See, below, from Florence Theriault. I have collected Japanese doll my entire life, and I have a doll from Kyoto that dates to the Korean War, brought to me by my uncle. Great essay, and a wonderful auction upcoming!
is a mystery to me that this rich and highly artistic genre of doll
collecting has remained largely unexplored by Western world doll
collectors. Perhaps it’s something as simple as language barriers, for,
admittedly, Japanese is not a common language taught in American
schools. Yet, how easy to start from this simple lesson. Ningyō means
doll. Say the word. Ningyō. Ning rhymes with ring. Yo rhymes with go.
Ningyō. Say the word ten times. Now you’re on your way.
Perhaps it is feeling that these dolls are too strange, too apart from
the common doll “experience” of Western children and Western doll
collectors. We are taught that they are formal, stylized, historic, and
never, never, play dolls. But consider these commonalities with the
European dolls that American collectors so avidly seek.
• Just as Paris was the center of French doll-making in the 18th and
19th centuries, so was Kyoto the center of Japanese doll-making at that
time. Small studios buzzed with activity throughout both cities – and,
not incidentally, both cities were considered the apex of artistic and
intellectual pursuits in their respective countries.
• Just as the Parisian (and English and German) dolls were constructed
of wood or paper-mache in the 1700s and early 1800s, so, too, were those
of Japan. In both cultures, the sculpting and painting of the dolls
reflected current notions of elegance or refinement: the aquiline nose
of the European aristocracy, and the distinctive “sky-brows” of dolls of
Japanese nobility, as examples.
• Just as the Paris doll world was composed of a number of small
ateliers, so was that of Kyoto. Even the construction of the dolls –
largely a matter of assembly of parts from various specialists, wigs
from one atelier, textiles and costumes from another, carved wooden
parts from still one more – was a similar pattern in both cities. As a
result, early 1800s dolls from both cultures were largely identified by
the shop which sold the doll rather than the assembler; collectors of
French poupees speak, for example, of their Simonne doll, although
Simonne was a doll shop, not a doll maker. Although in France, by the
end of the 1800s, large named doll-making firms, notably Jumeau,
presented dolls under their own name, Parisian doll shops such as Au
Nain Bleu, and even Parisian department stores such as Au Bon Marche who
offered their Bebe Au Bon Marche, continued to offer assembled dolls,
and in Japan, according to scholar Alan Scott Pate (Japanese Dolls, The Fascinating World of Ningyo,
page 240) “Meiji-era manufacturing...was executed mostly by anonymous
artists working closely with wholesalers and dolls shops which sold them
under their own brand names”.
• Costuming was of utmost concern in both worlds. So it can be of no
small coincidence that in both cultures, the bodies of early dolls
(except exposed hands and feet) were crude and simplistic: for these
early dolls, swathed with luxury fabrics that were permanently affixed,
the hidden body was of little consequence except that it be durable.
Then, beginning in the late 1700s, dolls of both cultures were designed
with the notion of dress/undress/re-dress and the style of body began to
change to accommodate this. In Japan, the flexible padded upper arm was
introduced to allow the doll to be easily undressed, as well as the
mitsuore-ningyō or triple-jointed doll, designed for articulated play;
in France, the early notion of tacking-on or stitching the costume to
the body evolved into costumes with drawstrings or hooks and eyes, and
the construction of a doll body that was realistic as well as malleable
became an industry obsession, hence the development of the articulated
wooden body. In a delightful confluence of the two worlds, it was the
Japanese mitsuore-ningyō, presented at the London Universal Exhibition
of 1851, that is said to have been the major influence on the
development of the Western articulated child doll.
• Entire industries concerning the costuming of the doll grew up in each
culture. It is often remarked upon by admiring collectors of 18th/19th
century Western dolls that even the scale of woven pattern was
miniaturized to match the size of the doll. So, too, is this true with
Japanese dolls. The use of woven symbols (fleur-de-lis in France,
chrysanthemum in Japan, for example) is a commonality, just as the
presence of luxury fabrics signaled the importance of a doll; in both
cultures, velvets, brocades, or other fabrics with interwoven gold or
silver threads were important statements of prestige.
• Just as the Western dolls celebrated their heroes and heroines in the
form of dolls – from Empress Eugenie to George Washington – so, too, did
the Japanese – from Empress Jingu to military warlord Hideyoshi.
And what of play? There is a commonly-held belief that Japanese ningyō
were not play dolls. True, and yet not true. They were not play dolls in
the rough-and-tumble sense that we often associate with American play.
Yet, they were play in that they were designed to visually stir the
imagination, to teach proper societal roles, to instill a sense of
fashion and style. Not unlike, in fact, their counterpart English wooden
court dolls or French bisque poupees with fashionable trousseaux and
elaborate coiffures. Further, the notion that Western world dolls were
all subjected to vigorous play is distorted; in fact, in the 1800s
owning a “store-bought” doll was a luxury and many a story has been
recounted that “My doll was kept stored away and I was only allowed
throughout my childhood to bring it out of its box at Christmas to
display it under the holiday tree”. Not so very different than the
Japanese hina matsuri or Girl’s Day dolls!
Finally, in both cultures, there is a desire for preservation, a link
with the past. Most simply, for the doll to remain in the family, to
pass from generation to generation. As collectors know, this is not
always possible. There, then, remains the next best choice. That is for
dolls – for ningyō – to pass into the hands of other caring people who
will preserve their significance, their beauty, their history. That is
what Norman Carabet achieved over his decades of collecting, and the
opportunity that he now offers to a new generation of those who cherish
– Florence Theriault
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