Monday, November 29, 2010

The Naked [Wood] Truth

A lot of the small-scale carvings I create can be considered netsuke, in terms of size, and function- though probably not in terms of getting much active wear (both meanings of the word intended) as examples from the past can claim. Now of course artists are free to do what pleases them, and the world, albeit small, of contemporary netsuke contains all sorts of styles and trends. One that I'd like to comment on is what I see to be the growing habit of coloring netsuke- either with lacquer or various modern synthetic dyes and paints. To me, they look jarring to the eye and lack the subtle beauty found in the coloration of natural materials- wood, horn, antler, amber to name a few materials.

I've spent time thinking about the change that occurs when you color a sculpture in a 'realistic' sense. Those thoughts were hard to put into words until I came across a book recently about the late Gothic sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. Many of his carvings were painted in a very realistic manner at the time (by a separate group of craftsmen)- as was habit, but others were left without apparent coatings. This sculptural period was one in flux. Author Michael Baxandall in "Tilman Riemenschneider / Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages" says it all with clarity:

"What are we to make of Riemenschneider's crucial move from colored sculpture to monochrome sculpture? It is important to keep in mind that, through monochrome, the sculpture was not just bare wood: it was varnished with a unifying brown compound; and a few details, such as lips and the pupils of eyes, were still pigmented [...] but these matters apart, what are the perceptual consequences of the new monochromy?
For us, accustomed to seeing unpigmented sculpture, there is not as great a jolt of strangeness as there must have been in the 1490's. But a basic shift in experience can still be appreciated. In polychrome sculpture we tend to see the statue as a surrogate person [or bird, or frog or apple]. In monochrome sculpture we see a figure in a worked material; we are more aware of the substance of the sculpture, and so of the work as representation. We are, and must be, more active in our address to monochrome sculpture: we contribute more to the perception. We see it as wood, for example, and we know it is a carving; we project the human figure into it more energetically and enjoy our part in the transaction. And since we ourselves have had much to do with creating the human being in the wood, our experience of it is stronger. Estrangement stimulates projection."

There are apparently a number of theories why this shift occured- not the least of which was the dissemenation of black/white pictorial prints - think Durer and Schongauer- that enabled people to appreciate the subtlety of light and shadow and monochrome. What is interesting to consider is why are netsuke now being colored so often, to me, in such an artifical and distracting manner?

Sunday, November 28, 2010


I look alot at Japanese sword fittings, kodogu, for ideas and solutions. Unfortunately most are made of metal and show colors and techniques that are difficult to reproduce in wood and other organic materials. The trick is to learn from the compositions and handling of subject matter, but translate them into effects inherent in the other materials with which I'm familiar. Kozuka in particular present wonderful solutions to the challenge of a very long, narrow composition. Japanese pillar prints, hashira-e, also have this constrained format.

Some, but very few kozuka have been made of organic materials such as antler, wood or horn. The difficulty is in the foming of the slot to fit the tang of the blade. It has to be about 2mm high, by 8mm wide and 75 mm deep. The walls around this are quite thin too. The metal ones are no problem- they're formed by folding a flat piece of metal to form the four sides with the final seam soldered. For wooden ones, I suspect the wood blank was mounted on a type of lathe, with a boring bit driven into it in places and then a long, thin chisel used to straighten up the pocket. Modern drill bits (at least those I've found) are too short, and tend to deviate off center as they're bored down into endgrain. Don't have the chisels either. I took the problem to the machine shop of the chemistry/physics department of the university where work and the old timers there couldn't figure out how to do it with modern milling equipment, leaving me at a dead end.

So, long story short, I made a few blanks- box, antler and ebony, and worked up the latter just to see how one might go about it, minus the hole.

The ebony one measures 9.8cm long, and is a copy of one in metal by Masayoshi Ishiguro, mid 19th century.
The exercise got me thinking about working in shallow relief to great detail and translating this into a functional netsuke as a functional kozuka is out of the question for me right now.

Kneeling girl finished

I finished this one months ago, but couldn't get a photo I was happy with. It's 3.7cm high in boxwood. I'd like to do a companion piece for her which I think will be a bead, so that it functions as a netsuke and ojime ensemble.