UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Japanese Miniatures Have Grand Presence

I entered the Museum of Fine Arts last Saturday looking for the new exhibit, “Netsuke: Fantasy and Reality in Japanese Miniature Sculptures,” and was told by an MFA employee, “Take a right down that hall, those things are so, so cute!” With that comment, I was expecting dollhouse-sized happy little dogs, smiling cats and such, but I was wrong. Very wrong.

These miniature sculptures are dollhouse-sized, yes, but they are far from being “so, so cute.” I was a bit taken aback by their disproportionate features, bizarre facial expressions, and disturbing titles. After viewing multiple sculptures, I came to see that these little characters represented beauty, humor, sometimes eroticism, as well as portraying historical and literal topics.

The art of netsuke probably surfaced around the 17th century. They are extremely detailed carvings usually made from stained ivory or boxwood that has holes drilled to thread a cord through in which the netsuke can be used as a toggle. The intricate carvings definitely create the uniqueness between each and every sculpture. There is rarely a detail left undone, such as the octopus sculpture with exact detail to the tentacles. The suction-cup bottoms are there in full view. Sculptor, Jugyoku created this stained ivory figure in the early to mid 19th century.

There are netsukes for all different aspects of Japanese culture. They are divided as such in the museum. The section of “daily life” contains “After the Bath” where a man, carved from ivory, is toweling off. Sculpted by Garaku Risuke in the 18th century, this piece has every fold in the towel, every wrinkle in the man’s body all contained in a 2 to 3 inch sculpture. This was one of the less disturbing pieces perhaps because it leaves the man somewhat vulnerable as we watch him dry off.

There was an abundance of animal sculptures in the two rooms on display because this exhibition contains all 12 East Asian zodiac animals. There are also plenty of common animals such as the Turtle. Mitsuhiro sculpted this shy animal with its head inverted sometime between 1810 and 1875 using stained ivory. This is also one of the less disturbing creatures on display, yet still intricately carved, which is especially evident in the design of the outer shell.

Old men toweling off and shy turtles are less interesting than, say, a bodiless man and cat prostitute, right? Have no fear. The MFA has these on display as well. The bodiless man is actually a sculpture of Daruma’s head, the old Zen master who, according to the story, meditated for so long that his entire body was lost. In Japanese paintings, he is known for his big, circular eyes as he stares at cave walls meditating. This sculpture shows him with the infamous eyes holding a hossu (a whisk-type object). “Daruma doll holding a hossu” was sculpted by Anraku from stained ivory and horn in 1850.

“Cat Prostitute and Client” is carved out of boxwood and is one of the more eccentric pieces only because of its title. The actual sculpture is not that offensive, just portraying a cat in a long robe with its “client” peeking out beneath the robe.

These Japanese miniatures will keep your attention because you can stare at one for quite a while and still not notice every detail and carving on it. The MFA has an impressive collection with help from Dr. Joseph Kurstin and other private collectors. Since there is such a wide variety of different subjects displayed with these netsukes, anyone will be able to find one or many to appreciate. These are beautiful sculptures representing Japan in every aspect of life during the 17th to 19th centuries. “Nesuke: Fantasy and Reality in Japanese Miniature Sculpture” is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston until March 10, 2002.