Japanese Okimono Ivory Carvings
These finely carved 'okimono' ivory figurines are from Japan and date 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 their main sources of income. With the adoption of Western styles of clothing which included pockets, and the use of cigarettes instead of pipes, netsuke's lost their popularity in Japan. Instead Westerners began collecting these finely detailed carvings and Japanese craftsmen started to shape their carving towards Western tastes. This 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.
Ffrom the 1860s through to the early 1900s 'okimono' usually depict domestic scenes of farmers, fishermen, and children and occasionally, studies of birds, animals and flowers. 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.
Geoff Barker, Assistant Curator, April 2008
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
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