If you’ve read Edmund de Waal’s wonderful book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, you’ll know it’s the story of a collection of netsuke owned by his family which miraculously survived through the wars and turbulence of the 20th century. The hare was his favourite of the collection – and now you have a chance to see the actual hare netsuke at the In a Nutshell exhibition at the Japanese Embassy.
What exactly are netsuke? Well, back in the days when everyone in Japan wore kimonos, men would keep their seals and medicines in little lacquer containers caller inro. The inro were hung from the waist sash (obi) by a cord, but they needed a way to stop the cord slipping off the obi. That’s where netsuke come in. Netsuke literally means root-fix and a netsuke was a sort of toggle to go on the other end of the cord to anchor it onto the obi like this:
So netsuke always have somewhere to attach a cord – sometimes a channel was cunningly concealed inside the netsuke. And they needed to be smooth so as not catch on anything. This need for smoothness led to some complex work where the subject of the netsuke was naturally jagged, like this wonderful cock pecking at a radish with its tail curved over to form a smooth circle.
Netsuke were generally made of ivory or wood and the natural world of animals, birds and plants was a popular subject. Here are some lovely ones from the V&A and British Museum collections.
Two quails on millet carved in stained ivory:
A tiger carved in stained wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl:
A cat carved in ivory:
This little group of mushrooms has been carved in such detail that it has been possible to identify the type of mushroom depicted – it’s honshimeji.
Netsuke often depicted gods or mythical beings, like this one of Raiden, god of wind, thunder (hence the drum) and lightning.
Or they might just show episodes from everyday life, like this humorous katabori (shape carving) of a seated, tattooed man scratching an itch on his foot.
Or this basket of fish and octopus;
One thing I liked about the Japanese Embassy exhibition was the way it drew attention to the modern- day equivalent of netsuke – mobile phone charms. Mobile phones in Japan always have a little slot where you can attach the cord of a charm, and they’re sold wherever you go – Hello Kitty is a popular one, but there are thousands of varieties.
The Japanese Embassy is on Piccadilly, opposite Green Park and the exhibition contains over two hundred netsuke from private European collections, most of which have never been on public display before. It’s on until
31 May and it’s free but you need to take photo ID with you to be allowed in.
STOP PRESS: The exhibition has been extended to 12th June. You can buy the catalogue on Amazon, and also from the tobacconist (Alfie Turmeau) at the top of White Horse Street, just around the corner from the Embassy (where sales of any kind are not allowed). Thanks to curator Rosemary Bandini for this update.
Both the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum always have netsuke on display. And the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford currently has an exhibition of manju, which are round netsuke, named after a round sweet bean-paste bun. The exhibition is on until 1st September.
If you’re interested in de Waal’s ceramics, take a look at a post I did about his exhibition at Alan Cristea. And if you want to see more pictures of de Waal’s own netsuke, there’s a gallery with comment by de Waal on the Guardian’s website.
This is what he says about the hare:
‘This is the hare that I named the book after. It’s the magic lunar hare which keeps turning up in Japanese mythology and it’s the whitest netsuke in the whole collection by far, made of the the purest ivory. Like all netsuke, it’s about an inch long.’