Yesterday we finished an installation in the Japanese galleries of 123 netsuke, all newly on view. Netsuke are miniature sculptural toggles (usually around two inches or less across), which were threaded onto the silk cords of small inro (seal or medicine cases), pouches, or pipes/tobacco accessories. These toggles allowed wearers to keep their accessories fastened safely to their person as they went about their business. (Something like clipping your keys or your badge to your belt loop, but a bit more fashionable.) Wearers would run the cords under their obi sashes so that the netsuke hung out above the obi and the accessory hung below it.
One of the netsuke on view in the new installation is a tiny figure shown with a tobacco pouch and pipe case hung from its obi by a dark colored, round netsuke—perhaps one similar to the kagamibuta (“mirror lid”) netsuke also on view . . .
LEFT: Netsuke of Okame lifting her kimono hem, approx. 1800–1900. Signed “Mitsu” (or “Ko”). Wood; inlaid ivory, coral, metal, and horn. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y1233.
RIGHT: Kagamibuta-type netsuke of Hachisuka Koroku and Hiyoshimaru (youthful Toyotomi Hideyoshi) meeting on the Yahagi Bridge, approx. 1800–1900. Signed “Soyo.” Mixed metals; buffalo horn. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y285.
One of the featured “themes” within the display is octopuses—we have some charming examples among the museum’s 1500-some netsuke.
LEFT: Netsuke installation, almost completed! The white gloves on the ledge are what the installation staff used to handle the tiny sculptures. Our mountmaker, Vincent, spent the day making individual mounts for those that needed to stand upright.
RIGHT: Netsuke of octopus in octopus pot. Signed “Masayuki” (Kato Masayuki, born 1831). Edo (Tokyo). Ivory with light staining. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y841. Photo by Kaz Tsuruta.
By coincidence, in our museum’s Cafe Asia today, I found something that looked, in size and shape, to have escaped from the netsuke rotation.
LEFT: A miniature delicacy from Cafe Asia.
RIGHT: Netsuke of boiled octopus, approx. 1800–1900. Wood. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y1333. Photo by Kaz Tsuruta.
In the refrigerated case, between the usual fruit salads and kelp salads, were containers of miniature marinated octopus salad—not to be passed up! The tiny octopuses tasted as if they had been simmered in soy with mirin (sweet rice wine) or sake and sugar, and they were sprinkled with sesame seeds. A bargain at $4.25, and truly delectable!
LEFT: Marinated Octopus Salad, at Café Asia.
RIGHT: I partake. Yum! Photo by Susie Kantor.
One of my favorite netsuke in the new installation also has an octopus theme. Less than two inches (five centimeters) across, it is formed in the shape of an octopus pot—a clay jar used to trap octopuses that are looking for a hiding place.
Netsuke of octopus in octopus pot inscribed with haiku. Signed “Mitsuhiro” (Ohara Mitsuhiro, 1810–1875). Stained wood with inlaid natural barnacles and glass. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y870. Photo by Kaz Tsuruta.
The netsuke is carved of wood to look exactly like unglazed, sea-worn ceramic, and its walls are encrusted with natural barnacles and sand-like materials. Inside hides an ill-fated octopod, barely visible to the naked eye.
On the outer walls of the jar is inscribed a haiku by Matsuo Basho:
“Oh octopus pot/a fleeting dream/the summer moon”
(Takotsubo ya/ hakanaki yume wo/ natsu no tsuki).
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