eventually become the most popular type of netsuke.

It was during the 18th century that netsuke evolved from their earliest form to these expressive and sometimes quite ornate miniature works of art.

The earliest carved katabori-type netsuke were typically large and of simple composition, and bore little surface decoration or inlays. The predominant subject matter of these pieces was of Chinese origin and included Chinese lions, Daoist immortals, legendary Chinese figures, and mythical beasts such as baku and kirin.

Through the 18th century, katabori-style netsuke were increasingly admired for their beauty and craftsmanship.

Carvers quickly recognized these miniature sculptures as having great creative potential where they could showcase unique designs and skillful carving.

For the next one hundred years, netsuke were produced with greater consideration for their decorative appeal, evolving from oversized and simple forms to smaller, more refined carvings that covered a greater range of subject matter.

By the beginning of the 19th century, carvers were beginning to experiment with innovative decorative treatments using surface texturing, coloring and staining, and inlays.

The trend toward greater detail and decoration culminated in the 19th century. The final case in the gallery contains examples from the 19th and 20th centuries that show the marked difference in treatments between early and late netsuke.

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