What’s the smallest thing on view in the galleries right now? These netsuke might just be it. In fact, they’re so tiny that you may have missed them the last time you were in the Asian Art Gallery. Don’t feel bad—just go back and visit them. They’ll be happy to see you. These quirky little figurines seem trivial and cutesy (a squirrel holding grapes?) but they actually served a very important purpose in Japanese society. Not too shabby for a little object no bigger than your thumb.
Netsuke (pronounced “neh-tsoo-keh”) are tiny little objects that were meant to counterweight whatever you were carring in a small pouch (called a sagemono—that’s “sah-geh-moh-no”) that tied around your waist while wearing garments like a kimono or kosode. Warriors and merchants, who wore these garments, had to get creative—after all, these robes have no pockets. Each netsuke has two small holes through which you threaded the string holding your sagemono together, and you chose your netsuke carefully. These were no ordinary beads; they were tiny, intricate works of art, made out of expensive materials like ivory and boxwood, and sometimes even decorated with pearl and precious stones.
Because of the care that went into making them, they were not only a practical way to keep your knicknacks at your side (I might go so far as to say this clever system pre-dates today’s man-purse), but also a way to show off your wealth. In a strict social system like 19th-century Japan, you didn’t want to be too ostentatious, but you also wanted people to know where you stood. Expensive, well-made netsuke were an ideal way to do this, without being too flashy.
My favorite netsuke in the Museum is without a doubt this little guy. He’s got such character—scratching his ear, chilling on a big (OK, really big) bunch of grapes. Which got me thinking…a squirrel? And disproportionately large grapes? What is the significance of a squirrel in Japanese art, anyway, and in netsuke specifically? I found two possible answers!
Most of the places I looked admitted that squirrels, in fact, do not eat grapes—so this pairing gets even weirder. One book, Netsuke Familiar and Unfamiliar by Raymond Bushell (1975), said that perhaps this pairing came from traditional Chinese painting, or that squirrels run around and get into everything, just like vines twist and turn with no way to control them.
The other possible explanation is that this isn’t a squirrel at all! In my research, I stumbled across the International Netsuke Society, which has a handy forum for collectors of these tiny objects. One of the posts there mentioned the possibility that this animal is in fact a dormouse. Dormice, common in Japan, are indeed much smaller than a squirrel; they have similarly bushy little tails; and they would not look out of place sitting on top of things like berries and grapes, which they enjoy consuming. (If, like me, you didn’t really know what a dormouse was beyond illustrations Alice in Wonderland, make your way to Google image search and behold the evidence.)
The verdict? More research needed! I’m passing the digging I’ve done so far on to our curators to see if they can unearth some more definitive facts about this mystery. In the meantime, come visit our little squirrel-slash-dormouse upstairs in the Asian galleries!
Chelsea Emelie Kelly was the Museum’s Manager of Digital Learning. In addition to working on educational technology initiatives like the Kohl’s Art Generation Lab and this blog, she oversaw and taught teen programs.