Like all art objects of great worth, netsuke distill the essence of a specific time and place. Worn as part of a traditional Japanese man’s ensemble from the 17th-century onwards, the netsuke’s purpose was hyper-specific, and its functional simplicity lent artists unlimited freedom to constantly redefine what it could be.
Formally, netsuke have few requirements: they must be small, they must have holes through which to pass a single cord, and they must have no protuberances that could damage one’s kimono. Everything else is left to the carver’s imagination. As such netsuke differ in style, subject and material as widely as the personalities of their makers, and they are consequently supremely collectable.
Ahead of our Art of Japan sale at Christie’s King Street, we spoke with Hollis Goodall, co-author of a definitive book about netsuke and Curator of Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, about their history, significance and collectability.
Netsuke emerged as a practical solution to dressing in 17th-century Japan. ‘Men’s kimonos didn’t have sewn-up sleeves — they were completely open, front and back, and that meant that the sleeves couldn’t be used as a pocket, as they could in women’s kimonos,’ Goodall explains. To carry things suchas tobacco, medicine or other necessities, men hung stylish inro and other vessels from cords looped under and behind the wide sashes that held their kimonos in place. At the other end of those cords, men fastened small, ornamental objects as counterweights; those objects evolved into netsuke.
The netsuke’s origins are still ‘theoretical’, Goodall says. ‘It’s thought that, with increasing imports from China in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the toggles that were used on Chinese clothing were imported,’ she explains. Those toggles may have spawned the netsuke.
But the netsuke we know today is a distinctly Japanese art form. ‘As the form developed, and as the netsuke carvers began to really compete with each other to come up with new and different ways of handling netsuke, then it really became a localised art form that did not relate to anything in China,’ Goodall says. ‘It had completed its evolution by the 19th century.’
Early netsuke weren’t always quite so elaborately ornamental. ‘When you look at paintings that include people wearing netsuke from the 17th or 18th centuries, they tend to be little gourds, probably natural gourds,’ Goodall says. ‘The carved netsuke we think of today really developed in the 18th century.’
As netsuke evolved so did the design vocabulary, encompassing mythological creatures, religious subjects, zodiacal animals, kabuki actors or literary heroes. Netsuke could even be subversive — erotic in nature, or used as social satire. Their designs often mirrored broader trends in Japanese art.
‘With the advent of the 19th century, netsuke tended to feature objects that one would see in daily life,’ Goodall says. ‘And this was an aesthetic that was spreading throughout Japanese art. There was a lot of interest in the common person — people at work, or people engaged in humorous activities, contests, and games.’
Much like jewellery, watches and handbags today, netsuke were worn to match different occasions and ensembles. Japanese men who could afford them amassed netsuke to diversify their wardrobes.
Still, as Japanese fashion became more influenced by the West, netsuke disappeared from everyday use. Westerners took up the collector’s mantle. ‘In the Meiji period, right after Japan opened to the West in 1854, Americans and Europeans discovered netsuke and immediately started collecting them,’ Goodall says. ‘Westerners were so intrigued by netsuke that carvers continued to make a living by selling them to Westerners.’
Some netsuke are signed. Some are not. Either way, valuation requires an expert eye. ‘Some of the best netsuke are not signed,’ Goodall explains. ‘Occasionally an artist wouldn’t sign the artwork if, for instance, they were creating something for someone way above their station.’ Meanwhile, copyists sometimes faked the signatures of their famous contemporaries, making it more difficult for collectors to determine provenance.
True connoisseurship demands expertise and obsession — and expert collectors have made good netsuke highly covetable. ‘There is a subculture [for netsuke] just as there is for sword-collecting or snuff bottles,’ Goodall says. ‘There are people who are passionate about netsuke to the exclusion of everything else.’