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Sydney L. Moss Ltd to Bring Japanese Art to New York in March
A four-case lacquer inrō, unsigned, circa 1830. Height: 3¼ in, 8.4 cm.

NEW YORK, NY.- The venerable London dealer in Asian art, Sydney L. Moss Ltd, will stage an exhibition devoted to Japanese art at the Alexandre Gallery on the 13th floor of the Fuller Building in New York, from Wednesday 16 to Monday 28 March 2011 as part of Asian Art Dealers New York (AADNY) and coinciding with Asia Week. Centenary Exhibition of Japanese art, including the Elly Nordskog Collection of Inrō will be Moss’s sixth annual New York exhibition and will feature lacquer, inrō, pipecases, netsuke and other works from the collection of Elly Nordskog, Californian nonagenarian and grande dame of the heyday of Japanese art collecting in Los Angeles, as well as works from the Edo period.

Mrs Nordskog had exceptional taste in Japanese lacquer, especially in marrying inrō with netsuke of complementary subjects, and an unerring eye for the exquisitely beautiful. She also collected netsuke, with a marked preference for lacquered examples, and was drawn to pipecases, a somewhat neglected area of collecting, but one that is immensely rewarding in terms of the quality of the workmanship of the lacquer and related arts. Inrō (literally ‘seal basket’) were originally used to carry the personal seals which the Japanese used to stamp documents but later they were more commonly used to carry medicines. They consist of one or more compartments surmounted by a lid and held together by a silk cord threaded down one side and up the other. Both ends are then passed through a sliding bead, ojime, and then through the netsuke toggle which held the inrō in place hanging from the obi sash. Like netsuke, inrō were regarded as status symbols and their creation was a highly skilled process.

Amongst the very fine inrō from the Nordskog collection is an unsigned four-case lacquer example decorated on one side with Chinese peapods, the reverse inlaid with a translucent buffalo horn grasshopper, circa 1830. Illustrating that the skill of traditional craftsmanship is still alive today in Japan is an example dating from around 1990 made by Kitamura Unryūan (born 1952), one of the best living practitioners of the togidashi technique whereby the design is painted in lacquer, sprinkled with gold or silver flakes and covered with a thin, translucent lacquer that is then baked and highly polished. This is a five-case black and gold lacquer inrō decorated with insects including a dancing cricket at the centre of a group comprising a hornet, stag-beetle and a grasshopper while on the other side a praying mantis prances before a cicada and another grasshopper, all in startling iridescent colours.

Other fine examples from the Nordskog collection include a four-case inrō signed by Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) and decorated with a maple leaf and five red-brown ants, the reverse with a maple seedling and three further ants, together with an old amber globular ojime with fossilised ant inclusions, circa 1870; and a four-case lacquer green-gold ground inrō decorated in red and gold lacquer with Emma-ō, King of Hell, holding a tablet, his eyes inlaid in back-painted glass, the reverse an eyeball and a nose on a stand, in gold and black, signed by Yamada Jōkasai, circa 1880.

Pipecases, the matched smoking set, tabakoire, have long been prized by Sydney L. Moss as well as Mrs Nordskog and on offer will be a select group which have been published in the catalogue with extensive interpretations of the imagery. Tobacco was brought to Japan in the 16th century by the Portuguese and the custom of smoking a pipe became so popular in the 18th century that even women and ladies of the court smoked. Like inrō, pipecases and tobacco pouches were worn hanging from the obi or belt attached by a cord to a netsuke. A fine example from the Nordskog collection is a roiro lacquer musozutsu, a case made in two parts, decorated with a sculpture of Bishamon-ten, the god of warriors, in armour with a long inscription and signed by the rare maker Tetsugai, circa 1910.

Wood and lacquer objects with exotic inlays are also prominent in the exhibition, the crowning glory of which are several important works by Ogawa Haritsu known as Ritsuō (1663-1747), one of the great Japanese masters of the applied arts. Outstanding amongst them is a kakemono or hanging scroll in ink and colours on paper depicting a fairy tale called the ‘Poetry Contest of the Twelve Zodiac Animals’, the jūnishi, the dragon being the intimidating lord while the rooster is the master of ceremonies. The miniature landscape with classic bonsai-like spreading pine tree is the device which the poetry master uses to keep score. This playful, highly unusual and charming depiction is signed: Bōkanshi Ritsuō, painted at the age of 79 and has one seal of the painter.

Also by Ritsuō is an extraordinarily rare lacquered and inlaid wood sculpture of a shaven-headed yamabushi or mountain hermit, intended to represent the legendary warrior-monk Benkei. He sits clad in armour, the flaps of which undulate around him, and holds to his lips a gold lacquer horai (conch shell), now relacquered. It is signed Haritsu underneath in silver lacquer and this attention to detail, whereby the underside is as lovingly decorated as the more visible parts, is typical of the Japanese, and particularly of Ritsuō. When the important collector Irving Gould owned this Benkei sculpture it was displayed in the lacquer room of his Fifth Avenue house in New York, mounted on a tall, rotating, humidity-controlled plinth constructed for it by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s technical services department. Paul Moss first saw it there 25 years ago when it made a profound impression on him and he is delighted to be offering it for sale back in New York.

Another wonderful object is a wood box painted by the Zen monk Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism. Born in the village of Hara at the foot of Mount Fuji, Hakuin became a monk at the age of 15 and began his quest for enlightenment, wandering in poverty from teacher to teacher. Painting and calligraphy played an important role in his later life when he discovered that they were an effective pathway to concentrating attention on profound issues. The signed box is painted with a picture of the Chinese Taoist god of longevity Shou Lao in his stellar manifestation.

A softwood tonkotsu signed by Tanaka Juntoku Minkō, circa 1780-1800, is applied with a fruitwood tiger on the body and a tiger cub crouching on the cover as if about to pounce. It comes with an agate ojime bead and a matching signed tiger netsuke, one of this artist’s classic models.

A wood netsuke exquisitely carved as a half-open rectangular tanzakubako or fumibako (box for tanzaku, poem slips, or fumi, letters) by Morita Sōko (1879-1944), the finest netsuke carver of his time, is signed and dated Autumn 1929. Its fastening straps are rendered with breathtaking realism so that the carved wood exactly reproduces the organic material of soft leather or deerhide. It comes together with a fine deerskin suede tobacco pouch, tabakoire, decorated with a stencil design of stylised irises, signed by Kanō Natsuo (1828-1898) and dated 1878. The pouch has an extremely fine decoration in gold and copper worked as a wasp’s nest with a wasp perched on it. The netsuke and pouch are separated on the original cord by the original coral ojime.

Finally, a wonderful white satin silk uchikake (overrobe) of shiromuku type was made in 1988 by Okayasu Chihiro. This robe is woven with large cranes in flight over which is expressively inked the final passage of the famous poem, Chōkon-ka (Song of Endless Sorrow), about ill-fated love between Emperor Ming-huang and Yang Kuei-fei by Hakurakuten, the illustrious Chinese T’ang dynasty poet Po Chü-i, (772-846). While much contemporary Asian art concerns itself with the rich calligraphic tradition and Chinese textile specialists have long woven poetry in silk, Paul Moss has never before seen anything quite like this sweeping garment that is like a walking love poem. Okayasu Chihiro was born in Shinagawa, Tokyo, in 1951 and learned calligraphy from the age of seven, mastering all the various script forms. In a letter written to Paul Moss she says: “I always enjoy my work. When I execute calligraphy on a white uchikake kimono I do it without any rest, with single minded concentration, achieving an unparalleled sense of accomplishment.”

Sydney L. Moss was founded in 1910 by the grandfather of the present director, Paul Moss, and is one of the oldest family-owned Asian art dealerships in the Western world. The gallery is devoted to literati Chinese arts, painting, calligraphy and objects in the scholar’s taste, and to the Japanese art forms most beloved of serious Western collectors, painting and calligraphy, netsuke, lacquer, inrō and other sagemono, tea ceremony utensils and sword furniture. It is well known for its enthralling exhibitions and densely-researched scholarly catalogues as well as the quality of the works of art offered.

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