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Eight not enough to ‘Catch an Octopus’

Yale University Art Gallery

NEW HAVEN — To write about art is often to feel like the boor at the party constantly retelling, to whomever he can corner, the brilliant joke he just overheard. A forlorn enterprise, because usually the joke is a physical gag and doesn’t translate.

And the problem is not just a mismatch of medium. It’s also a question of speed: Your words are always lagging behind everyone else’s eyes.

So now you’ve already seen the work pictured here. It’s an ivory carving — a netsuke — from Japan: “Long-Legged Man and Long-Armed Man Cooperating to Catch an Octopus.”

What can I possibly add? You can see it in person at the Yale University Art Gallery, where it was recently pulled out of storage.


I can tell you the basics of how netsuke were traditionally used, although you probably already know them (especially if you have read Edmund de Waal’s best-selling family memoir, “The Hare With Amber Eyes”): Netsuke are toggles used by the Japanese to secure items suspended on cords from the wearer’s sash.

What sort of things? Very often little medicine cases, known as “inro,” which can themselves be works of fine art, and are often decorated with patterns or images applied to lacquered wood or paper in gold, silver, and shell.

But netsuke have tended to be more popular, both in Japan and elsewhere, because they are essentially miniature sculptures, made from wood or ivory. Often representing animals or humans, they are intensely tactile things, and can be held in the hand or secreted away in pockets. Their nature and purpose allows a lot of scope for sentiment and humor.

And virtuosity, too: Good netsuke are marvels of intricate carving.

Where many feel like elaborations on the form of the ball — animals curled up asleep, or, as in one memorable netsuke in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, a hare scratching its chin with its right hind leg — this netsuke is an unlikely feat of preposterous elongation.


I don’t know if it illustrates a well-known Japanese children’s story, or a celebrated Zen koan, or if it’s just a mischievous artist’s whimsy. But it’s a joke on so many levels, none of which can really be explained: Eight disparate limbs ganging up to defeat eight integrated ones? Determination and surprise (look at their expressions!) overcoming all impediments?

Not really, and no. Just look. You’ll get it. Isn’t it superb?

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.