There is little doubt in my mind that the Russian chapter of the International Netsuke Society is the most dynamic in the world. In 2016 its members persuaded the St. Petersburg State Hermitage Museum to host an exhibition of netsuke from Russian private collections, complete with substantial hard back catalogues in Russian and English language editions. Now they have pulled off an equally impressive exhibition in Moscow on the occasion of the 44thMoscow Antique Fair in October 2018. The principal mover for the project was Oleg Mareev of Galerie Eurasia, Moscow.
This was conceived as a special exhibition of netsuke from 5 collections, located close to the entrance to the fair, and Oleg came up with a stunningly simple but effective design. Two adjacent walls were glazed like fish tanks with intelligently thought out groups of netsuke, with explanations about materials, styles, subjects and historic development from the earliest to the most contemporary, these last represented by 7 masterpieces by Ukrainian carver Sergei Osipov.
The floor was filled with two parallel constructions running between the two corners of the room, with enough space to pass all around and between them. These structures were solid to my shoulder height and then covered with a plexiglass cover. Inside were two lines of netsuke down each side of the podium. The net result was that one could press one’s face fairly close to the little wonders, and see their backs (or as the Germans always so charmingly say in English, their backsides).
The quality and variety of the netsuke on view was remarkable and, together with the display techniques, constituted a world class exhibition of which any museum could have been proud. The fact that the whole installation was put up in 24 hours is just extraordinary.
To celebrate the exhibition I was invited to deliver my first ever lecture in Russian. In the event I read a translation of my own text during the course of 40 minutes, accompanied by numerous slides of netsuke from my extensive archive, to an audience of some 50 people, who were polite enough to pretend to have understood every word, and to have learnt something.
After that 14 of us repaired to a restaurant, where to the accompaniment of excellent food, wine and vodka, we swapped netsuke anecdotes as well as passing netsuke around the large round table. The camaraderie was palpable, and chapters around the world could learn from this spirit of non-competitive collaboration. With things already bad for ivory in the US, and looking no better here in the UK, I say jokingly that I would be freer in Russia than Britain. I am not so sure that I wouldn’t be.