Itchiku Kubota – Kimono as Landscape, Kimono as Art

Photo © Itchiku Kubota Art Museum/Peter Hoff

Photo © Itchiku Kubota Art Museum/Peter Hoff

The latest Japan Foundation programme has just hit my inbox, and I’m thrilled to see that they’re having a talk on Itchiku Kubota and his tsujigahana kimonos. I’ve been interested in these wonderful kimonos for a long time, so much so that a few years back I visited the Itchiku Kubota Museum in Japan to see the display of kimonos there for myself.

Itchiku Kubota was a twentieth century textile artist, a rather special one, who became famous for rediscovering and reinventing the lost fifteenth century textile-dyeing and decorating technique called tsujigahana.

Photo © Itchiku Kubota Art Museum/Canadian Museum of History

Photo © Itchiku Kubota Art Museum/Canadian Museum of History

Itchiku Kubota’s first encounter with tsujigahana dyeing took place when he was twenty and working on hand-painted Yuzen textiles. He noticed a fragment of ancient tsujigahana cloth in the Tokyo National Museum collection. Kubota was entranced and vowed that one day he would recreate that dyeing method. But after years of work he decided that rather than recreate the ancient technique he would develop a similar technique of his own, which has come to be known as Itchiku Tsujigahana.

Photo © Itchiku Kubota Art Museum/Canadian Museum of History

Photo © Itchiku Kubota Art Museum/Canadian Museum of History

Tsujigahana uses tie dyeing combined with black or vermilion outlining, shading, imprinting with gold or silver leaf, embroidering, etc. The process is complex. A background pattern is drawn on a plain silk kimono in blue ink and then vinyl thread is used to protect part of the kimono from dye. This thread is pulled tight and sections of the fabric bulge into little lumps, around which the thread is looped and knotted. The little bumps are then carefully coloured with a flat brush, covered with vinyl and bound with a thread. The entire silk fabric is then steeped in the dye and steamed for forty to ninety minutes to fix the dye and rinsed at least fifteen times in running water. Finally the vinyl thread is removed and an embroidery, gilding or hand-painting added.

Photo © Itchiku Kubota Art Museum/Peter Hoff

Photo © Itchiku Kubota Art Museum/Peter Hoff

Kubota’s lifetime work, the Symphony of Light series, consists of eighty kimonos representing the four seasons and the universe. It was unfinished at his death in 2003 and is being completed by his family. He is also famous for his series of five kimonos representing Mount Fuji, his costumes for the kabuki and for his 1976 kimono known as Gen/Floral Illusion.

Photo © Itchiku Kubota Art Museum/Canadian Museum of History

Photo © Itchiku Kubota Art Museum/Canadian Museum of History

The museum, on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi below Mount Fuji, is a wonderful place to visit. I went in the autumn which is probably the best time to see it. It’s completely idiosyncratic.

Itchiku Kubota Art Museum

Itchiku Kubota Art MuseumThe kimonos are displayed on huge bamboo racks inside a pyramid-shaped gallery built from sixteen cypress-wood beams that are over a thousand years old.

Photo © Itchiku Kubota Art Museum

Photo © Itchiku Kubota Art Museum

If you want to see more tsujigahana kimonos, there’s a book, Kimono as Art, The Landscapes of Itchiku Kubota, by Dale Carolyn Gluckman which has wonderful colour plates of Kubota’s most famous works, but which I was shocked to see is currently priced at £107 on Amazon.

Itchiku Kubota - Kimono as Art

The Japan Foundation talk takes place this Friday, 15th May. I’m afraid it’s already fully booked, but you can join the waiting list.

16 thoughts on “Itchiku Kubota – Kimono as Landscape, Kimono as Art

  1. Oh, I just love these. Fascinating technique producing a finish that appears almost free-flowing and random, but is actually tightly controlled. Very interesting post. The ‘Kimono as Art’ of course, naturally, I think some Westerners could do with reappraising their ‘aesthetics’ viewpoint when it comes to textiles not least a few of the art critics.

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    • I totally agree with you about textile art. It gets more recognition in Japan, partly because they don’t make an artificial distinction between art and craft as we do.

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      • You’d think that after William Morris at least here in UK we could blur the lines, but if anything craft has been even more pushed to the back of the queue. With conceptual, performance and video art I thought there might be some movement, but even Grayson Perry with his large tapestries hasn’t moved textile art into the spotlight. Do you think maybe it’s because very few men work in the field?

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  2. Some of the kimono are currently exhibited in Paris (Musée Guimet) and Leiden (Sieboldhuis), should this be of interest. I’ve seen the Paris one and it’s absolutely stunning !

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  3. I borrowed the book from Morley College Library when I was studying there and just kept renewing it – think I kept it for the whole year! 😉 But I’ve yet to see any kimonos in real life – might have to schedule a trip to Paris! I’ve booked for the talk too so see you on Friday!

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  4. These are stunning! I just learned about this museum late last year and now I am even more motivated to visit. I think this goes straight to the top of the list for when we move to Tokyo in a few months. Thanks, Fran!

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