Japanese mini masterpieces showcased in exhibitWritten by Vicki L. Kroll | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A monkey riding a horse. A European trade ship with billowing sails. Peonies and pine cones. Lion-dogs and turtles. Hares and a blowfish. Pelicans, seagulls and sparrows. Dancing children and Japanese sages. A couple elephants. Rats, spiders and skulls. A crouching tiger.
See it all — and more — in the 675-square-foot Gallery 18 at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA).
Let’s get small — really small. Each about the size of a golf ball, the 227 tiny sculptures are called netsuke. Since kimonos lacked pockets, the Japanese created a system to carry items: Netsuke functioned as buttons and counterweights to secure items on sashes. They were in use by the end of the 17th century.
“Life in Miniature: Ceramic Netsuke From the Silverman Collection” displays these utilitarian pieces that have become beautiful sought-after works. Richard Silverman, Asian art aficionado and Toledo native, gave his ceramic netsuke mostly by Japanese artists to the TMA in 2009.
“They’re miniature Michelangelos,” Silverman said during a phone call from his Los Angeles home. “There’s nowhere in the world right now where you can see such an assemblage of porcelain netsuke.”
The longtime TMA benefactor and world-renowned netsuke expert explained: “Ninety percent of netsuke are [carved from] ivory, wood or stag antler; those are the three major materials. Porcelain composes maybe 1 or 2 percent of all netsuke; you’re looking at the rare of the rare, and then you’re looking at the great of the rare.”
“Persimmon,” one of two netsuke in the exhibit by an American artist, took Lynn Richardson 90 hours to create, according to Silverman.
“People couldn’t conceive how it would take 90 hours to make a 1- to 2-inch persimmon with some leaves on it,” he said. “Unless you have a deep love and understand the making of porcelain from sand and from clay, it’s difficult to appreciate how fantastic these miniature pieces are. These handmade pieces of clay are fired and it takes time to get the glazes right.”
After living in Bangkok, Thailand, for nearly four years and moving to Japan in 1965, Silverman recognized the artistry of netsuke — out of necessity.
“I literally ran out of space to buy more paintings and hanging objects, and I was running out of space for porcelain works,” he recalled. “In 1967 or 1968, I had a little extra money and I thought they were so cute, so I bought a couple of netsuke.
“They were just so small and before you knew it, you’d have 100 pieces. And I just kept on and on and by 1975, I was strictly buying netsuke all the time because they were so small.”
Silverman, who moved back to the States in 1980, bid farewell to two of his beloveds, “Rat” and “Shishimai Child Dancer Holding a Lion Mask,” the day after the exhibit opened last month. He leaned down and peered into the case and said, “Goodbye, my favorite netsuke. I’ll see you next year when I’m in Toledo.”
Thanks to his generosity, TMA guests can see “Life in Miniature: Ceramic Netsuke From the Silverman Collection” for free.
“Richard decided he would give us the ceramic netsuke — he has many more at home — and I just thought that was a wonderful gift to continue our collection and to grow it quite substantially,” said Carolyn Putney, director of collections and curator of Asian art at the museum.
She said the Toledo Museum of Art has about 500 netsuke. “A lot of museums have them, but they don’t often show all of them, and we show all of them.”
The exhibition is on display through Feb. 27; Putney said plans call for the collection to be moved to the Asian Gallery.
“I think [porcelain netsuke are] some of the most incredible examples of Japanese craftsmanship that you can see. They’re really amazing little objects,” she said. “And the subject matter is fun. It shows the wide variety of subjects the Japanese were interested in; it shows a glimpse of their everyday interests.”
“It’s fun art that I take seriously,” Silverman said. “The porcelain is unique. I would hope the people would enjoy it for its humor, enjoy it for the beauty, and get some fun out of it; subject-wise, it covers everything.”