Animals will abound in New York dealers' exhibit of Japanese export ware


October 06, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Nineteenth century Japanese export wares that inspired the now popular Japanesque designs in mixed metals made by Tiffany and Co. and the Gorham Manufacturing Co. and Japanesque porcelain made by such firms as Worcester, are the focus of an exhibition and handsome catalog at Flying Cranes, Jean and Clifford Schaefer's enlarged gallery at the Manhattan Antiques Center on Second Avenue in New York from Oct. 17 to Nov. 15.

Called "Furs, Fins and Feathers: Selected Works from the Meiji Period Featuring Animals, Marine and Winged Subjects," it is the first exhibition for the Shaefers, who have been dealing in late 19th century Japanese works of art for nearly 15 years.

"We love animals. We have two cats, Marmalade and Truffles, and we feed a brood of rabbits and flocks of birds at our country place," said Jean Schaefer. "More than three years ago we began collecting fine examples of Japanese sculpture, metalwork, enamels, carvings and ceramics decorated with animals, with a show in mind. The completion of the catalog just happened to coincide with our move to larger quarters."

A menagerie of monkeys, tigers, goats, rabbits, rats, cats, fish and birds on metal, ivory, lacquer, ceramics and wood have turned their display cases into cages this month.

"Most every piece, with the exception of a few swords, has been in the West since the 19th century; most were made for export, in the Western taste," Cliff Schaefer explains.

Nearly all the items on display were made during the Meiji Period, 1868 to 1912; a few are earlier. Animals dominated the arts produced in the preceding Edo period, 1615 to 1867, under the Tokugawa Shogunate when Japan was ruled by Samurai warriors. When there were long periods of peace, artists used the quiet countryside and its fauna for inspiration. In addition, the celestial zodiac has had profound meaning for the Japanese.

Based on the Chinese zodiac, 1991 is the year of the goat. It is followed by the year of the monkey, the cockerel, the dog, the bear, the rat, the ox, the tiger, the hare, the dragon, the snake and the horse. All these animals are represented in the exhibition. Okimono, which are small carvings of wood, ivory or bone, are among the most lifelike depictions of animals in the history of art. A mountain goat, a little more than 3 inches high, with eyes of horn and shaggy fur, is carved from one piece of boxwood. There are two 3-inch-high ivory okimono of monkeys; one group of two monkeys plays with a dragonfly and a peach, another single monkey prods a crab. An ivory wrist rest used by a scribe appears to be crawling with insects, which on closer examination are seen to be made of semiprecious stones.

Hares scampering beneath a full moon are captured in wireless enameling on a heart-shaped cloisonne tray. A snake wraps around the handle of a sword; frogs and dragonflies appear and disappear on tsuba, which are the decorative sword guards. A kirin, a beast which is half deer, half dragon, with a horn like a unicorn, is tossed about on waves on the side of double-walled silver bowl. A gold and silver phoenix is applied to the side of a koro, a covered container, made of shibuichi -- a gray matte alloy of silver and copper. Its silver cover is pierced and

chased in a cloud pattern.

The examples of Satsuma, a kind of pottery, with its creamy crackled glazes, make it hard to believe they came from the same country that also mass produced shoddy wares for export in the 20th century. Three panels on a 12-inch Satsuma vase depicting animals at dawn, at noon and at dusk are painted with fidelity recalling the work of Audubon or Durer. The monkeys on the six-sided Satsuma tea caddy are similar to those painted on 17th and 18th century Japanese scrolls and Japanese screens.

Among the most amazing creatures in the exhibition are some that are articulated, so that they actually move as if they were alive. A 9-inch-long articulated crayfish is made of ivory. A 50-inch-long jointed dragon is copper.

A school of fish are the cast decorations on a pair of 18-inch-high bronze vases, the fishes' eyes inlaid in gold and silver. A flying goose in low relief made of shakudo, a dark mixture of gold and copper, and shibuichi, rises from a marsh of gold grasses on the side of a 12-inch-tall bronze vase which is signed Kako, the "art name" of Suzuki Chokichi, one of the leading metalworkers in the group called Kiritsu Kosho Kaisha, established in 1873 for the purpose of creating the highest quality wares for the export market.

"In the Meiji period swords were outlawed. The Samurai were not allowed to carry them, so skilled metalworkers anxious for work turned to making fine bronze sculpture and vases for the export market," said Cliff Schaefer, pointing to a 24-inch massive bronze figure of a falconer, his tunic decorated in gold, the falcon on his wrist about to be fed a small bird. It is the centerpiece of the exhibition, priced over $200,000, and is the most expensive item on view.

Other objects range upwards in price from a few thousand, with a large selection under $10,000. The color illustrated catalog costs $47 plus $5 shipping, from Flying Cranes Antiques, 1050 Second Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022.

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