Move aside men’s facial hair: November has a new theme and it’s netsuke. #NetsukeNovember is a month-long campaign to highlight the Met’s collection of netsuke (more on this later). However, since “netsuke” is not a familiar word to most people, the hashtag hasn’t quite caught on as well as #movember, for example.
I first encountered netsuke last spring when the Kemper Student Council curated a special one-night-only exhibition for the Vault Party featuring traditional and modern Japanese artwork from the collection. There were things I had never seen before (apparently the Kemper has some swords!) and things that took my breath away. As we looked over the list of objects, and eventually examined them in person, the students and I were captivated by a collection of tiny, ivory figurines called netsuke.
Netsuke are fascinatingly small. (Most in our collection are no more than 2 inches high). The figurines developed as decorative counter-weights to the suspended inro, a small set of nesting compartments used to carry tobacco, pipes, medicine or other personal belongings. Netsuke have two small holes in the bottom used to attach a rope, which runs under the obi (a sash used to tie kimono) and attached to the inro. The inro and netsuke essentially served the role of pockets since kimonos are pocket-less.
Netsuke, which depict subjects from the whole religious, historical, and mythological folklore of Japan, were most commonly carved from wood or ivory. They were originally worn as part of the male kimono ensemble by members of the warrior class, but became popular amongst others in Japanese society. Ornate netsuke and inro indicated wealth and status. With the opening of Japan to Western society in the mid-19th century, however, a number of factors contributed to the abandonment of the netsuke. For instance, the influx of Western culture resulted in adoption of Western clothing (with pockets), making inro and netsuke unnecessary. Beginning in the late 19th century, netsuke came to be seen as collectible art objects, both by Westerners and Japanese.
One such collector, Charles Parsons, donated his netsuke and other Japanese objects to the Kemper Art Museum (then called the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts) collection in 1905. The gift comprises the majority of the Kemper’s traditional Japanese objects. The majority of the Kemper’s netsuke were carved from ivory, which conservators have actually identified as of either elephant or walrus tusk.
The playful quality of the netsuke, coupled with the clear skill required to produce such intricate detail, have made netsuke some of my favorite objects in the Kemper collection. #NetsukeNovember
By Allison Fricke (Monday, November 17, 2014)