Story III | The Devil is in the Details

Netsuke Old and New

A mysterious or hidden element in the details of something waits to be discovered: It is something that requires one’s full attention and Presence- physical, intellectual and psychic. It may well be overlooked without this Presence, its discovery with consequences unimagined. The Japanese netsuke, a supremely functional object, is intimate sculpture. It can be held in the hand, fondled and tactilely explored, a sensual experience surely part of its enduring appeal and popularity. Hidden elements can be both physically manifested in the detailed carving and in the allusions of that carving.

Oni and Lotus Leaf
19th century   wood   signed (unread)   AUD 4400

A Japanese demon, oni, horned and clawed, hacks away at a lotus leaf, the detail is finely wrought, the oni’s nuggety little body well defined and expressive of its ambivalent underworld origins. A shunga (erotic) netsuke, the hidden underside of the work, finely detailed, alludes to the oni’s sexual proclivities. Its discovery is not available to the viewer when worn attached to the inrō and slung through the obi of the male wearer’s kimono. It is not available to the casual viewer of the work as shown in the above illustration. It is only accessible in a careful examination of the work held in the hand, in the detail of the work and the attention paid to it.

Is there more to discover? The lotus leaf is symbolic of the purity of the Lotus Sutra of Buddhism, the oni, of more earthly pleasures. In the irony and earthy humour of many Japanese netsuke, the artist parodies the ongoing struggle between the sacred and the profane, purity and licentiousness.

To purchase this work or discover other historical netsuke available for viewing and purchase please email

The allure of its intimate form has seen netsuke transcend historical and geographical boundaries to become an internationally recognized art genre. Contemporary Japanese artists and sculptors from all over the world have taken up the form as their means of creative expression. We are lucky to have several master netsuke artists in Melbourne, each of whom is represented in collections worldwide and in the collection of contemporary netsuke at the Tokyo National Museum.

2007   Rudi Mineur   Eucalypt   AUD 8800

‘Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagine there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore’. Pliny the Younger.

Rudi Mineur’s fascination with netsuke began decades ago as a natural result of his lifelong fascination with the natural world and its inhabitants, both human and non-human, and his deep philosophical insight and understanding of its details, dark and light. He brings to the form a unique approach to material, allowing the material to reveal its secrets, gently encouraging these forward with a gleeful enjoyment in the process and its unplanned and unexpected outcome. Rudi’s netsuke offer multitudinous opportunities for discovery in the details.

It is in fact, the absence of detail in part of the ‘Pompeii’ work illustrated that holds the secret of discovery. The human figure is portrayed with considerable physiological detail seeming to emerge naturally from the piece of Eucalypt. Explored in its full three dimensional reality, it is the ‘empty’ hole of the mouth that holds the secret despair of the title of the work.

The Catalogue from Rudi Mineur’s solo exhibition is available to view online : view catalogue and a short 10 minute documentary about Rudi’s works can be viewed on Vimeo : view video

To purchase this work or discover other works by Rudi please email : for more information or to make an appointment.

2004   Leigh Sloggett   African Blackwood (Dalbergia Melanoxylon)   AUD 6600

Leigh Sloggett has been carving netsuke since 1992 and has studied in Japan under several Japanese contemporary masters. His works exhibit sensitive attention to detail and skilful use of a variety of materials. It is Leigh’s journey into abstract form that manifests his approach to netsuke as contemporary sculpture. The contrasting textures of Shadow, visual and tactile, illustrate the apposition of the traditional Eastern philosophy of yin and yang, dark and light, masculine and feminine, active and passive. In so doing Leigh subtly aligns the philosophy of his work with the moral dilemmas expressed in the historical work of oni and lotus illustrated above. Leigh is currently experimenting with ceramic and larger iterations of his abstract forms.

Other works by Leigh Sloggett are available to view and purchase please email for more information

Ankō (Angler Fish)
2010   Unryūan Kitamura Tatsuo   Lacquer   POA

Sometimes called the’ devil of the sea’, the angler fish is characterised by its predatory behaviour, embodied in the lure growing from its head and its mouth of ferocious teeth. In superb technical mastery of fine coloured and gold makie details on a rare seidonuri (textured bronze) ground, the angler fish sets out its lure to attract the whale seen on the surface of the netsuke. A pictorial representation of the proverb ‘eyes bigger than one’s stomach’ or ‘biting off more than one can chew’, the artist symbolically depicts the boundless greed and lack of self-knowledge of the fish in the unequal scale of fish and whale. Counterbalanced, and hidden on the underside for private enjoyment and discovery, is the remaining body of the ambitious sea devil.

Master lacquer artist Unryūan Kitamura Tatsuo does not make many netsuke. The challenging and time-consuming techniques required for miniature work of this scale are the equivalent of creating an inrō, itself a demanding aesthetic and technical achievement. Unryūan’s netsuke are found in the collections of the V&A Museum London and the Tokyo National Museum, and in private collections in Australia and internationally. His lacquer works are represented in the NGV, AGNSW, NGA in Australia, in the V&A Museum London, LACMA Los Angeles, the Met NY and the Nomura Museum Kyoto.

Inrō and other works by Unryūan Kitamura Tatsuo available for purchase in the gallery. Please email for more information or to book an appointment to view the works.