Bamboo is very important in Japan, as an element of simplicity. Before the 16th century, most bamboo baskets were imported from China and used for ikebana in the chanoyu tea ceremony during the summer months. When the Japanese started making their own baskets they were largely copies of Chinese styles and, unlike other crafts of the time, were unsigned. So we know little about the earliest Japanese basket makers.
Hayakawa Shokusai (1815-1897) was the first Japanese basket maker to sign his work, perhaps because he started to combine twining with more open weave techniques to create a more distinctive Japanese style rather than simply copying the Chinese. One of his most unusual works was a Western-style rattan bowler hat!
Basket making seems to run in families. Shokusai’s son also went on to become a basket maker. Tanabe Chikuunsai (1877-1937), who created an art-deco inspired Japanese style, had a son and grandson who also went on to become great basket makers.
According to Joe Earle, probably the greatest basket maker of all was IIzuka Rokansa (1890-1958). Inspired by rustic found objects, he often used smoked bamboo from the ceiling of workers’ houses. He also named all his pieces.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Rokansai also had a son, Iizuka Shokansai (1919-2004), to carry on the tradition. Shokansai was recognised as a Living National Treasure of Japan in 1982.
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.
Literally translated as “rags”, boro are heavily patched bedcovers and clothing made by the rural poor of Japan.
Although cotton was grown in southern Japan from the 16th century onwards, it was only the richer urban dwellers who could afford it. Poorer people wore homespun hemp, nettle and ramie, but cotton was lighter and warmer than these so was highly valued.
So it was that merchants in the south found it worth their while to transport worn out cotton garments up to the north of Japan, where they were eagerly snapped up and turned into layered cloths and clothing.
As they wore through, fresh patches were added, so the cloths become a kind of family history, passed down through the generations, like patchwork quilts in the West.
The colour is predominantly blue, from indigo, but there are also patches of brown, grey and black. This is because these were the only colours that commoners were allowed to wear in the Edo period (1603-1868) – lavish kimono and vivid silk were confined to the Japanese aristocracy.
As Japan developed and became more industrialised in the 20th century, such textiles were looked on with shame, as a symbol of its impoverished past, and many of them were thrown away.
In the West, however, they are regarded as beautiful examples of folk art, and Somerset House has brought together 40 examples in a wonderful exhibition. You can see from the photos here how the personality of the maker shines through each one.
Some incorporate extensive rows of sashiko stitching to help strengthen the fabric.
Others resemble more “conventional” patchwork as we know it in the West.
Yet others looked as if they tried to stay as true as possible to the original colours of the garment.
Some had stitching that was more whimsical, creating its own design.
The pattern of wear on some of them was fascinating too. I got talking to one of the exhibition assistants who said that a visitor from Hampton Court suggested that this type of wear came from someone kneeling on the fabric. This is mark making of a very special kind.
As you can also see from some of the photos, the boro are beautifully mounted, mostly on stretchers like works of art, while this garment was hung on an intricately carved bamboo pole.
This did make me feel a little uncomfortable. The people who made these items were not making works of art – they were making them as necessities, to keep warm. Now they are self-consciously being hung in galleries and sold at £5,000 a pop.
Of course, this is not unique to boro, but I think I would prefer to use them as originally intended. Textiles – especially these textiles – are tactile things, to be touched, stroked, snuggled in, draped, wrapped, caressed. And if it wears through, I’m willing to continue the tradition of patching up as necessary. Now, where did I put that stash of shibori scraps? 😉
Time to ‘fess up. I haven’t posted much recently, partly because of my voluntary work at the Paralympics, but also because I’ve been moonlighting.
It started when I came across a competition to win a trip for two to Japan, offered by Inside Japan Tours and Virgin Atlantic. Yes, Japan – home of shibori, sashiko and silk, not to mention fantastic food and gorgeous gardens! Entrants had to write a blog about 12 reasons why they should be chosen to go to Japan (the winner has to post daily blog entries, photos and video of their experience).
Well, obviously I could have written 12 entries just about Japanese textiles, but I had a feeling that might be a bit too specialist for the judges! 😉 So I managed to restrain myself – but it’s not difficult to find non-textile reasons for wanting to go anyway: Japan is such a fascinating country.
The good news is that I’ve made it to the final three – and this is where you come in. Inside Japan has posted links to the blogs of the three finalists on its Facebook page and is asking people to vote for the one they like best.
So if you’re on Facebook, it would be wonderful if you could vote for mine – it’s called Blog to Japan and is the third one in the list:
If I’m lucky enough to win I hope I will be able to go to Arimatsu to see the shibori artisans in action, among other things. And of course I will tell you all about it in my blog!
My best Christmas present was from ESP’s parents – who previously presented me with the tortoise shell.
It’s a Japanese ikebana basket (ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging). The basket is made of woven bamboo and dates from the early 20th century. It’s about 20cm high, has a lovely leather-like patina and is signed on the bottom.
The smooth rim contrasts with the texture of the woven body and the knotted handles and ornamentation. It’s amazing what delicate work can be done with bamboo – there’s an interesting article here on Japanese bamboo baskets through the ages.