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Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

SUCH STUFF As Dreams Are Made On is one of two major exhibitions that will inaugurate Sydney L. Moss’ new galleries in Queen Street. Coinciding with the 11th Asian Art in London (October 30 to November 8), it will run from Thursday, October 30 to Friday, November 28, 2008.

Some 80 wonderful netsuke from the well-known Willi G. Bosshard Collection will be on view and for sale. This Swiss collection has hitherto been largely unpublished and this exhibition will mark the publication of Sydney L. Moss’s catalogue which features a selected 99 of the finest pieces and has taken two years to prepare.

Netsuke are miniature sculptures which developed in Japan over a period of more than 300 years and served both functional and aesthetic purposes. The kimono had no pockets, so men suspended their tobacco pouches, medicine boxes, pipes, purses or writing implements, collectively known as sagemono, on a silk cord from their obi (kimono sash). A small toggle called a netsuke was attached to the cord to prevent it from slipping through the obi. A sliding bead (ojime) was strung on the cord between the netsuke and the sagemono to tighten or loosen the opening. The entire ensemble was worn at the waist and functioned as a removable ‘pocket’.

Willi G. Bosshard formed his remarkable collection of netsuke over a period of forty years. Now 71 years old, he spent almost his entire working life with Nestlé. Early on in his career he was sent to Japan to run their Asian operation, and it was fairly soon after he arrived there that he discovered netsuke.

Bosshard entered wholeheartedly into Japanese life, making numerous lifelong friends there, learning Japanese and becoming familiar with many aspects of the culture, to the extent that even in his retirement he goes back every year for the Sumo wrestling season. As a collector of netsuke he was astute in seeking out the best in the areas in which he was interested.

The collection is particularly strong in Kyoto school animals, especially rats and tigers, many of which are masterpieces of the genre. Works by most of the greatest Kyoto netsuke carvers, Masanao, Tomotada, Okatomo and all their best followers, form a richly varied and comprehensive overview of mid to late 18th century netsuke. Amongst the rats is an ivory female rat and chili pod by Masanao, circa 1740-1760, the signature engraved in an oval-rectangular reserve underneath (pictured).

Larger than most netsuke of rats, this example has a beguiling simplicity, hunched over its prized chili, which it clasps between its fore and hind paws, its tail helping to hug it tight. The hind paws are skeletal digits, distinctive of Masanao. The big, bulging inlaid horn eyes and beautiful ears give life to its expression. The body’s surface is enlivened by its dense hairwork, wearing away almost completely in places, still darkly inked in others.

Another signed work by Masanao, circa 1750-1770, depicts an ivory coffer fish, or boxfish (or trunkfish), ostracion. This apparently simple conception is in fact an extremely accomplished fish netsuke of masterfully worked subtle planes, cunningly successful asymmetry, beautifully and generously finished detail and some effortlessly clever surface treatments. The stippling to face, cheeks and underside is very varied and the line-engraving for the indication of the scales is assured and extremely complex. The tail fin, with its beautifully finished cartoonish flick of propulsion, is a masterpiece of undercutting.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Masanao’s artistry is the unusual scientific observation which he brought to his netsuke. He was clever and precise about details such as crabs’ mouths and rat genitalia, or the ways horses lay or moved or rolled or clambered to their feet, and carved netsuke of species such as this fish which hardly any other netsuke carver apparently knew or cared about. Masanao’s fish and seafood netsuke are a fascinating specialist area of study.

Another sea creature is depicted in an unsigned ivory octopus (tako), Osaka, circa 1770-1790. The octopus, with a large domed head, downward-pointing tubular beak and huge inlaid black horn eyes, is perched triumphantly on a tall upturned pot (tsubo), its eight writhing tentacles wrapped in a complex overlapping arrangement around and over the greater part of the pot’s surface.

The deeply patinated, highly polished inside of the tsubo has seen extensive use as an unusually well-hollowed ashtray. The writhing tentacles may be seen as sinuous flames or wreathing smoke trails rising from the mouth of the ashtray aperture, reinforcing the netsuke’s identity as a functional, smoking-related work. In the early 17th century tobacco smoking became wildly popular in Japan and smoking paraphernalia was indispensable to the smart townsman (chonin).

One of the earliest pieces is a signed wood figure of a baku, a mythical beast that devoured bad dreams, made by Hidemasa I, Osaka, circa 1700-1750. This netsuke has a timeless presence and appeal. The beast sits with its head turned back while pinning a tangible waft of what one assumes to be bad dreams under its right front paw. Like all the best baku it is cross-eyed with the effort, and with the hallucinogenic content of the bad dreams it devours, the eyes inlaid with dark horn pupils.

The Bosshard Collection includes a powerful group of superb Iwami school netsuke including an ebony cicada (semi) by Kamman, circa 1810-1840. The cicada is perched on a fleshy folded taro leaf and Kamman’s signature is engraved on the leaf’s interior where it is ‘eaten away’. The veins of the leaf contrast with the geometric markings of the insect’s wings and the extraordinary texturing techniques, as well as the faultless naturalistic observation, render this a masterpiece of Iwami school netsuke carving.

The leading master of the Iwami artists was Seiyodo Tomiharu who is represented by a large boar’s tusk carved in highly polished bold relief with a centipede (mukade) crawling towards the carver’s long, minutely engraved inscription which reads: “In Iwami Province by the Kaai River, Seiyodo Tomiharu, at the age of 61, carved this. Here the time is Kansei, summer of the year of the ox (1793), the 26th day of the fifth month.”

The centipede was one of the subjects most favoured by Iwami netsuke carvers. There was an abundance of such underground arthropods and insects in the vicinity of the Iwami Silver Mine, where the excavated tunnels were referred to as mukade-ana (centipede holes).

From Edo, circa 1750-1800, comes a wood standing Raiden, a tragically misunderstood, albeit thoroughly demonic, character with a handful of truly strange stories attached to his persona. He is invariably depicted falling from the sky and hurting himself, banging his geta (clogs) on the ground in anger, looking frustratedly though the clouds for someone to smite, or in general just unhappy about the entire scheme of things.

Here Raiden is powerfully muscled yet with a protuberant pot belly. He has a deeply resentful heavenward gaze and mournful, self-pitying features. Upon his back he wears the full rack of thunder drums, arranged on a wood frame backpack which he holds by a rope. In one hand, and strung from the other wrist, he carries his two double-ended drumsticks. His tiger-skin loincloth and worn leggings are broadly carved and his claw feet appear to be cloven. This netsuke was probably once signed by Awataguchi, but the signature has been completely worn away.

There are still a few great netsuke carvers working today including until very recently Masatoshi, who produced superior and special works such as an ebony mole (mogura), a rare subject in netsuke. It is signed on a smooth oval reserve on the left haunch and was completed before 1988 in Tokyo. The mole is lying with its large flipper-like front paws folded back, sandwiched between its hind paws and its belly.

The wood is of a striking jet black and, with the exception of muzzle and paws, is meticulously incised, lending the whole carving an exceptional and tactile velvety softness. The eyes are not inlaid, and in true Japanese form, one is left in no doubt as to the male gender of this particular furry beast. Masatoshi is on record as having been inspired by a mole that invaded his garden and described the netsuke himself: “I treated the hide of the mole with meticulous hair-line engraving (kebori) that imparted the silky appearance of fine fur. I carved its whiskers individually in raised relief.”

Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On will appeal to all lovers of these exquisite miniature masterpieces of carving which have captured the imagination of collectors in the West and East long after their original function became redundant.

Opening Times:
Monday to Friday from 10am to 5:30pm, Saturday from 11am to 4pm.
During Asian Art in London: Sunday, November 2 from 12 noon to 5pm.
Mayfair late-night opening on Monday, November 3 until 9pm.

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On – Japanese netsuke from the Willi G. Bosshard Collection. Price £65 ($130) plus postage and package.

Price Range: £2,000 to £50,000.

Sydney L. Moss Ltd, 12 Queen Street, London, W1J 5PG

View the netsuke described in our Gallery