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Henry M. Robert

Triumphant okimono in Kyiv

Rare masterpieces of Japanese sculpture, which delighted Europe 100 years ago, are on display in the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Arts
27 April, 2010 - 00:00

The unique attempt to unite the worlds of East and West is represented by the exhibit “Okimono: 100 Years of European Triumph” in the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Arts from Oleksandr Feldman’s collection. It presents rare items, which were created as a result of synthesized traditions of Japanese carving, also taking into account the several-decade-long European experience (realistic plastic arts): the Meiji period (1867-1912).

On the whole, the exhibit comprises 40 okimono items. This is only a small part of the noted Ukrainian collector’s collection comprising the total of 220 pieces. Its gems include the works of Udagawa Kazuo, Ishikawa Komei, Morino Korin, Asahi Mejdo and other outstanding representatives of the Tokyo carving school of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. As estimated by the British experts, the current exhibit is one of the most representative in Europe. At the opening of the exhibit, Feldman presented the Khanenko Museum with four rare items of Japanese weapons from the Feldman Collection funds. By making this present, the patron realized his idea of bringing cultural monuments back to Ukraine and made another step to opening private collections, an important and necessary process which leads to enrichment of our country’s cultural gains.

“I come from Kharkiv. During World War II, a collection of Japanese and Chinese arts was destroyed in the Kharkiv Museum. Therefore, holding an exhibit in the city I come from, I presented a part of the Eastern collection from the Feldman Collection to the museum, thus restoring the lost exposition,” explained Oleksandr FELDMAN. “I think that my task is not only to collect precious artworks, but also to present them for the general audience. Therefore, we are now building a museum in Kharkiv in which everyone will be able to see the selected works from the collection. Moreover, the Feldman Collection items are regularly on display in Kyiv, Lviv, Chernihiv, and Odesa. And being a collector is a state of soul. The story of okimono (“placed object”), small statuettes, placed in home sanctuaries, counts for several centuries and I am glad to bring to the attention of Kyivites and the guests of our capital some of the most interesting pieces of my Eastern collection.”

Before the Kyiv exhibit was launched, the noted Japanese carver Komada Ryushi, who has headed the International Netsuke Carvers’ Association for 10 years, held a master class for journalists. In his words, he has seen at the exhibit the works of the so-called White Period (the name is derived from the color of ivory. – Author) that are rare in Japan, as well as the authors whose works can be seen only in the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

Indeed, the items are impressive not only owing to their exotic nature, but also because of the high artistic level in which they were executed. One of the brightest okimono carvings is Mother Nourishing Her Child by master Ugadawa Kazuo; it looks very much in harmony with Piero della Francesca’s and Pietro Perugino’s Madonnas that belong to the early Italian Renaissance of 15th and the 16th centuries and are also part of the museum exposition. This sculptural composition made of ivory has become famous under the name Japanese Madonna. It was displayed for the first time 100 years ago at the famous Japan-British Exhibition. At the time it was decided on the state level what items of Japanese plastic arts to be displayed at the European exhibit and the presented okimono carvings stunned the Europeans with its refinement and subtlety with which the works were executed.

On the whole, a typical feature of okimono carving is the peculiar attention to details in recreating the reality, which is felt in every captious and precise chisel marks of the artists working with ivory. This is tenderness and love achieved by Kazuo in the mother’s smile; precise depiction of flower petals and wrinkles in the face of an old man in the composition A Florist by Komei; sincerity of smiles in the life scene, when amusing himself, a grandson closes his grandfather’s eyes with his hands in Guess, Grandpa! by Chikaaki; or joy at the first drops of rain in Rain by Ryuichi. All the genre sculptures are united by a peculiar state of a man that is taking delight in every moment of life and feeling that it is unique.

Portrayal of birds, such as quail, geese, hen, and herons, in plastic arts deserves special attention. They are attractive by their momentary poses with every feather executed in the most subtle way. How have the Japanese masters managed to reach this exclusively realistic effect? Komada Ryushi revealed the “secrets” to journalists. He showed the peculiarities of carving a face of a woman. The technique of the netsuko and okimono master, who has won renown in his country, is unique because he applies the technique of wood carving to ivory. The carver creates his works with exceptional instruments he made of a 1,000-old tree. The artist also has the chisels he inherited from his father and grandfather, who were also masters of ivory carving.

“There is a peculiar chisel to carve every single detail, my studio has over 300 tools. I prefer hand carving, because electric tools make the sculpture flatter and reduce the quality value of the work,” Mr. Komada Ryushi explained, “For example, it takes a week to carve an okimono head. First, I choose the proper frontal lighting, draw the general features with a lead pencil: the nose – to execute it properly one should find the point of the nose bridge and mark the nose tip and then move to cutting the cheeks. And I cut the eyes in an unconventional manner. Whereas masters usually carve the eyeball and then the arcs, the eye shape, I cut the lower part for greater expression, thus making the eye line.”

It should be reminded that the unique items of the exhibit “Okimono: 100 Years of European Triumph” will be available till May 16.


Vira VYNOHRADOVA, head of the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Arts:

“Our museum is replenished with difficulty. In Soviet times, there were no artworks of West and East on the market. Lately, the opening of the world markets offered the possibility of replenishing the collections. However, the state is not able to buy precious works. So, the Eastern weapons that the collector Oleksandr Feldman has presented our museum with are not the first present we have received from him, and we very much appreciate this attention.

“I should note that Feldman’s collection is formed quite correctly and already now can be displayed to the world. Honestly, we, the museum employees, could not even hope that such a phenomenon would so soon emerge in our country, when a collector presents or shows his gains in museums. This is very significant. Today we are drawing parallels between this event and the activity of the museum’s founder, Bohdan Khanenko, who has left his priceless collection for Kyiv.

“Most importantly, the selected works from Feldman’s world collection will stay in Ukraine. I am attracted by the altruism of this collector who is working for the Ukrainians’ spiritual enrichment. And this is a unique phenomenon under the circumstances, when people are accumulating things only for themselves.”

Aleksandr BOGOLYUBOV, keeper of the Japanese Collection of the Hermitage Museum, Russia:

“Several months ago, when the Hermitage launched the exhibit of Japanese okimono carvings from the private collection of the British collector Nasser Khalili, one of the greatest collectors of the Eastern art, specifically Japanese. And comparing these two exhibits held in Russia and Ukraine, I would like to note that they are united by the special love for art and desire of both collectors to show the collection to broad audience.

“Okimono is a kind of Japanese sculpture which is different from netsuke by its designation. Netsuke is a sort of a trinket, which performed the function of counterba­lance for weapons and other necessary things worn on the belt, because the Japanese kimono has no pockets. Meanwhile, okimono is a sculpture that was placed in the sanctuaries of Japanese houses.

“When Japan became an open state in the 17th century, and European clothing substituted kimonos, the netsuke craftsmen retrained for okimono making, and the best schools of this kind of art were shaped at the time.

“However, at the turn of last century the best works were brought out of the country. This happened as a result of the change and reconstruction of the social order, when more bourgeois relations came to counterbalance the traditional order and the Japanese wanted to sell precious okimono carvings to Europeans. Thus, the Japanese artworks became an adornment in European countries.

“At the moment, the greatest collections are being kept in the Museum of Anthropology in Missouri University (the US), the Victoria and Albert Museum (Great Britain), and the National Museum in Krakow (Poland). The Hermitage has 125 okimono items. The peculiarity of the later works presented at the Kyiv exhibit is that they were executed in ivory, because toning was also applied in okimono.”

By Yulia LYTVYN, photos by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day