Netsukes are on display at the Dayton Art Institute. What are they?

The tiny Japanese sculptures are beautifully sculpted and decorated, intricately detailed.

If you always head for the special exhibitions when visiting the Dayton Art Institute, here’s a suggestion: set aside some time to check out the concurrent Focus exhibits as well.

About three years ago, the DAI introduced a new series of smaller shows, usually displayed in one gallery and focusing on one specific theme or artist. The museum has focused on everything from a collection of historic Dayton photographs by William Preston Maysfield to original work by Vincent van Gogh. These small exhibits are beautifully curated and always fascinating. You can learn a lot in less than an hour.

A perfect example is “Netsuke and the Art of Little Wonders.” The special exhibitions –the David Levinthal and Joe Fig photography shows–are both ending today and got lots of well-deserved attention. But in a rush to see them you may have passed by the small gallery that houses a collection of amazing tiny netsuke treasures. Luckily the netsuke show will be up through Feb. 12, so if you missed it, definitely go back!

You’ll learn what netsuke are, how they are made and how they were treasured for hundreds of years. The word is pronounced net-skeh and in English it can be pluralized as either netsuke or netsukes. You’ll see a wide variety of the tiny carvings organized by theme, “They’re just so cute!” one appreciative visitor said.

They’re cute indeed. They’re also beautifully sculpted and decorated, intricately detailed, often humorous. They cover a wide range of subject matter: folk tale characters, scenes of everyday life, monsters, Zodiac animals, legendary heroes, water creatures. Some feature an individual or animal, some are groupings of people or scenes. Children will love them!

When the Japanese adopted European dress, the use of netsuke became less popular but as more travelers began visiting Japan, netsuke became collectible as objects of fine art. They continue to be produced today by master carvers throughout the world. Though netsuke were originally inexpensive, these days signed 18th-century ivory or wood netsuke can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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In the beginning

If you were a male living in Japan during the Edo period (1615–1868) you’d probably be wearing a netsuke as a fashion statement. Because kimonos had no pockets, the little hand-carved sculptures, about the size of your palm, were used to suspend a small carrying case from the sash of a man’s pocketless kimono. The cases might hold medicine or signature seals, a pipe or tobacco pouch.

Since folks outside of the ruling samurai class were limited in how much luxury they could display, they often chose to show off by donning these creative art pieces. They were considered good luck charms and also given as gifts. Many of the sculptures you’ll see in the gallery are loans from the James F. Dicke Family Collection. Others are gifts from Virginia W. Kettering.

The show was curated by Peter Doebler, the DAI’s Kettering Curator of Asian Art. “We have a large collection of these netsukes and thought it would be a great opportunity to show a large number of them all at once,” says Doebler, who has included about 83 objects in his Focus exhibit, “We wanted to look at the diversity of subjects and they are also a window onto Japanese popular culture 200 years ago.”

How they were made

When you enter the gallery, you’ll see an illustration that demonstrates exactly how a cord threaded through two holes in the bottom of the netsuke was then attached to the item the wearer wanted to carry. A sliding bead tightened the cord, then the netsuke was tucked through the sash belt, called an obi, of a traditional kimono.

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In the beginning, netsuke were crafted of wood –especially boxwood– and elephant ivory. They could also be metal or ceramic. For details, such as the eyes, they were often decorated with lacquer or inlays of amber, coral, mother-of-pearl.

You’ll also see examples of various techniques that were used. Some netsuke were left natural; others were cut and stained with ink or colored with pigment. The most common type is a 3-D figure carved all around. Other varieties include round discs with a relief carving on the surface, a perforated design with deep carving throughout, and a round bowl topped with a metal plate.

The artwork is grouped by themes and the wall text will help explain the significance of certain animals or stories to Japanese culture. For example, you’ll see a little fox disguised as a Buddhist priest. In Japanese folklore, foxes are tricksters with the ability to change shape. In one popular story, a fox takes the form of a Buddhist priest and visits a hunter. In the natsuki on display, you’ll see the fox in the process of transforming, still dressed in priest’s robes and holding a bamboo staff.

In another entitled Rosei’s Dream, the main character in the tale dreams of becoming an emperor. When the netsuke is closed, you see Rosei on his bed but peek inside and you see his dream.

Rats were believed to be a messenger for the god of grain and therefore a symbol of abundance. One is pictured in a rice sack, one perched on chestnuts, others carrying a persimmon. Scenes of everyday life range from dancers to woodworkers and coral divers.

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Doebler says netsukes have become an international phenomenon with master carvers continuing to make them all over the world. “They aren’t used in the traditional way anymore but they’ve been transposed to popular culture, now used on small personal objects like cell phones or keychains and featuring anime or manga.”

“Netsuke are so small but once you start looking at them, you’re pulled into admiring them,” concludes Doebler. “It’s amazing that they can make something so incredible with something this small.”

Want to learn more?

If the Dayton exhibit whets your appetite for netsuke, you may want to:

  • Read “The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance.” The award-winning memoir by Edmund de Waal about a family whose collection of netsuke was saved under a mattress when the Nazis confiscated all of their property. The collection was passed down through five generations.
  • The Toledo Museum of Art owns over 800 netsuke, one of the largest collections in the nation! Over half of the collection was donated by collector Richard Silverman who fell in love with the art form when he spent 15 years living in Tokyo. “The finest were like miniature Michelangelos,” Silverman has said. “I loved them all, from those made in the early 17th to 18th centuries to contemporary works. I traveled the width and length of Japan to sightsee and find more netsuke.” We’ll let you know the next time the netsuke collection will be on display but in the meantime, you can look at the little treasures online at http://emuseum.toledomuseum.org/collections:

HOW TO GO:

What: “Netsuke and the Art of Little Wonders”

Where: Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North, Dayton

When: Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Through February 12.

Admission: $15 for adults, $10 for seniors, active military, groups of 10 or more. College students and youth ages 7-17 are $5. Children 6 and under are free; so are museum members. Through the Dayton Metro library, families can check out admission for three weeks to the museum.

Related programming: In conjunction with the netsuke exhibit, kids at home can make a clay turtle inspired by one of the netsuke turtles on display. Check out https://www.daytonartinstitute.org/clay-turtle-play/

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