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A piece from "Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections," running from July 23 through October 16 at State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy State Hermitage Museum

AMSTERDAM - The art of miniature sculptures, or netsuke, is a unique phenomenon in the cultural history of Japan, which emerged and became widespread in the Edo period (1603–1868).

From purely utilitarian objects which served to attach the small necessities to a belt, netsuke evolved into real works of art which adorned the dress of the Samurai and wealthy citizens in the 18th century and conquered the hearts of European collectors in the second half of the 19th century.

The earliest netsuke pieces date back to the 17th century. Among the first examples are personal seals, or hanko, in the shape of the Chinese lion sitting on a pedestal (karashishi). The name of the owner was inscribed in relief on the lower part of the pedestal, but when there was no more need for the seal, the name would be cut off and the figurine preserved in continuous use as a netsuke (cat. 1).

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A piece from "Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections," running from July 23 through October 16 at State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy State Hermitage Museum

The art of netsuke carving started to develop in two cities of central Japan: Osaka and Kyoto. First information about the carvers, their names, data on their origin and places of residence was included in the 1781 edition called Sōken Kishō (“Praise of Sword Fittings”) which was compiled by Inaba Tsūryū (1736–1786). The exhibition contains works of the masters mentioned by the author. One of the most popular carvers in Osaka was Yoshimura Shuzan (1700–1773). He made large netsuke out of cypress wood in an expressive, nearly grotesque manner and used mineral pigments over a white priming (cat. 134). The works of his contemporary Satake Soshichi (1727–?) are hard to judge because few netsuke signed by him have survived (cat. 71). The art of Garaku the second, who was also mentioned by Inaba Tsūryū, is represented by the netsuke The Chinese Lion Karashishi (cat. 6). This carver made elegant and intricate sculptures.

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A piece from "Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections," running from July 23 through October 16 at State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy State Hermitage Museum

The majority of the netsuke executed in Kyoto in the 18th century portray real animals or imaginary beasts like the Chinese lion karashishi, a kirin (Chinese qilin), a baku. The carvers show attention to detail and precision in rendering the animal’s behaviour, its anatomy, movements, fur. Tomotada was one of the most famous carvers in the entire history of netsuke. Inaba Tsūryū remarked on his masterful portrayal of bulls (see cat. 27). The master’s most famous model was a “howling” kirin. A mythical beast with the body of a stag, head of a dragon, legs and hooves of a horse and tail of a lion is sitting back on its haunches, as if howling at the moon (cat. 13). Tomotada and his contemporaries Masanao and Okatomo are considered the founders of the Kyoto school of netsuke carving. Masanao’s animals are full of brutal force, muscle and character (cat. 32). Okatomo’s works betray an influence of Tomotada’s manner – he may have studied under him. In comparison with his teacher’s work, Okatomo’s netsuke are more exquisite and smaller in size (cat. 29, 66, 76). As he gained popularity, the carver founded his own art studio and began to teach young craftsmen, the most successful among whom were Tomokoto (cat. 89) and Okakoto (cat. 149, 168). Mitsuharu was briefly mentioned in the Sōken Kishō. In his interpretation, the Chinese lions or karashishi are lively beasts busy playing with the precious ball, or tama, rather than the static figures featured on the earliest netsuke seals (cat. 2, 3).

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A piece from "Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections," running from July 23 through October 16 at State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy State Hermitage Museum

By the end of the 18th century, the art of netsuke carving began to spread across the country, and some provinces could boast their own centres which produced these miniature statuettes. The masters from the cities of Nagoya and Gifu strove for naturalism in animal depiction and used boxwood and cherrywood as materials. The Nagoya netsuke carving school was founded by Tametaka (c. 1730–1794) and Tadatoshi (c. 1770–1840), whose refined carving manner was passed on to their successors (cat. 20, 47, 67, 68, 82, 92, 109, 130). Tadatoshi’s favourite subject was The Sleeping Shōjō (cat. 130). In his best works, Kanō Tomokazu (c. 1765 – 1840s) rendered both the natural grace of the animals and their typical characteristics or emotions (cat. 22, 31, 37, 48, 50, 61, 80). In Ise Province (the modern Mie Prefecture), there were two prominent netsuke-carving centres: the cities of Tsu and Yamada. Inaba Tsūryū mentioned a carver from Tsu called Tanaka Minkō (1735–1816). He was a versatile artist who carved both large-scale sculptures and small objects. Sometimes, the master’s manner seems almost careless, but careful study reveals that such simplicity is in fact a conceit (cat. 21, 49). His pupils were Tōmin and possibly Kokei, a highly idiosyncratic carver with a superb sense of humour (cat. 18, 19, 69, 79, 81, 99, 122, 151).

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A piece from "Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections," running from July 23 through October 16 at State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy State Hermitage Museum

Naitō Toyomasa (1773–1856) was a carver from Tanba Province, whose talent was also recognised in central regions, in the cities of Kyoto and Osaka. Many of his netsuke are sharply grotesque (cat. 10, 33, 105).

The netsuke from Iwami Province are represented with the works of Gansui (1809–1848) which were made of a thin slice of an elephant tusk with a carved image of a dragon flying through clouds on one side and eight delicately engraved poems on famous views of Omi Province on the other side (cat. 46).

Matsushita Otoman (Otomitsu; ?–1862), a remarkable master from the town of Hakata, Chikuzen Province (the modern Fukuoka Prefecture), had an original sense of humour which transformed even the most popular subjects (cat. 106, 115, 129). His works are incredibly independent, have no analogues amongst contemporaries and feel like they are years ahead of their time.

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A piece from "Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections," running from July 23 through October 16 at State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy State Hermitage Museum

In the eastern regions of Japan, an independent school of netsuke carving took longer to establish than in Kyoto or Osaka. Hiromori Miwa (Miwa Zaiei; ?–1789) is believed to be the founder of the local school of miniature carving (cat. 93). This master’s innovative idea was to use the everyday life of the townsfolk as source of subjects for his work: people are seen washing clothes, massaging shoulders, putting on the fundoshi. In the middle of the 19th century, netsuke art developed towards ever more complex semantics and forms of these sculptural pendants; the narratives and imagery became more detailed, often to the detriment of the overall impression. Carvers grew fond of decorative embellishment of the surface and engraved ornaments.

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A piece from "Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections," running from July 23 through October 16 at State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy State Hermitage Museum

The middle – second half of the 19th century was the time when two prominent Osaka carvers were active: Ōhara Mitsuhiro (1810–1875) and Kaigyokusai Masatsugu (1813–1892), whose work was characterised by a jeweller-like precision of the decor and a love of the ornamental. Mitsuhiro used only best-quality ivory and rarely portrayed people, with the exception of a few Buddhist characters and gods of happiness (cat. 94). The carver’s favourite subjects were animals, birds, fruits (cat. 85, 86). Kaigyokusai Masatsugu was also prone to perfectionism. The choice of materials, the shades of pigments, the delicate carving and polishing – all the stages of work were finished to perfection. His favourite subjects included playful puppies and melancholic monkeys (cat. 57, 58)

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A piece from "Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections," running from July 23 through October 16 at State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy State Hermitage Museum

Miyazaki Josō (1855–1910) founded Tokyo’s most influential studio in the second half of the 19th century, bringing together his numerous pupils, including Morita Sōkyū (cat. 157)..

In the second half of the 19th century, traditional clothing was gradually falling out of use, and there was practically no need for functional netsuke. However, their production was given a new lease of life with the development of tourism: miniature sculptures became exotic mementoes and compact portable souvenirs. They have also been widely collected by lovers of Japanese culture worldwide.

The exhibition “Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections”, organised by the State Hermitage with support from the CIS Chapter of the International Netsuke Society, features over one hundred and eighty items kindly lent by Moscow and St Petersburg collectors.

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A piece from "Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections," running from July 23 through October 16 at State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy State Hermitage Museum

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A piece from "Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections," running from July 23 through October 16 at State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy State Hermitage Museum 

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A piece from "Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections," running from July 23 through October 16 at State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy State Hermitage Museum 

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A piece from "Netsuke. Japanese Miniature Sculptures from Private Collections," running from July 23 through October 16 at State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy State Hermitage Museum