Carved human figures depicting a Japanese Farmer with Hoe and Basket and a boy, ivory, maker unknown, Japan, 1850-1950
This finely carved 'okimono' ivory figurine is from Japan and dates from the Meiji period 1868 to 1912. It was during this period that Japan was opened up to the West after Commander Perry's visit in 1853. Trade with whaling ships also brought sailors to Japan who were familiar with scrimshaw ivory carvings and by 1880 there was a marked interest in the West in collecting Japanese ivory carvings.
In the late 1860s changes in dress styles in Japan affected the livelihood of traditional carvers. At this time the Netsuke, a small carving used to suspend tobacco and money pouches from the belt of the kimono, was one of the main sources of income for these carvers. With the adoption of Western styles of clothing which included pockets, and the use of cigarettes instead of pipes, netsuke's lost there popularity in Japan. Instead Westerners began collecting these finely detailed carvings and Japanese craftsmen started to shape their carving towards Western tastes. Although netsuke's were initially favoured the Japanese carvers began to adopt a more Western style which led to the development of the larger freestanding 'okimono' carvings. These 'okimono' carvings were eventually adopted by the Japanese who used them to ornament their houses.
'Okimono' from the 1860s through to the early 1900s usually depicts domestic scenes of farmers, fishermen, and children but occasionally, studies of birds, animals and flowers were produced. Many of these ivory figurines are intricately carved by highly skilled craftsmen who also practised more traditional forms.
Regulations in the trade in ivory around the globe have heightened the demand for old pieces which can still be legally traded, however it has also led to a proliferation in the number of fakes made with illegal ivory or from plastic. While collectors seeking more traditional forms overlooked 'okimono' for much of the twentieth century they are now appreciated as Japanese art works in their own right.
This original ivory piece is one of 32 donated to the Powerhouse Museum in 1950 by Miss Eadith Hill. These ivories are part of a larger collection that includes Japanese cloisonné, porcelain and pottery which was originally on display at the Australian Museum. In 1949 the Director of the Powerhouse Museum, A. R. Penfold, made a recommendation to transfer these to the museum's collection and they were added in 1951.
Reikichi,, U., 'The Netsuke Handbook', Bushell, R., (ed.), Boxerbooks, Zurich, 1961 Jirka-Schmitz, P., 'The World of Netsuke', Arnoldsche, Stuttgart, 2005
Proudlove, C., Japanese Okimono Figures, http://www.go-star.com/antiquing/okimono.htm
Geoff Barker, March, 2007