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Collecting Japanese art has a long tradition in Western countries. This article is a basic introduction to some of the most popular Japanese art objects.
First Publication: May 2001
Netsuke are toggles worn by Japanese men of the upper classes. The origins of netsuke are of a rather practical manner. Japanese kimonos had no pockets. The kimono was tied together with a sash or belt, called obi. So everything that you would carry in a pocket was put into a pouch or a box and attached to the sash with strings.
The netsuke with two openings for the string to pass, acted as a toggle to prevent the sagemono (everything hanging from the sash) from slipping down from the obi. Netsuke were mostly made from ivory or wood but also other materials like all kind of bones, amber, pottery or even bamboo were used. Far beyond their practical use, they were considered as a status symbol by their owners.
Soon netsuke developed from a simple practical object to an impressive piece of art of high standard. Many netsuke were carved and signed by famous artists. Which does not mean that an unsigned pieces has to be considered as lower in value. Nor does the material have a large influence on the price. What matters, is the quality of carving and a charming subject. Prices range from US$250 to US$10,000.
As subjects for a netsuke, the 12 animals of the Asian zodiac were rather popular. But also mythological, heroic and scenes from everyday's life were chosen. As the netsuke was also a means of expressing the personal taste and the personality of its owner, it is always an object of high originality. Netsuke were in use from the early 17th century to the second half of the 19th century. With the Meiji restoration, the Japanese adopted Western clothing, which led to the decline of netsuke.
Like the netsuke, the inro first of all was a practical object. An inro is a small case box with up to 6 compartments inside. It was used for storing small things like seals, seal paste, medicine or whatever. It was worn by Japanese men attached to their sash.
Great numbers of inro are made of lacquer - golden or black lacquer - with a great variety of techniques used for the process. The artform of Japanese lacquer dates back to the 6th century. It is known under the name maki-e. The knowledge of maki-e originally came from China and Korea to Japan, where it reached its height in the 16th century. Maki-e is a process during which the object is coated with lacquer sap (urushi) and then sprinkled with gold, silver and other powders. Urushi is also the name of a Japanese tree, from which the sap is taken. Not only lacquer was used for an inro. But also materials like wood, ivory, gold, silver or different kind of alloys were utilized.
Swords and sword accessories, called koshira-e, are another example of important objects coveted by collectors. A tsuba is the hand guard mounted on a Japanese sword. The tsuba served primarily to balance the sword and to protect the hand of the sword holder - not only from an attack by an enemy, but also from gliding into the blade. However it was more than a simple piece of metal for protection. It was also a means to express the social standing and identity of the owner.
Tsuba were made from many different materials such as iron, copper and special alloys (shakudo, sentoku, shibuichi) used by Japanese artisans. Popular shapes of tsuba are mokko (with 4 lobes) and aoi (the pattern of the leaves of the mallow) or just a plain oval or round form.
The same artisans, that produced the famous Japanese swords, also created bronze sculptures. Starting from 1870, these bronzes were shown for the first time at the World exhibitions in Paris, London and Vienna.
The earliest Japanese ceramics can be dated back to the neolithic Jomon period (10,000 to 300 BC). At the beginning of the Edo period (1615), kaolin, the source material for porcelain, was discovered near the town of Arita, which then became a major pottery center. Imari is maybe the best known name in Western countries. This porcelain is characterized by its colorful and intricate designs. Imari ware, named after the port where it was shipped for export, became very popular in Europe in the 17th century.
Porcelain and cloisonne objects are named after the region or port of shipment (Imari ware), where they were produced, respectively shipped. Besides Imari, the most famous names for porcelain are Arita, Kutani, Hirado, Kakiemon and Satsuma. Sakaida Kakiemon (1596-1666) was the first artist in Japan to succeed in producing overglaze colors. His family continued this tradition and the style become well known by the name Kakiemon.
Cloisonne is an enamelware in which the surface decoration is formed by different colors of enamel that are separated by thin metal strips fixed along the design pattern. The art of cloisonne came to Japan from China. The production of a cloisonne is an extremely sophisticated and time-consuming process. For cloisonne the most famous names are Namikawa Sozuke, Namikawa Yasuyuki, Ando Yubei and Hayashi Kodenji.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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Thank you! - Dieter and Yorie