11533 AN EXCEPTIONAL BRONZE SCULPTURE OF AN ELEPHANT HEAD SIGNED BY KANEDA KENJIRO Measurements: Height: 13 1/2″ (34.3 cm) Width: 12″ (30.5 cm) Depth: 10″ (25.4 cm).

Of bronze. Naturalistically modeled as the head of an Asian elephant.

Stamped with a seal of Japanese characters reading:
Kaneda sei (made by Kaneda)

This bronze sculpture of an Asian elephant belongs to a long tradition of portraying this majestic and awe-inspiring animal in art, architecture and decorative objects. In the Far East, the elephant symbolized divinity, benevolence and fortune. From its first introduction in the West it came to be associated with royalty, emblematic of imperial power and fortitude. Even as royal menageries and modern-day zoological gardens emerged, the elephant remained a curiosity to Europeans, and this sculpture would have been an object of interest both for its exotic subject matter and country of origin.

The sculpture is remarkable for its beautifully rendered naturalistic modeling, as well as an astounding attention to detail by the sculptor. Such careful treatment extends subtle features such as the asymmetric flapping backward of the left ear. There is also an expressive dimension which captures the spirit of the creature depicted. Such insightful reading of animals and the natural world places the bronzes within the centuries-old Japanese Zen culture in art.

The exceptional levels of quality achieved in metalwork created during the late-Meiji period is explainable by reason of the following. During the Edo period, metalworkers produced magnificent weaponry and armor for the Daimyo (high-ranking feudal lords) and Samurai, who themselves customarily wore two swords. However, the act of wearing swords in public was abolished in 1876 with the Haitorei edict and with that, the patronage of swordsmen disappeared, leaving craftsmen in search of other outlets for their talents. To maintain economic stability, these highly-skilled metalworkers turned their efforts toward the production of decorative objects.

Their range of new wares included vases, candlesticks, chargers, figures of Samurai and field workers, and animals and these decorative display objects were called okimono. Items in bronze were predominantly made using the “lost wax” method of casting, whereby a model made of wax and resin was covered in layers of clay; the wax was then melted and replaced with molten bronze. When this had cooled, the clay was removed, revealing a product ready for decoration. “The casting technique was perfected to allow chiseling of the metal,”1 and other decorating methods including engraving on the mold, inlaying, lacquering and enameling.

The Meiji era saw the introduction of trade between Japan and the west for the first time in two centuries and, along with it, foreign demand for such objects. As a result, Japanese craftsmen began to create pieces to appeal to a Western audience. One of the ways in which concentrated contact between Japanese and western cultures was facilitated was through international exhibitions, where the Japanese wares were greatly admired. “The naturalistic depiction of animals in small-scale sculptures…were among the items most favored by foreign collectors.”2

As a consequence of these exhibitions, Japan’s government instituted policies to support and further refine its domestic craft industries, such as “hiring artists to create designs, supporting manufacturers, and establishing competitive exhibitions at home to cull the best talents nationwide.”3 It was also important for them to provide Japanese artists with the latest foreign knowledge and techniques, and in 1876 the Technical Art School was established in Tokyo, to teach Western painting and sculpture, followed by the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1889.

The present sculpture is stamped with a seal of Japanese characters that reads Kaneda sei (made by Kaneda), indicating the sculptor Kaneda Kenjiro (1847–?). Kaneda was known for his ivory carvings, but he collaborated with the bronze worker Izumi Seijo on many occassions and also executed certain works in bronze himself. In 1877 Kaneda co-founded the Kankokai Craft Company, together with other important ivory carvers, including Ishikawa Komei (1852-1913) and Asahi Gyokuzan (1843-1923). He was also a founding member of the influential Tokyo Chokokukai (Tokyo sculptor’s association). Works by Kaneda Kenjiro were shown at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and can be found today outside private collections at the Tokyo National Museum.

This elephant represents an unusual example of an animal-form okimono model. While the species was represented in bronze with some regularity, it was typically represented as whole, in miniature. The conceit of a wall-mounted model of just the elephant’s head is far less common and, in the few instances known to us, appears similarly in the form of wall-brackets or as bookends.

1. Fischer, Felice. The Art of Japanese Craft: 1875 to the Present. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2008. 8.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

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