Sign up to access all the contents of the site

Article

アイテム

Okimono: art, symbolism and craftsmanship

Small decorative sculptures, okimono represent a large portion of Japanese art object production. Originally designed to adorn decorative niches called “tokonoma” in Japanese homes, they are now prized both as individual ornamental objects and as valuable collectibles. 

The term okimono, formed from oku, put, place and mono, object, literally means “decorative object for display.” Since their inception, okimonos have never had any function other than ornamental. Unlike, for example, netsuke, which originated with specific practical functions and only later became collectibles.

Let’s find out together in this article all there is to know about these little works of art called okimono.

Ainu hunter in ivory signed Kogetsu sold by our gallery. Private Italian collection.

Okimono: origins and history

Okimonos became especially popular in the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan’s opening to international trade generated growing interest in its art and culture in the West.

Prior to this period, Japanese carvers were mainly engaged in religious sculpture and netsuke carving

As we know, with the Meiji Restoration the traditional system was completely overthrown. Japan underwent a radical Westernization, both political and social. Despite the initial negative impact on many artists, it was the emperor himself who supported the continued development of the arts.  The goal was to demonstrate the excellence of Japanese artists in every field. The remarkable talents of the rising sun were highlighted through Japan’s participation in the many art exhibitions and fairs around the world. This aroused great interest and growing demand for all Japanese arts, including sculpture. At that time the Western world became fascinated by the extraordinary quality and refinement of the works displayed in the brilliant halls of these spectacular events.

Materials and depictions 

The materials used to make okimono are varied. From wood to horn, bone to metals, and even ceramics. But the main material is definitely ivory. They are made using ivory blocks obtained either from solid or by assembling several pieces. The former are definitely more sought after and of higher quality than the latter. 

It is because of this wide variety of materials used that okimonos take on a wide range of shapes, styles and details. Ivory, in particular, offers a smooth and workable surface that allows artists to create beautiful and minute sculptures. Similarly, wood, horn, bone, metals, and ceramics add additional elements of variety and artistic nuance to the works. 

As for the choice of subject matter to depict it can range from realistic portraits of human figures to detailed depictions of animals or intricate mythological scenes. This multiplicity of themes offers artists many creative opportunities to express their artistry and create unique works of art.

Okimonos are able to capture the beauty and essence of the subjects depicted, conveying emotions and stories through fascinating art forms. 

Okimono depicting Sansukumi signed Sukenaga, sold by our gallery. French private collection.

The Tokyo School

As one can easily imagine, okimonos soon became the object of many people’s desires. Under the impetus of increased demand for these new carvings, new carving “schools” sprang up. Here talented students were instructed by experienced masters. One of the best known was the Tokyo school, founded in 1889 by the most skilled and famous carver of the time, Ishikawa Komei. At this school Komei became a professor and taught a whole new generation of carvers in a unique style. 

The artists of the Tokyo school were distinguished by some special characteristics. Attention to anatomical details and realistic rendering of the human figures and animals depicted. Their works are distinguished by their elegance, precision detail, and craftsmanship.

Man with infant signed Ishikawa Komei sold by our gallery. Private Italian collection.

Knowing and evaluating okimonos

Like all works of art, Japanese okimonos come in a wide range of subjects, sizes, and qualities. If you are interested in purchasing these art objects, our advice is always to try to obtain as much information as possible in order to assess their quality. The best way to get a comprehensive overview of the characteristics that a quality okimono should have is to visit museums, attend sales and exhibitions, and study reference books. 

In addition, buying from reliable and authoritative sources that provide accurate information about the attributions, signatures, and condition of sculptures is essential. Essential for collectors who wish to make informed choices based on their own knowledge and judgment. 

A collection of about 120 grouped in one volume Japanese Okimono 

Okimono: the most celebrated artists

Okimonos of all types, styles, and subjects are usually reliably signed. Of most of the artists there is no information or historical mention of any kind. Of this multitude we do know that they carved according to style during the Meiji period. Only of a few artists, especially those of the Tokyo School, do we have additional information. 

Among the most famous Japanese artists we find: 

  • Ishikawa Komei (1852-1913), a key figure in the early history of modern Japanese sculpture. He executed works in ivory, wood, and deer horn. He was born into a family of temple craftsmen. Beginning in 1876 he exhibited his works widely at home and abroad and participated in the interior decoration of imperial palaces. In 1890 he was appointed Teishitsu Gigeiin (Artist-Artisan of the Imperial Household), and in 1891 he was appointed Professor in the Sculpture Department of the Tokyo School of Art. 
  • Asahi Gyokuzan (1843-1923), born in Asakusa, together with Ishikawa Komei was designated Teishitsu gigeiin. They were two of Japan’s most famous and influential carvers during the Meiji period. Soon Asahi Gyokuzan became famous for his eerie realistic compositions of skulls and skeletons. After becoming a professor at the Tokyo Art School, he later moved to Kyoto, where he reestablished his Buddhist ties and also learned marquetry techniques. 
  • Tomokazu (Meiji period), stage name of Okada Tsunekichi. He was a member of the Tokyo School of Artists and Tokyo Chokokai (Tokyo Carvers Association) from 1906 to 1910. He specialized in the exceptional realistic reproduction of animals in ivory, creating incredible works of art. 
Ivory fox signed Tomokazu sold by our gallery. Private German collection.

Other famous artists

  • Nakagawa Ryuei, a student of Kaneda Kenjiro. Together with Ishikawa Komei, Shimamura Shunmei and Asahi Gyokuzan, he was a member of the first generation of ivory carvers in the Meiji period. From 1906 to 1910 he was also a member of Tokyo Chokokai (The Tokyo Carvers’ Association). This was a group dedicated to developing and improving the art of carving, as well as promoting members’ works and exchanging ideas. 
  • Ando Rokuzan (1885-1955), known by his stage name Manzo, is known for his ultra-realistic polychrome ivory sculptures. He studied with Otani Mitsutoshi, a student of Hisamatsu Harutoshi. His works are preserved in the Sannomaru Shozakan Museum of Imperial Collections. 
  • Shimamura Toshiaki/Shunmei (1855-1896), a member of the Tokyo School Carvers Association, participated in the Second Domestic Industrial Exhibition in 1881. He received the Myogi, the second prize, for his outstanding skills as a carver of ivory and wood. 
  • Udagawa Kazuo, exhibited his largest sculptural pieces at the International Expositions of the Meiji era from 1900 to 1910. He is known for works executed in a combination of materials. Wood and ivory and bronze cast with ivory and iron. Pieces carved entirely in ivory are quite rare for the artist.

Metals

Artists who have devoted themselves to metals include:

  • Miyao Eisuke, a celebrated artist known for his bronze sculptures and vessels with rich gilding.  He specialized in okimono depicting human figures. 
  • Atsuyoshi, a master known for his finely modeled bronze studies of animals. He worked for the Maruki company, active during the Meiji period. He is noted for the fineness and remarkable weight of his sculptures and is considered one of Japan’s best bronze makers. 
okimono-bronzo-tigre-ruggente-13
Roaring Tiger signed Tomokazu sold by our gallery. Private German collection.
  • Oshima Joun (first name, Yasutaro), was the son and student of cast metal worker Oshima Takajiro. His figural okimono pieces are rare unlike the vases. He became one of the great sculptors of the late Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods and first exhibited in Paris in 1878. He also taught at the Tokyo Art School from 1887 to 1932 and served on countless committees and juries of exhibitions and competitions. 
  • Genryusai Seiya, noted artist in the field of bronze work. Renowned for his mastery and ability to create fine sculptures depicting human and animal figures. 

We recall other renowned artists who worked with ivory: Yoshida Doraku, Yoshida Homei, and Asahi Kōdō.  While in the field of Metals we count: Yoshitani, Masatsune, Gyokko, Yoshimitsu, Hideyoshi, and Hidenao. 

After this detailed survey of the most famous names of the artists who devoted themselves to okimono, it is important to make a point.

It is essential to understand that assessing the quality of a work of art goes beyond its signature. In fact, there are numerous signed works available by lesser-known artists, and some even without signatures, that exhibit excellent quality and considerable artistic value.