Quirky Little Figurines at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Elspeth Carruthers 16 March 2010

‘Netsuke: Japanese Art in Miniature’

Fitzwilliam Museum – Until Sunday 30th of May

Monkeys, evil spirits, dancers, monks, Dutchmen – the sheer variety of the netsuke (Japanese miniature sculptures) on display in the Fitzwilliam is astonishing. So small and delicate that the museum provides magnifying glasses with which to look at them, the poster for the exhibition, featuring an enlargement of an ivory monkey with inlaid amber eyes, gives no indication of the tiny scale of these incredibly intricate and detailed sculptures; it is almost a shock to see their true size.

The Fitzwilliam possesses about 500 netsuke, of which 255 are on show in this exhibition; their collection was recently increased by a donation of 900, such a number that they kept only 300, auctioning off the rest to raise money for the museum.

The number of netsuke reflects their enduring popularity in the world of Japanese art – there are still many to be found in antique markets in Japan, although we were cautioned that most are fake. Part of their charm is in their practical function; used to hang tobacco cases, pill boxes, and other accessories (sagemono) from the wearer’s sash (obi), netsuke became status symbols for the Japanese middle classes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Well-dressed Japanese would give careful thought to their netsuke and sagemono ensemble before leaving the house. Carved from ivory, wood, and occasionally lacquer and other materials, the netsuke are extraordinarily beautiful, so much so that it is easy to forget their function and view them purely as sculpture.

Looking closer at the netsuke, details of Japanese society begin to emerge, and one of the strengths of the exhibition is the way in which it draws links between the netsuke and their context. The foreign influence on Japan through 18th century international trade becomes clear; one netsuke, a caricature of a Dutchman, shows a comically elongated figure carrying a cockerel (the Japanese found the European habit of keeping domestic animals particularly amusing).

Many netsuke are influenced by Chinese art; a slightly absurd rendition of a lion, looking more like a puppy, draws on Chinese representations, lions not being native to Japan. Above all, the exhibition is a reminder of the playfulness and sense of humour in Japanese art. Some of the finest netsuke on display make use of visual tricks, like the man peeking through a hole to spy on a bathing woman, or comical images, such as the ‘professional sneezer’ whose job it was to sneeze on command (with the aid of a feather) to entertain polite society. For all the grotesque material on display, there are also sculptures of incredible technical skill, and the museum has put some of the best in a central cabinet; especially impressive was one of a wasp eating a rotting pear, complete with delicate stippling to give the surface the quality of pear skin.

Well presented in cabinets themed by subject matter, and with plenty of background information on what is for most people an unfamiliar art form, the exhibition is worth visiting for the beauty of the netsuke, but also for their unexpected humour and liveliness.

Elspeth Carruthers