Japanese netsuke. A reclining monkey on a fan, with two holes at the bottom of the fan for functional use.
Monkeys on fans, with or without leaves, were common in the early days of netsuke and symbolized luck and good fortune. The wearer of a netsuke portraying a zodiac animal would probably have been born during that year. This particular version, expressing a rather somber countenance with circles around the eyes, is an early tradition characteristic of the 18th century, when expression and spirit held more significance than detail.
A variety of materials were used in the making of netsuke, reflecting the creativity and superb skill of the artisans. Ivory and wood were most often used due to their fine grain and smooth surface, an important consideration due to the constant handling of the small toggles by their owners. Ivory could easily be toned or painted to brighten up the figure and was sometimes used in tandem with other materials such as wood, bone, or metal. Significant attention was also given to the symbolic aspect of the material. An example is the rare and precious ivory from the tusk of the narwhal which was believed to possess mystical medicinal powers.
Certain materials were suited for particular styles of netsuke. While all netsuke shared a common function, to anchor the sagemono (‘hanging thing’) suspended from the belt, a wide range of forms, sizes and shapes existed. The earliest netsuke tended to be slender, simple, sturdy objects crafted from bamboo that resembled a modern day paper clip. By the close of the eighteenth century, new forms and materials showcased the artisan’s virtuosity and imagination. Stains and inlays added dramatic flair and allowed for increasingly meticulous detail, especially in the features of humans and animals. Forms ranged from traditional long slender types to round, dumpling shapes. While decoration and visual delight became increasingly important, function remained the primary goal with some craftsmen going so far as to create versatile netsuke that doubled as ashtrays, compasses, abacuses, or magnifying glasses.