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Japanese Articulated Metal Models of Animals - UPDATED!

11th April 2014

The earliest-known articulated models of animals are believed to have been made by the Myochin family of armorers, who were active from the 15th century and who flourished during the Edo period (1615-1868).

Traditional Japanese armour uses hammered-iron components, including multi-plate helmets, the face mask, the cuirass, and smaller pieces made into varied shapes to be fitted onto chain mail for the kote (sleeves including hand covers), haidate (thigh guards) and suneate (lower leg guards). The helmets in particular show the great skill of the armourers, often being composed of a number of separate plates, sometimes in excess of a hundred, all individually shaped and riveted together to form a light, yet strong, and elegant work of art. The face mask was modelled with the expressive features of a human face, many with deep and vigorous wrinkles, all made by hammering and riveting iron plate and finishing with a lacquered or russet surface. An iron cuirass might be embellished with grand designs of dragons, the mythical leonine shishi, or Buddhist or Shinto deities in high relief repoussé work, a speciality of the Myochin. Such plate armour was used in conjunction with flexible components composed of linked iron and leather platelets, or kozane, laced together into rows, each able to move loosely away from or towards the next, allowing adjacent rows to close concertina-like, giving both freedom of movement during violent action and providing a surface that can absorb and render harmless the impact of cutting weapons. The samurai was protected by his articulated armour much as birds are protected by their feathers and sea crustaceans by their shells.

The technology for making armour applies perfectly to the physiognomy of feathery and scaly creatures. For both armour and animal models the parts are linked to allow flexible, realistic movement. An iron snake, for example, is composed of many annular sections starting with the smallest at the tail and each loosely connected by an invisible central swivel culminating inside the mouth - a final touch is the tongue and teeth between jaws that spring.

The Myochin are the best-known of several great armour-making clans active from the Age of Civil wars in the 15th and 16th centuries. But in the relatively peaceful Edo period armour was used only for parade during special ceremonies, and worn as a show of strength by the daimyo and their retinues on the annual trek from their own provinces to and from Edo (premodern Tokyo) as required by the Tokugawa shoguns. The Myochin continued to produce fine quality armour during this era, and their work remained in high demand. Some armourers had originated as makers of stirrups and bits for horses, and probably also of fireside tools, such as tongs for hibachi (charcoal braziers), so it was a short step for the Myochin to expand their repertoire into the manufacture of other iron objects. Branches of the family specialized in the production of tsuba, or decorative sword guards, sometimes forging the iron disc onto which other craftsmen inlaid designs in soft coloured metals. But the unique articulated iron animals allowed free reign to the artistic talents of the helmet makers, and might even be considered the high point of the armourer's art.

The great variety of iron model animals made by the Myochin is attested by examples in museum collections. The great eagle signed Myochin Munesuke in the Victoria and Albert Museum dated in accordance with 1698, which although not articulated is realistically depicted, has the distinctive air of later articulated pieces. Another great iron eagle in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum is signed Kiyoharu, and is believed to date from the late Edo period. The signatures of such model makers are always those of the Myochin armourers and may be compared with examples recorded in Japanese Armour Makers for the Samurai by Kei Kaneda Chappelear (Tokyo, 1987). The majority of the articulated iron models known today are believed to date from the late Edo and Meiji periods. However, the existence of an iron dragon in the Tokyo National Museum signed Myochin Muneaki and dated 1713, as identified by Mr. Harada Kazutoshi and exhibited in "Jizai Okimono" at the museum in 2009, and a butterfly signed Myochin Muneyasu dated 1753 (Okura Shukokan collection, Tokyo) indicate that models were certainly being made in the 18th century and likely before then. The dragon in the Tokyo National Museum may be compared with a full face mask hammered into a grotesque form also signed by Muneaki and dated in accordance with 1717 that is recorded in the Mene auction catalogue, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 1913 (Chappelear, p. 77). The British Museum has a model of the mythical shachi (auspicious "dragon-fish") signed Myochin Munemitsu. An impressive model of a shachi rather larger than the British Museum piece and signed Myochin Shikibu Munesuke was sold in these Rooms on 11 September 2012 (lot 109). The same signature Myochin Shikibu Munesuke is found on various iron objects dating from the early to late Edo period. Munesuke is said to have specialized in repoussé iron body armour, evident in a fine example in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and a helmet bowl hammered into the form of an abalone shell also illustrated in the Mene Collection catalogue. The British Museum holds substantial animal models, including a crayfish signed Muneaki, a snake signed Muneyoshi, a carp signed Muneyori, an unsigned crab, peacock and other smaller crustaceans and insects. A small Myochin dragon that once belonged to Matsudaira Shungaku, the daimyo of Echizen province, during the late Edo period and now in the collection of the Fukui City Museum, was described as a bunchin, or paperweight.

Although the Myochin artists strove, for the most part, for realism in the creatures they made, it was the dragon that allowed the greatest play to their imaginations. The articulated joints of the dragon accommodate movement and positions impossible for the bodies and limbs of worldly creatures. And the dragon occupies a special place in Japanese culture. The dragon is one of the four mystical beasts of ancient China, together with the gryphon (Japanese, kirin), phoenix and turtle. Its earliest depictions in Japan are found in wall paintings of stone chamber tombs and on gilt-bronze sword pommels of the Kofun period, 4th-6th century. The dragon exists in the realm of clouds and rain and is the form taken by Ryujin, the deity who controls the sea. The concept of a dragon with a sword in its tail derives from the Shinto creation myth recorded in the 8th-century Nihongi and Kojiki, according to which the deity Susunoo-no-Mikoto slayed the eight-headed dragon Yamatano-orochi and extracts the sacred Murakumo-no-tsurugi sword from its tail. The British Museum dragon signed Kiyoharu has a gilt double-edged Buddhist sword (ken) in its tail, suggesting the Shinto tradition of the Murakumo-no-tsurugi and perhaps that the model was made during the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Shinto was formally designated the national religion. The dragon is also significant in Buddhism, being the form taken by the eight Narga who attended the Buddha at his enlightenment. The Buddhist aspect appears on iron sword guards, particularly those of the Echizen School, and on sword blades, especially from the Momoyama period onwards. The kurikara, a dragon entwining a sword blade, symbolizes the snare of the esoteric Buddhist deity Fudo Myo-o (Acala, "The Unmoving"), whose sword is the instrument of enlightenment that cuts away the illusory world. Together with the snake, the dragon is one of the Twelve Creatures of the Chinese Zodiac; one year in every twelve is feted as the Year of the Dragon, the most recent being 2012.

The Meiji-period boom in the arts and crafts saw the rise of Takase Kozan (1868-1894), whose studio produced the same type of metal insects as the Myochin, but often with the additional use of coloured alloys found on Edo-period sword fittings, such as shakudo (black alloy of copper with a little gold) and shibuichi ("one part in four," an alloy of copper and silver in a range of colours through silver, grey, brown and black), together with copper, silver and gold. The alloy patinas added to the realism of the models, as seen in the set of ten insects presented here as lot 535. A similar set of twelve insects is in the Mitsui Memorial Museum, Tokyo. The Kozan studio flourished, and it is recorded that the diplomat Sato Naotake (1882-1971) presented a soft-metal insect to a friend in France, resulting in a rush of orders for Kozan's work. The artist was followed during the Meiji period by others, including the Tomiki family and Satomi Shigeyoshi, whose silver articulated dragon dated to 1909 resides in the Tokyo National Museum. The rarity of articulated pieces makes it all the more important that discrete collections such as this set of insect models should remain together as a record of Japanese metal-working genius, an inspiration for future generations and a permanent reminder of the poetic Japanese view of the insect world.

Victor Harris

Victor Harris is Keeper Emeritus of Japanese Antiquities of the British Museum, London, UK

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