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Netsuke: Okami to uchikubi (A Wolf with a Chopped Human Head)
Circa 1830-1867
ivory and inlaid wood
Collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Bequeathed 1970 by Mrs Sophia Jane St. Clair Meek of Dunedin.
Netsuke were born out of practical necessity. Because kimono have no pockets, objects such as smoking pipes, tobacco pouches, purses or small boxes (inro) were tied to one end of a cord and hung from the kimono sash (obi). The netsuke were attached to the other end to fasten the cord to the upper edge of the sash. The literal meaning of the word is ‘roots (ne) attached (tsuke)’, because small tree roots were originally used for this purpose. Then those roots began to be carved into imaginative shapes, and from these humble beginnings developed a highly sophisticated and varied art form, using not only wood but also ivory, precious metals and many other materials.
The ingenious, immediately appealing and often humorous displays of artistry in netsuke are typical of the plebeian culture of Japan’s Tokugawa period (1600–1868), when a newly wealthy merchant class also patronised such popular art forms as ukiyo-e woodblock prints, bunraku puppet theatre, haiku poetry and kabuki theatre – not to mention the ‘floating world’ arts of the teahouse and the geisha. These three fine examples typify both the exquisite workmanship and the thematic diversity of these ‘miniature sculptures’. One illustrates a folk tale of a greedy monkey being attacked by some crabs. Another, which depicts a wolf toying with a human head, is probably based on direct social observation – beheading was an all too common punishment for crime in Japan at that time. Such frightening images are also typical of Tokugawa merchant culture, which displayed a fondness not only for the cute and the humorous but also for Gothic horror and grotesquerie.

not on view

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