The beauty and remarkable workmanship of Tokyo School ivory okimono

Fine Japanese Art
6 Nov 2012
London, New Bond Street

During the late 19th century, through its Industrial Promotion Policy (shokusan Kogyo) the newly installed Meiji government embarked on a programme that actively encouraged the manufacture of traditional craft goods for export (as well as for domestic consumption) in response to the huge demand driven by the Japonism movement in Europe and America. This government-sponsored initiative came as a welcome relief for the many craftsmen who had been deprived of their livelihood due to the demise of the military class.

As a result of this expansionist export policy, a wave of Japanese art objects was subsequently introduced to a much wider audience via its entry to the world expositions in Europe and America. The development of the decorative arts was thus greatly accelerated. Against this commercial backdrop, Ishikawa Komei (1852-1913), a distinguished and celebrated carver, grew concerned with the deluge of foreign influences and strove to maintain traditional skills. Although he, like many of his countrymen, was compelled to participate in the production of pieces to satisfy the insatiable demand from the West, he never lost sight of Asian ideals and aesthetics.

Komei along with Asahi Gyokuzan (1843-1923) took the lead in gathering together influential carvers from across the country with the primary aim of developing and improving carving in ivory, wood and other materials. Their first meeting was organised in Meiji 13 (1880). The group which included Shimamura Shumei, Kaneda Kanjiro (whose bronze sculpture is lot 527 in this sale) and Takeuchi Kyuichi soon formalised and established itself under the name Chokoku Kyogikai (The Carvers' Foundation Committee) in Meiji 14 (1881). Their name later changed to Tokyo Chokokai (The Tokyo Carvers' Association) in Meiji 20 (1887). The Association provided not only a venue to exhibit, assess and judge members' works but also served as a forum to disseminate information and exchange ideas. Meetings were thereafter held monthly and the first Chokokai competition took place in Meiji 19 (1886). Komei's efforts and activities gradually caught the attention of Takamura Koun (1852-1934), another preservationist, who suggested that Komei be appointed Professor in the Sculpture Department at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1891. He was also appointed an Artist of the Imperial Household (Teishitsu Gigein) in 1890.

Komei's work and teachings influenced a new generation of sculptors who concentrated exclusively on carving larger ivory okimono as the demand for netsuke and other sagemono diminished at home. The output from many of these second-generation artists, many of whom were members of the Tokyo Carvers' Association, is offered for sale in this auction. Not only do these pieces epitomise a superlative quality of craftsmanship, but they also retain the Japanese spirit that Komei had so strongly espoused, whilst illustrating elements of the Western-influenced intricate and realistic style of sculpture that emerged in the mid-Meiji era. A modernisation of Japanese sculpture and its re-evaluation as sculptural fine art was born, and both Japan and the West took notice.

Thus the term 'Tokyo School' emerged and was widely adopted in the West to denote the finest examples of Japanese okimono (literally, 'a thing to be displayed') carved during the Meiji Period.


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  1. Suzannah Yip
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
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