When I was studying at Morley College, I came across a book in the library called Kimono as Art: The Landscapes of Itchiku Kubota. Turning its pages transported me to a world of extraordinary coloured and textured landscapes, all achieved through stitching, dyeing, ink drawing and embroidery.
I was hooked: I lugged the book home and just kept renewing it for the rest of the academic year. I spent hours poring over the close-up photos, trying to work out how Kubota achieved such sumptuous surfaces, stunned by their complexity and detail.
So when the Japan Foundation announced a talk by Dr Jacqueline M Atkins about Kubota and his work, I jumped at the chance. The talk, last week, was held in the hall of the Art Workers Guild in Bloomsbury, an organisation whose members have included William Morris, Sir Edwin Lutyens, Walter Crane and CFA Voysey.
Itchiku Kubota (1917-2003) is famous for reviving and developing a long-lost 16th-century decorative technique known as tsujigahana (“flowers at the crossroads”). The son of an antique dealer in Tokyo, Kubota was apprenticed to a yuzen dyer in 1931, where he learnt how to combine stencilling, paste resist and hand painting. He must have shown prodigious natural talent, as he set up his own shop at the tender age of 19.
On a visit to a museum, he came across a fragment of tsujigahana fabric. This technique, which combines several intricate processes such as shibori, ink drawing,hand shading and painting, and sometimes embroidery or gold or silver leaf, reached its height in the 16th century but then largely disappeared. Complete garments from that period are extremely rare, but fragments of fabric remain in recycled priests’ garments, altar hangings and screens.
After seeing the fragment, Kubota vowed to recreate the technique, but this had to wait, as he was conscripted into the army and then spent three years as a prisoner of war in Siberia. On release, he spent years experimenting – with different fabrics (the type of silk used in the 16th century was no longer made), and with different dyes – he decided that natural dyes were too unpredictable and fugitive to work with, so used synthetic dyes.
The result he called Itchiku Tsujigahana – he was not reproducing the original techniques, but building on them using modern fabrics and dyes. The combination of the time-consuming experiments and his perfectionist nature meant that his first exhibition of Itchiku Tsujigahana kimonos was not until 1977, when he was 60 years old! The exhibition made a huge impression, and Kubota became acclaimed in Europe and the US.
Nevertheless, he had his critics. Purists derided him for not using authentic fabrics (despite the fact that the type of silk used in the 16th century was no longer made!), for using fabrics with gold or silver threads and for using gold thread embroidery.
Not that Kubota cared. He continued working on an ambitious installation piece, using kimono as a panoramic canvas to depict the different seasons. “Symphony of Light: The Seasons” was originally intended to include 80 kimono, though he completed only 36 before his death. Of these, 29 represent autumn and winter, while the other seven show the universe.
You can get a flavour of the panorama effect on The Kubota Collection website (click on the full screen version of the image and then scroll from left to right), but I can only imagine the effect of seeing the actual garments.
Some close-up images also give a hint of the colours and textures.
What is jaw dropping is the labour intensiveness of the technique. Several dye colours were often used, so the shibori stitching and binding had to be capped or redone in between the different dyes. After steaming to fix the dyes, embroidery and hand painting were added. To achieve texture, the piece was often restitched or bound, on exactly the same lines, and steamed again. No wonder each piece could take as long as three years to make!
But it wasn’t only in the area of production techniques that Kubota defied convention. As well as using kimono as canvases, he also wanted to change the way they were worn. At a fashion show in the 1980s he sent out models wearing kimono with high heels, modern hairstyles or jewellery, or daringly draped to show their legs – not very traditional! The kimono were much admired, but the styling didn’t catch on.
I get the impression that Kubota was not in favour of change for change’s sake. Certainly his work as a tsujigahana artist was based on meticulous mastery of technique and research, but he was willing to incorporate and experiment with materials and methods that had been developed in the 400 years since its heyday, which I find admirable.
The Itchiku Kubota Museum, at the foot of Mount Fuji, is on my bucket list. In the meantime, some of his kimono are currently on display as part of temporary exhibitions at the Museum Guimet in Paris and the Sieboldhuis in Leiden.