In Praise of Meiji Netsuke

Posted by Michael Bernstein on

The Neglected Period

Netsuke of the Meiji period (1868-1912) have suffered the same rebuff that Meiji art in general has. The very number of Meiji netsuke combined with an elitist prejudice that "older is better" has engendered a certain contemptuousness for these later works. Purists extol the power and simplicity of Edo period (1603-1868) netsuke and have pushed these pieces, particularly Kyoto School netsuke, to staggering record prices.

One who looks at the works of the Soken Kisho carvers, the Iwami carvers, the Toyomasas, the Masanaos of Ise-Yamada, Mitsuhiro, Otoman, Kagetoshi, Hidemasa, or Rantei must be impressed with the virtuosity of design and craftsmanship of these Edo geniuses.

Furthermore, Bernard Hurtig has made collectors aware of the formerly neglected brilliance of the strong eighteenth century sculptural netsuke, while Raymond Bushell's superb The Art of the Netsuke Carver has heightened collectors' appreciation of contemporary carvers.

There is no doubt that the Edo period netsuke deserve all the popularity, critical acclaim, and financial success they have received. However, the fact that there are extraordinary Edo netsuke does not exclude there being equally marvelous Meiji netsuke.

Proceed Cautiously

The collector of Meiji netsuke travels in perilous waters-waters best navigated with the expert aid of a trusted dealer or advisor. This peril exists because of the extreme variability in quality among the great number of Meiji netsuke on the market. Many Meiji netsuke were produced to satisfy the huge demand of the export market, which was being spurred by the decorative fad of "Japonisme" in Europe and America. While large numbers of these inferior pieces exist, the careful collector can still glean the great.

The Great Meiji Carvers

The great Meiji netsuke artists include Tokoku, Komin, Yoshihide Hoshu, Yasuaki, Sansho, Kokusai, Rensai, Morita Soko, Kuya, the "So" School carvers, Kaigyokusai, Komei, and Gyokuzan.

Perhaps the one artist most representative of the Meiji style is Tokoku. In the best of Tokoku's netsuke are those features which draw me irresistibly to Meiji netsuke, while his inferior work highlights the objectionable in Meiji artistry.

Toward a Set of Aesthetic Criteria for Meiji Netsuke- The Example of Tokoku

I believe that the Meiji netsuke should be subjected to a different set of criteria then the Edo netsuke. Let me put this statement in historical context.

The haibutsu kishaku (elimination of Buddhism) movement of early Meiji displaced religious carvers and forced them into carving netsuke and okimono. This atmosphere also turned carvers away from traditional subject matter. The demand was now for netsuke to suit the Western export market ‐ a demand for pieces depicting genre scenes, folklore, and Oriental exoticism. Furthermore, in Japan the use of sagemono declined as the Japanese adopted Western dress. A great many Meiji netsuke were never intended to be functional, but to be decorative.

Accordingly, to stringently judge Meiji netsuke against such tests of utilitarianism as compactness, lack of protrusions, proper placement of himotoshi, or correct lay is inappropriate. Rather, I contend, Meiji netsuke, particularly those of the Tokyo School, should be viewed as miniature okimono.

Applying the standards of good sculpture to these netsuke, it is possible to cull out the mediocrities taken from copybooks and systematically reproduced as souvenirs.

What can be looked for is vigor, expressiveness, harmony, flowing lines, well thought out composition, detail, finish, quality materials, postural accuracy, an equal effectiveness from all angles, and good use of color.

Meiji art is reminiscent of the European seventeenth century Baroque and eighteenth century Rococo period. Meiji art shares the same materialism and commercialism that was the background for the work of Rembrandt, Rubens, Bernini, and EI Greco. Just as the work of these Baroque giants is marked by an exuberance of expression, so are many of the best Meiji netsuke. Other of the best Meiji netsuke are more characterized by the elegance, delicacy, and playfulness of Rococo art.

Consequently, Meiji netsuke share the weaknesses of Baroque and Rococo art. Meiji netsuke can be contrived and self-conscious ‐ merely sentimental. Over-emphasis on intricate detail can reduce the piece to fussiness and preciousness. The test remains the overall integration of details into the sculpture. For instance, in Collector's Netsuke, Bushell points out that in Tokoku's finest work the inlays and lacquer work blend so naturalistically into the netsuke as to be inobvious, while in Tokoku's secondary netsuke the inlays are obvious, gaudy, and overwhelm the design. Even here an exception is in order: there are Tokoku pieces with glaring inlay that are still masterpieces because the gaudiness is so appropriate to the subject. Hence, appropriateness to the subject becomes a criterion.

In fact, the great variability in Tokoku's work has led to the following speculation in the catalogue of the Baur Collection. "... the great number of netsuke signed Tokoku and certain differences in the quality of the workmanship make it likely that we are dealing with a whole family or group of carvers, and the original Tokoku certainly had many pupils and followers using similar techniques.