Netsuke

squid, vase and barnacles. 19th century netsuke. museum of far eastern antiquities, stockholm.

In February 2020, I wrote about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing damaged pottery with gold. The month before the nightmare. But I recently learned about another art form called netsuke, tiny carvings originally made as button closures. Before ivory from living animals was banned, it was the usual material. I am thrilled to report that there are, in fact, huge quantities of mammoth ivory available these days. I didn’t know.

Last week, I toured a wonderful art collection with a few pieces of pottery that were used to hold these miniature works of art. And, of course, there was a story. During World War II, a Jewish family in Vienna lost their home to Nazis who also plundered their art collection. The father had amassed a large set of netsuke which were lined up on narrow shelves. Although they were in plain sight, the looters didn’t recognize their value and ignored them. The family’s housekeeper had been commandeered as well, and she took one or two out in her pockets.

The story is similar to Woman in Gold (2015) but on a smaller less gilded or personal scale. The film is well done, with Helen Mirren starring as Maria Altman. The woman in the Klimt painting is her aunt, the painting stolen from the family in the same way. The plot uses flashbacks to show the validity of her claim on the Austrian government to restore the masterpiece to its rightful owner. Ryan Reynolds plays the young attorney who helps her. There is more depth to the resolution so watch it if you can.

My parallel for today is size. Netsuke can be valuable. On eBay, the most expensive one today is $107,000. The record at a Bonham’s auction is $441,300. It’s not that element–-worth or value—for now, however. Nor is it ignorance. The family housekeeper knew what they had. The Nazis didn’t. Rather, I’d like to think about small gestures for a moment.

Recently, someone was asking if I had a conducting class in college. Yes. Her assumption was mistaken, though. She thought a conductor’s job is to give musicians cues when to come in. That may be what it looks like. But musicians know where they are and when to play. (Although once I was playing second flute in the San Angelo Symphony when the first flute learned over and asked where we were. I knew but was so startled that I didn’t know what to say and just pointed. Apparently, everyone was lost because soon the conductor bellowed out “KEY CHANGE” and we were back on track. Important fact: The SAS was actually the Dallas Symphony second stand players with some local talent thrown in. It was memorable, and a piano concerto to boot. This short video explains using examples of some “historically important” conductors. The small gestures often offer interpretation. The purpose can also be to “exalt” the orchestra. It’s not always pretty. Here are five conductors and the same piece of music (just 10+minutes).

It’s odd how a single second or two of time will hold a memory. Decades ago, the kids and I were at the mall in San Angelo. There was a large fountain in the center. The boys were bored and started putting their hands in the water and splashing it out. A security guard walked by, didn’t say anything, just moved his hand with a flick of his wrist that meant “get your hands out.” It was subtle and relevant. Graceful, even. The style was, also, memorable.

Tonight, at my music fraternity, one member noticed the sun was in someone’s eyes. She held a book up to block it. A small act, perhaps, but one that lasted until the shade was lowered. Most thoughtful gesture today.

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