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About 15 years ago my friend Colleen Burke introduced me to a book she had purchased in Japan. It featured the kimono art of Ithciku Kubota.

I had never seen anything like this. The technique was utterly baffling and intriguing, but it was the final product that held my attention for hours and hours. I had never seen work like this in any form–whether fabric, canvas or video. Large formatted and full of lush, saturated photoimages, this book could not be had anywhere in the US. This was, after all, before the Internet and Amazon and bestbookdeal.com made successful book sleuthing a pastime you can do at home in your PJs.

I have never forgotten that book and the stories Colleen told about going to the Ithciku Kubota Museum, created by the artist while he was still alive. (He passed away in 2003 at the age of 86.) The museum is located outside of Tokyo, not far from the mysterious and mythic Mt. Fuji.

So how overjoyed was I when I found out that there is a show of Kubota’s kimonos on display at the San Diego Museum of Art and the nearby Timken Museum of Art. And how grateful I was to learn that it will also be on view in just one other location in the US—Canton, Ohio (I know, this surprised me as well.) Of course I am already scheduling my visit and thankful there are still some inexpensive carriers that fly from Boston to Canton.

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Kubota’s life speaks to a patience and focus that are not found as easily in our cultural milieu. Born in Tokyo in 1917, Kubota apprenticed himself to a kimono artist when he was 14. At age 20, he visited the Tokyo National Museum and saw an old silk textile remnant of tsujigahana* (tsu-jee-ga-ha-na), a traditional dye technique that had been forgotten over time. Kubota spent more than 70 years searching for the secret behind tsujigahana, finally understanding it and creating his own form of the technique which he called Itchiku Tsujigahana. 70 years. That is mind boggling to me.

Here is Kubota’s description of that early encounter:

My heart was beating faster; I was moved, trembling and fascinated in the face of such mastery and refinement of beauty. For over three hours I remained transfixed there in the deserted museum hall contemplating this little fragment of fabric which seemed to have been on display in the showcase for me alone.

The encounter had been intense, charged with mystery. I later thought that, if such a thing as reincarnation did exist, then the creator of this Tsujigahana dye would have been me.

A catalog for the show will be available in a few weeks for those of you who are not within easy reach of San Diego or Canton. The book looks substantial.

A full review of the show from the San Diego Union-Tribune is posted on Slow Painting.)

Other links:

San Diego Museum of Art

Kimono Art Exhibit/Canton Museum of Art

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*What is Tsujigahana? Here is a description from the Kimono as Art site:

It is, at best, a mystery lost in time, and at worst, an artistic conundrum.

Tsujigahana is a term found in medieval Japanese literature that describes a kind of textile, but there are no actual textiles that can definitely be linked to this term. In the early 20th century, some Japanese dealers/collectors gave the name Tsujigahana to a group of textiles from the 15th and 16th century that has survived, mainly in fragments. They generally consist of tie-dyeing and ink painting combined. However, some late 16th/early 17th century examples also incorporate gold or silver leaf glued on the surface of the silk.

Unfortunately, no one knows the specific piece of textile that Master Kubota saw in 1937, so we cannot be certain which combination of techniques he was looking at. He did develop a unique system of tie-dyeing and over-dyeing with ink—some of which are done on silks woven with metallic threads or have other interesting textures. He called his version “Itchiku Tsujigahana” to indicate his source of inspiration and his own contribution. Some textile specialists in Japan are concerned about the use of the term since we can’t be certain what Tsujigahana really looked like, and the name attached to the old textiles is a modern identification.

It is generally believed that the Tsujigahana method of textile dyeing flourished in medieval Japan. It was an outgrowth of the shibori tie-dyeing method which immersed portions of cloth repeatedly in dyes to create multi-colored designs. Tsujigahana craftsmen developed their process to include the use of ink brushes to produce fine lines and shadows and added embroidery and gilding. The result of this intricate work was richly-colored patterns which had previously been impossible. Tsujigahana kimono were highly prized among Japan’s aristocracy.

There is no clear reason why use of the technique faded after the 17th century, although the yuzen techniques that have flourished in the years since share some of the same elements. The yuzen technique may have eventually replaced the Tsujigahana method.

Shibori encompasses a variety of methods to embellish textiles by shaping cloth and securing it before dyeing. Shibori does not treat cloth as a two-dimensional surface, but rather it is given a three-dimensional form by folding, crumpling, stitching, plaiting, or plucking and twisting. It is secured in a number of ways, including binding and knotting. Shibori relies on the pliancy of a textile and its potential for creating a broad spectrum of designs.

Yuzen is a textile process that combines a mixture of freehand paste resist and painting, which may also include stencil and shibori work. The decorative flexibility possible with this combination of techniques is unsurpassed. Designs are initially outlined in paste resist, and dyes are then applied to give subtle gradations of tone. Both delicacy and lavishness are characteristic of yuzen, as are traditional themes and decorative designs. Embroidery and gold leaf are sometimes elements of yuzen composition.

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