Boro – Japanese Textiles at Somerset House

Boro Japanese TextilesIt’s funny how things that were originally just household reliables, used every day without a second thought, can turn into art. That’s what happened with boro, which is an art born from poverty, as Japanese families patched and mended their textiles so as to keep on using them as long as possible. And then times changed and those patched and faded blankets and clothes ended up hanging on the walls at Somerset House. Life is strange.

Boro Japanese Textiles

These patchwork pieces have never been whole cloth. They were made by poor people in the north east of Japan, who made their fabrics with hemp and couldn’t afford the luxury of cotton which had become the fabric of choice in the more prosperous south. When southerners’ cotton garments wore out, merchants bought them and took them north to sell, where people made the pieces into layered garments and futon covers.

Boro Japanese Textiles

Boro Japanese Textiles

The fabrics in the exhibition date mainly from the Meiji period in the late nineteenth century, though the history of boro goes back to the early part of the Edo period, in the seventeenth century. They date from a time when ordinary Japanese people were not permitted to dye their clothes any colour except black, blue, grey or brown. Families passed them down the generations and repeatedly patched them, giving them their current appearance.

Boro Japanese Textiles

Boro Japanese Textiles

Boro Japanese Textiles

The works that we saw had mainly been stretched on canvas which enhanced the sensation of seeing an exhibition of abstract art, an impression the curators encourage, with explanatory texts linking boro to the work of western abstract textile artists like Alberto Burri and Antoni Tapies.

Boro Japanese Textiles

But I was more taken with the very few works which are still recognisable as garments or as useable fabrics – they seemed to have more of the weight of history about them.

Boro Japanese Textiles

It’s when you get close up to the works and get a sense of their texture that they come into their own as works of art.

Boro Japanese Textiles

Boro Japanese Textiles

I wish there had been more information about the source of the fabrics and the kind of families and lives that lay behind them. We were told that the people who sold them were ashamed of the poverty of their families’ past, which these fabrics represented, and didn’t want to be associated with it. But on the other hand, they had carefully preserved them, and they fit so well with the concept of wabi-sabi – products of poverty which have acquired the patina of age – that I’m surprised they were not more valued and celebrated.

Boro Japanese Textiles

At any rate, they are celebrated now. The exhibition is in the East Wing at Somerset House and continues until 26th April. Entry is free.

Boro Japanese Textiles

16 thoughts on “Boro – Japanese Textiles at Somerset House

  1. Your post reminds me of a passage in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat where J looks at the things that are treasured in his time and remarks that they were once simply commonplace household objects. He then speculates whether his generation’s household objects will be the treasures of the future, and lists some – ‘Will rows of our willow-pattern dinner-plates be ranged above the chimneypieces of the great in the year 2000 and odd? Will the white cups with the gold rim and the beautiful gold flower inside (species unknown), that our Sarah Janes now break in sheer light-heartedness of spirit, be carefully mended, and stood upon a bracket, and dusted only by the lady of the house?.’ And then he mentions porcelain figures and Victorian samplers – ‘the “sampler” that the eldest daughter did at school will be spoken of as “tapestry of the Victorian era”…’ – very prescient, I always felt.

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    • Yes, you’re right – that’s just how it’s turned out. I expect the paper cups we have our coffee in will become treasured collectibles one day.

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  2. Pingback: My top five posts of 2014 | Sequins and Cherry Blossom

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