Netsuke - Goldfish


Back in April, when I was searching The British Museum's website netsuke collection, I found a beautiful bulbous orange goldfish. I wanted to draw this striking creature but it was not available at the time. Instead I bought The British Museum's book "Netsuke - 100 Miniature Masterpieces” by Noriko Tsuchiya and found a full colour closeup of the same goldfish. I made a drawing from the photograph and then a carving on magnolia wood. I printed the key block with Japanese carbon ink on white Hosho paper. Since January I have been making prints with Japanese carbon ink, enjoying the blackness of the ink against the white paper. Focusing on my carving technique. I have been inspired by Shiko Munakata's passion for black and white prints and I haven't ventured into multi-colour prints. Only a brief play with the Orchids and the Boats in the Sand at Paul Furneaux's workshop.



This Goldfish netsuke is orange. I think about making a second carving to give this goldfish print an orange body. And then I stop and I wonder why I didn’t feel compelled to make the Horse Grazing a warm chestnut? Why not make the Elephant and Man glow with that dark golden patina? Or the Ape Clutching a Gourd, mahogany? Maybe something resonates here in Victoria Finlay's chapter on orange in her book 'Colour - Travels through the Paintbox’.

Orange - is the most eye catching colour and - in Cremona’s city hall it is the orange violin which jumps out straight away, shouting: ‘Look at me first!; the yellow and brown ones don’t make the same demands - I drove into Cremona on a warm day in August, to find out how one particular orange can - perhaps - make musical instruments sing.
— Victoria Finlay - Colour

I think about Naoko Matsubara's beautiful fiery orange and pink woodblock prints of dancers, Inari and Maiko. Orange is singing to me and I am again brought back to that moment where the main character, Mataichi, from Kanoko Okamoto's book 'A Riot of Goldfish', opens the lid to view his goldfish.

But soon there bobbed into view, like a Corpulent French beauty or a graceful and majestic woman of the Tempyo era, a round body, eyes, and a mouth with eyebrows, that made you want to paint them.
— A Riot of Goldfish by Kanoko Okamoto

Black on White

I'm not ready for colour today but as I follow the path of black on white, I hold these whispers of orange on the horizon.

It is the secret of knowing yourself and your materials so well that you can wrap your life’s experiences into the very body of an instrument, just as a true musician puts his or her life experiences into the playing of it - and when both elements are right, the together - maker and musician - you can persuade your violin to sing and cry and dance the orange.
— Victoria Finlay - Colour

Goldfish woodblock


Five Netsuke from The British Museum

I've just received a reply from The British Museum. They only allow five objects to be shown in one viewing so I've chosen The Foxes, The Rat, The Goldfish, The Dog and The Okimono of Turtles.

I am fascinated by the Goldfish. Orange and bulbous with gigantic scowling forehead.

"This ugly, yet adorable, goldfish is known as the lion-head goldfish or ranchū, and is highly regarded in Japan. Keeping goldfish as pets became popular from the 1800s onwards. By Masanao I of Ise (1815–90), Japan. Made of boxwood, inlaid with light and dark horn eyes (F.1074)" Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion Noriko Tsuchiya, curator, British Museum.

A Riot of Goldfish

One of my books recommended by Lucinda at Mr B's Emporium was 'A Riot of Goldfish' by Kanoko Okamoto. Mataichi, the main character of the story is obsessed with breeding the perfect goldfish to impress the woman he has quietly loved since their childhood. This netsuke takes me to a moment in the book which where Mataichi opens the lid of one of the jars in his laboratory to view his goldfish.

"Awakening to the light of the electric lamp, the pair that had been lying together began to swim at a leisurely pace, now in tandem and now apart. Their tail fins were three or four times larger than their bodies were wide or long. So when they unfurled their delicate silk fins and gowns spangled with black stars, their bodies and heads were momentarily obscured. But soon there bobbed into view, like a Corpulent French beauty or a graceful and majestic woman of the Tempyo era, a round body, eyes, and a mouth with eyebrows, that made you want to paint them." A Riot of Goldfish' by Kanoko Okamoto

Perfection vs Passion

Mataichi's obsession to create perfection through controlled conditions is greatly contrasted with Shiko Munakata's impulsive expressive nature but both are driven and passionate and dedicated to their creative explorations.

Munakata himself has said "the mind goes and the tool walks alone", but actually his extraordinary speed springs from intense concentration, a capacity for passionate absorption. The idea must not be twisted around, badgered and revised, doubted and restudied. It must come out in one creative surge" Soetsu Yanagi on Shiko Munakata - The Woodblock and the Artist - Southbank Centre London 1991

As I look over my netsuke prints I am aware of their imperfections. I have so much to learn if I want my carvings to be perfect but when I look at the work of Shiko Munakata I see the life force exploding from his prints and it makes me consider my own practice. Do I want to spend my time seeking perfection and obsessing over every line I carve or do I want to passionately dance to the nature of the wood?