I’ll never forget the day that I had the great awakening regarding an art form. Even today, in this country, there are very few people who recognize this as an art form.
I suspect that quite possibly in maybe five-hundred years they may look back on our country, and there will be preserved examples of this great form which we created. I suspect also that we have created a form which is now rapidly in decline. Around the early quarter of the twentieth century a new form was created and it existed briefly for about ten or twelve years in its really flowering way, and then it began to decline as all art forms do.
Up to the point when I’d discovered this form, I’d been a walking-around-ignorant. And in large part I still am today. I was going to the University of Cincinnati and I had a job and I was doing other things and I was just beginning to see that there was more to the world than Flash Gordon and more to drawing than Prince Valiant. I was beginning to suspect things. We go through this period when we begin to see things that we never really realized. That the world is a giant iceberg and in these first years of our life we only see a little bit of it sticking up on the top. We begin to see how fantastically varied and infinitely complex it is. I suppose that’s called “maturation.”
NETSUKE HARE WITH AMBER EYES
I recently encountered a book that refers to netsuke ownership, only this one concentrates on the rich Jewish family that had 264 fine netsuke, bought together by their forebears as a collection. When they were persecuted by the Nazis, the pieces were hidden by their maid and, after World War II, were returned by her to the family. I got the book from the library and found that the biographer, a member of the family, is a highly regarded English ceramicist who decided to use their netsuke collection, which he now owns, as symbolic of his family history and their love of the arts. Up front, I must admit that, though I consider the Holocaust to have been the most horrific tragedy in human history, and I’m in sympathy with this family’s art-filled and tragic story, my focus regarding this book is its relationship to netsuke and how the author elegantly and metaphorically shaped his story by using those netsuke.
Among the multitude of important reviews: “A winning hybrid, a rueful family memoir, a shining meditation on loss and the reverberating significance of cherished objects….” —The Atlantic
Throughout the book de Waal describes his family and netsuke collecting. He comments that netsuke represent all aspects of traditional Japanese culture and life—and his netsukes will come to represent aspects of his family’s life. Each time he writes of netsuke and picks one up to hold, fondle, and examine, he connects the art to his family history, always metaphorically:
They are always asymmetric, I think with pleasure. As with my favorite Japanese tea-bowls, you cannot understand the whole from a part.
When I am back in London I put one of these netsuke in my pocket for a day and carry it around. Carry is not the right word for having a netsuke in a pocket. It sounds too purposeful. A netsuke is so light and so small that it migrates and almost disappears amongst your keys and change.
I realize how much I care about how this hard-and-soft, losable object has survived. I need to find a way of unravelling its story. Owning this netsuke—inheriting them all—means I have been handed a responsibility to them and to the people who have owned them. I am unclear and discomfited about where the parameters of this responsibility might lie.
What they [the Japanese] could do was everyday life. And emotion. It was these emotions that entranced Kipling when he first saw netsuke in Japan on his travels in 1889.
Did he [the author’s ancestor] fall in love with the startlingly pale hare with amber eyes, and buy the rest for company?
It is not just things that carry stories with them. Stories are a kind of thing, too. Stories and objects share something, a patina. I thought I had this clear, two years ago before I started, but I am no longer sure how this works. Perhaps patina is a process of rubbing back so that the essential is revealed, the way that a striated stone tumbled in a river feels irreducible, the way this netsuke….
The author, opening the protective glass door of his netsuke vitrine, uses that vitrine itself as a metaphor–a kind of opening up this personal memory-gatherer for his stories/netsuke. He includes a photo of a vitrine in the book, but it’s distant and fuzzy, so one cannot see any of the contents. And he comments :
Netsukes cannot knock around your salon or your study unprotected….The vitrines exist so that you can see objects, but not touch them: they frame things, suspend them, tantalize through distance….But the vitrine—as opposed to the museum case—is for opening. And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric.
The night I returned the library book, I woke at four A. M., wrote a dozen notes to myself in the dark, and knew that I was possessed. Obsessed with the how, what, why of this book. Photocopies I’d made of some of the library book’s pages were not enough—I had to possess, tangibly, the entire volume in my hands. I bought a paperback and deposited it in my own netsuke vitrine. (Its cover has nine tiny photos of netsuke, including, below the title, a small one of the hare.) Now I hope I possess enough of the story. As de Waal’s netsuke evoke his family’s life, my small netsuke collection might represent an example of my artsy life. Here is my mixed-bag vitrine:
* * * * * * *
Eduard de Waal’s evocations of his family uses strong, forceful words about the idea of their netsuke as metaphor, but I believe he recognized that photos of the little sculptures amid the text would make them too visually tangible and thus distracting focal points–among the book’s interior illustrations, there is not one of a netsuke—not even of the one that gives title to the book. I searched the Internet and found images and short videos of de Waal discussing the book—they include a photo of his hare: