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wooden netsukes


woutwoods

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I am wondering why in netsuke carving so very few times the material is used to support the design. Netsukes are coming from Japan and there is much appreciation for natural materials like in architecture furniture and gardening. The materials are left in their natural state. Also there is a tendency to simplify designs to its essentials based on the Zen philosophy. In gardens a simple rock is representing a mounting and in painting an animal is done in a single line. I would expect the same in netsuke carving but in netsukes there is an abundance of details and the materials like ivory of boxwood are choosing for their possibilities of details but not for the natural beauty of the material. In an exceptional case a wild boar is carved from wood whereby the grain is enhancing the bristles of the boar but in general the material is not important. In my work I try to use the natural features of the wood like grain or colour to be part of the design. I am interested to see work of others who have similar ideas.

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Hi Wout,

 

You have posed a very interesting question based on your observations. You may want to learn more about Iwami netsuke. The carvers were more isolated from the main schools of carving style, and used materials that were readily available to them. Boar tusks were sometimes left intact except for a centipede or crab carved into a portion of it. I will think about other examples.

 

I occasionally will leave features of the wood I am carving in the design of the piece. Currently, a branch that showed on the outside of a piece of boxwood, is being used as a branch upon which a frog rests. Photos later in another topic. A couple of pieces have the bark remaining on a portion of the carving, the carved part is carved to resemble rotted wood with associated creatures.

 

The artist's vision will occasionally be emboldened to find the simple, beautiful elements in the material and use them as a piece is created. That does require finding the materials that offer such imaginative interpretation. Jim Kelso has such an eye, to call attention on one artist. Willingness to exercise restraint when so many details are available in any subject, is a useful skill.

 

A sculptural spoon carver, Norm Sartorius, is one who sees the beauty in the wood, carves to show the best qualities of the wood in each piece.

 

I will ponder other examples.

 

Janel

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Interesting line of thought Wout. Janel is being way too modest. Here are some examples of her mastery using two-color woods and the patterned snakewood. I often use wood grain to an effect, but more often on a larger piece such as a box where it is a background effect. I might disagree when you say that the wood is not important in a Boxwood carving. It can be chosen very carefully, but with a different intention, where the artist has a detailed vision in mind.

 

Two different approaches, each requiring sensitivity to the material.

 

Here's a close-up of the Scarlet Runner Bean in Cocus wood.

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Thank you for your reply,

It showed some nice pieces along the lines I am thinking. Sometimes I get the impression that netsuke carving is puting as much miniature features in the design as possible to show off but the pieces you refered to have a nice strong simple design.

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By looking at the above images, you may realize that my carvings are no longer following the rules of netsuke, with compact form and himotoshi (cord holes). The scale is related to netsuke somewhat by scale, but a more accurate description is one of small sculpture, or netsuke-like, unless I do bring the elements into composition with the characteristics of true netsuke. I look at the wood and decide what to do with its characteristics. Boxwood pieces, I also try to fit the carving to the piece of wood, unless the wood source is larger than what I want to use. Boxwood is great for detail carving, ukibori texturing, and for coloring, either mono- or poly- chrome.

 

Antique and contemporary netsuke may be found from the simplest to the most ornately detailed. Particular carver's styles play a big part in what they contribute to the great field of netsuke. If you have access to catalogs, or the Kinsey books listed in the TCP Book Store, you may see a wide range of detail in the work. Komada Ryushi, a leading contemporary Japanese netsuke-shi carves exqusite tiny Japanese women in traditional kimono, with designs and details appropriate for the piece. Michael Birch, from Great Britain, has carved flowing Mobius Strip-like pieces quite abstract and devoid of detail which shows off the material in a lovely way. There are different "schools" of netsuke carved in past centuries in Japan. The schools produced styles that are recogizable to serious collectors who have studied their way into greater knowledge. There are netsuke out there that have detail, and there are netsuke that are beautifully simple, using only the barest essential characteristics to portray the concept of the piece.

 

Netsuke that were used in daily life have their details softened or worn away, making a look and patina that is nearly un-reproducable. Those are so beautiful. The very detailed netsuke may be in the majority, but the simply lined and shaped netsuke are also present, but must be looked for.

 

The next International Netsuke Society Convention is in January 2007, in Florida. Have a look at the INS link. Consider making the trip to see a great collection of antique and contemporary netsuke. A few carvers who are members of TCP made it to the San Francisco convention, and a couple of paid attendees (me included) took the TCP folks around the show/sales floor for a long look at the netsuke. You may email me privately with questions.

 

PS Japanese netsuke tell stories. The details are important in part of the story telling. There is much mythology, history, religious connotation, and elbow jabbing portrayed in netsuke. For instance, a rat in or under a basket is not just an interesting scenario. It means that the household in which the rat is present is well enough off to have excess food around to attract the rodent. There are many meanings and inuendo to learn about with netsuke.

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  • 3 weeks later...

There haven't been any new thoughts on this topic so I thought I'd pitch in a few ideas.

I think a reason that the visual characteristics of various woods haven't been used in the past is one of scale.

Netsuke, and other miniature carvings under 3" or 7 cm let's say, have to rely of some sort of visual impact to create an enlarged sense of scale so that they're not overwhelmed by clothing, or other art forms (in the case of non-functioning contemporary netsuke) that might attract a buyer's eye.

 

Detailed carving is one way to approach the risk of being passed over for larger forms. Intricacy offsets bravado, grand gesture, etc. Ivory and box allow the greatest detail, so they have been selected historically. Different sizes of sculpture call for different ways to create impact.

 

Secondly, it is difficult to find a woodgrain of a scale suitable for such small carvings. Oak is a tough, dense wood, but it's my feeling that the grain pattern is too large. Purpleheart is quite dense too, but the pore structure tends to interfere with a lot of subject matter. I did a carving last year of a moth on some maple seeds with a very burled piece of boxwood, which I thought would lend to the subject. I was wrong, and the form was lost amongst all the swirls of grain. Tom Sterling offered advice that his experience has taught him to keep form simple with interesting grain, and form complex with neutral grain.

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I think there is probably something needing to be said for the role of abstraction in Japanese three dimensional art forms, ie. sculpture. Reduction of form which would be needed in order to emphasize the visual qualities of wood doesn't seem to be there, historically. There are exceptions of course, and I'm not an art historian but I can't think of much 3D sculpture of natural forms which doesn't strive for detail and realism. Abstraction entered the game later after exposure to French schools, etc.

There are others with greater knowledge of sculptural art history on this forum who could perhaps provide more accurate insight.

 

There are very reduced form/abstract netsuke around but generally they are made from very pristine, unblemished ivory, wood and other materials. There's a classic one of a crab- I forget the artist- which has reduced the form down to just a few facets and begs to be held :lol:

 

I'm impressed Wout, by your choice of woods and themes - keep to your vision ! :o

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I have the same experience that the more patterns there are in the wood the more the design need to be kept simple. I am still wondering why there are so few abstractions in 3D carving as mentioned by Doug. In Japanese art there is a long tradition in abstractions. In lacquer work, in graphics, in gardening there are plenty of examples of abstractions, the single rock that represents the mountain. I always thought this had something to do with the Zen Buddhism, concentrating on the essentials, that was very influential in the cultural live. The examples from Japan had a great influence on Western art in the 18th and 19th century leading to all kinds of more abstract art form but why not in sculpture?

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I think I read once, and I may be mistaken, that historically in Japan most sculpting efforts went towards Buddhist temples. The Buddha in his various incarnations and poses follows a strict set of iconography that wasn't deviated from very often. Realism and detail tended to be the goal. This isn't to be confused with the various Zen sects though.

In China though we see abstraction in many of the 'scholar's objects' where roots, rocks and interesting grain patterns suggest landscapes, animals and humans.

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the single rock that represents the mountain.

 

I see what you're driving at, I think, but my dictionary(Oxford American) defines abstract as, "existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence". In other words, something that is purely a mental concept, or artistically, the expression of a mental concept, not the depiction of a "real" object. Your work and what you are alluding to seems to me not to be abstract at all, but rather simplified, stylized depictions of real objects. Personally, I enjoy this type of work very much although it is not my chosen form of expression. I applaud your efforts in that direction.

 

I agree, from what little I know about Zen, it does encourage a pursuit of the essential, but I think it's dangerous territory to try to define what "essential" is, especially in relation to what might be essential for someone else.

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