It’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.