• Masterful Exuberance, Artistic auction at Christies

    Sale 4140

    Masterful Exuberance, Artistic Craftsmanship of Imperial Japan: The Property of a Lady

    18 May 2012, London, South Kensington

  • Lot 1

    A Bronze Koro [Incense Burner]


    Price Realised  


    A Bronze Koro [Incense Burner]
    Nogawa Mark, Meiji Period (late 19th century)
    Of archaic form, finely inlaid in gold, silver and shakudo and carved in low relief with bats hovering among wisteria in moonlight, the everted neck with archaic motifs and karashishi heads, the cover with a finial of a kirin
    23cm. high

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    Pre-Lot Text

    A Collector's Dedication.

    The man behind this sale was an incurable collector who lived his life away from the public eye. He was a successful businessman and an opinionated man, who loved art. Every artwork that he acquired for his various collections was to him the best and the most desirable one, and he took great care to find objects of outstanding quality. He was interested in every detail of the artworks he acquired, from the artist and maker, to the media, technique and the tools employed in its production. He had a great appreciation for Japanese culture and art, and the first Japanese artwork he purchased, about 35 years ago in a London gallery, was a bronze vase (Lot 13).

    He was particularly interested in the patina of objects, in multi-coloured bronzes, and in the juxtaposition of media - bronze, enamel, ivory, lacquer and shibayama. He appreciated the details, intricate nature of the decoration and effort required to create the object. He took great care to find objects of outstanding quality.

    He was self-taught, and spent many hours researching and reading about other cultures and about the areas of collecting that he engaged in. Apart from Meiji Period art, his collections included contemporary art, twentieth-century decorative art, prints, Renaissance bronzes, Islamic art, and memorabilia, and Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Many of the motifs that featured in his twentieth-century decorative art collection, such as insects and foliage, and techniques such as lacquer, are also represented in this Meiji period art collection.

    His aim was to create an outstanding Meiji art collection, of objects created by artisans who were long gone, from a period and country very foreign to his own. He appreciated craftsmanship and enjoyed chasing the objects that are offered in this sale. The collection is a very personal one, and amassing it gave him an enormous amount of pleasure.
    There are but few collections of Japanese Meiji era (1868-1912) arts and crafts to be found anywhere in Japan since most of it was made specifically for export at the time. Many pieces of poor quality were made which became popular with those of limited means, while the finer work was beyond the reach of all but the wealthy.
    In the past half century or so discerning collectors have once again recognised the quality of Meiji arts, and formed collections of the finest works of the period as they from time to time became available, among which published, the David Nassar Khalili Collection all but defines excellence in the field. It is now recognized that the quality of the finest Japanese decorative metalwork made in the Meiji era and the succeeded few decades of the Taisho (1912-1926) and early Showa eras (1926 ~) will never be attained again. The same might be said of the ceramic, cloisonné, and lacquer ware of the time. This present exciting collection is doubtless the greatest comprehensive group of Meiji art work to have become available on the International art market for many years.

    The Crafts of Japan, notably those of lacquer and porcelain, had been well known in the West during the time of Japanese isolation under samurai rule from around 1630 to the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. This had been largely due to the activities of the Dutch East India Company, which alone of all of Western national bodies was allowed a trading post in Nagasaki harbour, in the West of the southern island Kyushu. Trade had been predominantly in Japanese porcelains and lacquer ware, but there was also trade through Chinese merchants in similar goods, and imports of textiles, including silk kimonos. This had resulted in some confusion and in fact during the 17th and 18th centuries many people could not differentiate between goods from China and those from Japan. The word 'China' was used for porcelain, as still it is today, and 'Japan' was used to describe lacquer ware, irrespective of the place of origin. So one might hear of 'fine china from Japan'. The extent of the confusion can be seen from the words of Sir Hans Sloane in writing a list of objects which he had acquired from the grandson of the German physician Englebert Kaempfer who had worked in Nagasaki between 1690 and 1692, and which became part of the British Museum collection. Sir Hans described a 17th century Japanese Arita porcelain figure of a young man as 'One Indian Princess'. Such confusion at the time is probably more evident in the world of textiles, since Chinese silks and Japanese kimonos brought along the sea routes via India, were augmented by copies made in India. 17th and 18th Japanese kimono styles can be seen as having influenced the dress of nobility and royalty in Europe, inspiring the long-sleeved gown worn by both men and women, kings and queens, the judiciary, and men-about -town. Japan had also shared place with India and China in particular in the dissemination of Buddhism, whose philosophy and art had nurtured a growing interest in all things from the East, and this interest came to centre on Japan and her refined cultural activities.

    The large scale export of Japanese art in the last part of the 19th century was largely due to the need for Japan to compete in international trade having only the resources of her traditional crafts to present to an industrialized world. That need resulted in an enormous joint endeavour throughout the nation to present Japanese excellence to the outside world. So while the imported technologies of the Industrial Revolution were still being steadily absorbed, Japan relied greatly on sale of her art for income. Meiji Japan has been described as being a nation in its own right, rather than just a period in Japanese history, since there was such a sudden and far-reaching change in society. To put it in simple terms, before 1868 Japan was a feudal culture ruled by the samurai class, and with a technology of medieval times. Then within just a few years of the Imperial Restoration Japan had an educational system to rival any other nation; railways, the telephone, modern (at the time) manufacturing machinery, and an army equipped not with swords, but with centre-fire rifles and Gatling guns, and a growing modern industrialization. The first general showing of Japanese crafts in the West had been in 1862 in London at the second International Exposition, which was followed by an Exhibition of the finest of Japanese arts and crafts in Paris in 1867, a year before the Meiji Restoration. This drew such a public following that things Japanese were to have an immediate and great impact of the arts in general, and a leading influence in the 'Art Nouveau' movement (see Lot 34). The Emperor Meiji encouraged the arts and crafts, and himself bought pieces at a series of Japanese Internal Industrial Fairs. Japan's art was exhibited at many International Fairs and many metal artists, like Jomi (Lot 11), (Suzuki Chokichi (Lots 12 - 14), won prestigious awards.

    Following the Meiji restoration two particular factors combined to produce the decorative metalwork in this present collection. These were the sudden decline in the fortune of the Buddhist temples, and the prohibition of the wearing of swords in public.

    The casting of bronze had been predominantly for Buddhist ritual paraphernalia, images of deities, bells, and altar sets of vases, incense burners, and lamps. Some bronze founders made smaller items for decoration in the home, or as personal accessories such as netsuke. There were also vases for flowers for both ikebana and the tea ceremony. So there had been an established excellence in the bronze-founding tradition for more than a thousand years. Another important aspect of the bronze tradition was the manufacture of mirrors of polished and often tinned or silvered bronze with cast decorative motifs on the back, which were rendered quite obsolete following the introduction of industrial glass-making. So there was a sound tradition of sculpting moulds for casting, and also the use of the lost wax process. The situation changed during the Meiji restoration, when the indigenous nature religion Shinto was formally declared the state religion with the Emperor at its head. Many Buddhist temples were closed down, or amalgamated with Shinto shrines, so that the demand for bronze religious imagery dropped accordingly. But the bronze casting tradition now found a ready outlet in the demand for decorative pieces outside Japan, and the bronze makers in Japan soon found what kind of bronzes were preferred in the West.
    In addition to the demand for bronzes with Japanese, or far Eastern shapes and decorative motifs, there was also a demand for highly realistic figural sculpture of humans and animals.
    A modern zoo was established at Ueno in 1882, near the present Tokyo National Museum and School of Fine Arts. The animals brought there became major subjects in art. Although an Elephant had been brought to Japan in the 16th century, and tigers (or tiger skins) had been brought from Korea, now the whole of the natural world became available to the artists together with the apes, bears, and other indigenous creatures. This added to the repertoire of the metalworker for iron and bronze model birds, dragons, serpents, crustaceans, and other creatures whose armour-like feathers, shells, scaly or horned features lent them to the attentions of iron plate armour makers (like the crab, crayfish, and cicada, Lots 85, 83 and 84) and a large bronze lotus leaf signed by the iron helmet maker Myochin Nobuie. Several pieces by the renowned Genryusai Seiya are included, who seems to have been equally at home with ornamental vases (Lot 45), and lifelike animals (Lot 96 and 98 - 100). Pure figural sculptures are represented by Tokyo School naturalistic images of people and legendary characters, like the bronze study of a boy carrying a fishing rod, who in his innocence is feeding his live bait to a bird on his hand, signed by Kaniyasu Kuniharu, one of the founders of the Tokyo Cast Metal Association in 1907 (Lot 91). Pieces like the pair of vases (Lot 123) with dragon handles and decorated with precious metal inlay display their origin in temple flower vases, while others (Lot 156) originated as either temple or domestic incense burners of the past era.

    Besides the bronze and iron casting traditions there was a most essentially Japanese art form in metal. This is the sculpture and inlay of soft metals and their coloured alloys, whose techniques and designs developed from the manufacture of metal fittings for the swords of the samurai.
    The metals used were coppers, bronzes, and brasses, with silver and gold and their alloys with copper to form shibuichi (an alloy of copper with one fourth part silver which patinates to a range of silvers, greys, and browns) and shakudo (copper with up to five percent gold which patinates to bluish, brownish, or deep dark black). There was inlay in high relief, and level inlay by inlaying soft metal into recesses carved in the body of the piece which might be iron or bronze, or other copper alloy. There was the so-called nunomezogan [textile inlay] by which gold or silver leaf was pressed into a hatchwork of lines scored into the ground of the object. This technique was used especially on iron objects like the barrels of matchlock guns, stirrups, plate armour, or iron tsuba [sword guards] which were often richly inlaid with gold or silver. Iron tsuba made with nunomezogan were the speciality of a number of makers in Kyushu, and several schools in Kyoto from the 17th century onward. There are fine examples of this technique in the collection such as the pieces by Komai Otojiro of Kyoto, who had been apprenticed to a tsuba maker in his youth before the Restoration, (Lots 18 - 22). Perhaps the most typically Japanese sculpting technique which was used effectively on Meiji metalwork was the method developed by the independent studios of sword fittings makers in the 17th century called katakiri-bori [oblique engraving]. In this method a chisel was used to cut at varying oblique angles to give lines of varying depth, width, and angle in simulation of ink painting with a brush. This gave rise to the saying that Japanese metalwork is a form of 'painting with hammer and chisel'. For this reason much Meiji metalwork faithfully follows books of design patterns made essentially for painters, and adapted for the metalworkers.

    With the close contacts which Imperial Japan now had with the West through import and export and cultural exchange, the International Expositions, and feedback in both directions through the trading houses, government advisors, and the natural exchange of fashion, Japanese metalwork took on a form which while being readily assimilated overseas, retained much of its essential nature. The subject matter contained much of the old tradition, often in hybrid form like decorative inlay on cast vessels deriving from Buddhist shapes. Meiji metalwork can be in the pure bronze or iron casting tradition, decorative inlay tradition, or the most significant group of all, a hybrid of soft metal inlay on cast bronze or iron, or hammered pieces. The soft metal inlay can thus provide fine detail to a sculpture, or in itself form the art object. Often the vessel was made by a separate craftsman whose work was then embellished by inlayers. This last group provides the majority of the finer work in the collection. A particularly fine example is the huge vase in the form of an extravagant incense burner (Lot 48) bearing the famous names of the maker of the vessel, the sculptor, and the inlay sculptor. Specialist craftsmen in Kyoto brought artists of diverse specialities together to produce such joint works. The collection has probably the largest known group of pieces produced by Noboru Nogawa from around the middle of the Meiji period, marked with his own characteristic logo, and bearing the signatures of several well-known independent sculptors. As such it provides a focus for future studies of the work of artists whose names are known, but about whom little else is known. But the collection also abounds in works by well known and important artists. There are several pieces by Miyabe Atsuyoshi (sometimes known as Tokuyoshi) (Lot 9 and 164), and pieces by perhaps one of the best known of bronze artists, Suzuki Chokichi signing with his art name Kako (Lots 12 - 14), using deep patination and coloured alloys.

    Morning Session Lot 1 - ??
    10.30 - ??