Of interest to this blog is the netsuke (Japanese ornamental toggle) and sagemono (dangling box) in the upper left-hand corner. Embossed in gold on the abalone-shaped box is a “Western dog” 洋犬 floating amidst decorative cherry blossoms, with a matching toggle carved out of ivory featuring a dog in a stylized “foo dog” or guardian lion stance. Date and artist unknown.
I’m intrigued by the sighthoundly figure of the dog, more clearly seen on the box than the carving. With its wired fur, would this perhaps represent a Wolfhound or a Deerhound? And who is trying to draw attention to the foreignness of the dog — the now-anonymous artist, or the cataloguer who labeled and titled this museum piece after the fact?
I remember a couple similar pieces from my visit to the Asian Art Museum. It seems that the curious, whimsical association between canines and humans, or at least foreigners and their dogs, was enough to inspire a few pieces. I am struck by the jovial faces of these two figures below.
People who know Nihon ken would be hard-pressed to call something like this long-bodied beast an indigenous Japanese breed.
I suppose it’s more likely that this artist was also trying to represent a “Western” dog, rather than an endearing local mongrel that happened to have dropped ears. But I think it’s just as likely that this was a simple, idealized image that drew on everything that the artist knew about dogs, without necessarily corresponding to any concrete model or even personal experience. I almost want to read these objects as some kind of inverted Japonisme, where the foreign is appropriated and rendered into a beautiful object for domestic consumption, blurring any strict distinction between East and West. Which is not to say that such notions don’t matter, but that, perhaps in certain private, personalized realms, they mattered less than our labels presume.