Kubota exhibition showcases a long-lost technique of kimono design
ARTISTRY IN SILK: THE KIMONO OF ITCHIKU KUBOTA. An exhibition of 41 collected works from over 30 years of creative kimono designs by a Japanese master. February 7 to May 13 at the Textile Museum of Canada. More info here.
“Profound.” “This is my seventh visit. Every time it fills up my soul.” “I drove eight hours to see this.”
These are just some of the comments that visitors have been sharing with staff at the Textile Museum of Canada after viewing the kimonos made by Japanese textile artist Itchiku Kubota (1917-2003). The Artistry In Silk exhibition has been travelling around the world, making deep connections with art-lovers of all backgrounds.
“I think it’s just wonderful what people say – I know they sometimes cannot even find words to describe this remarkable presentation of creativity,” says the museum’s collections and research curator, Natalia Nekrassova. “It is an absolute honour to stand in awe and be blown away by a true master.”
The lure of Kubota’s works also made an indelible impression on the exhibition’s curator, Jacqueline Atkins. An art historian based in North Carolina, she has long shared this intense passion for the art form to which Kubota dedicated his life – an obscure and demanding technique of dyeing and ink-drawing that dates back to the 16th century.
Kubota developed a kind of obsession with tsujigahana, as the technique is known, and made it the central focus of his artistic practice over a period of three decades. The result of which is an impressive body of work that elevated the Japanese kimono to an artistic level on par with renowned artworks painted on canvas or sculpted in clay.
When Atkins first encountered Kubota’s work in Japan in 1996, she was immediately floored. “I had never seen a kimono like the one that was on the wall,” she says. “It changed my life.”
Kubota first discovered tsujigahana in his early 20s and intensely studied the technique that had been almost forgotten for hundreds of years. Even the Second World War couldn’t shake his dedication.
“He was conscripted by the army in the 1940s and spent some time in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp until the end of the war,” says Atkins. “And all this time, he said that the only thing that kept him alive and interested in the future is that he thought about tsujigahana as something he wanted to do when and if he could get back to Japan.”
As a prisoner of war in Siberia, Atkins explains that Kubota would watch the sun rise and set with an artist’s eye. “It reminded him of the kinds of designs that tsujigahana would have.”
After surviving the war, he resumed making a living as a dyer and found ways to incorporate some aspects of his artistic obsession into his work. Kubota’s goal was to modernize the technique which, in its pure historical form, utilizes hard-to-find natural dyes and a type of textile that isn’t easily found.
In the late 1960s, he put his stamp on tsujigahana by developing original creations that utilized more contemporary silk crepe fabric while incorporating the historical dyeing technique that he loved so much. There was some resistance from more traditional kimono artisans – an area of design that is taken quite seriously in Japan.
By the 1980s, when Kubota was deep into his practice and had earned a reputation as a serious artist, he began taking more creative risks and holding modern fashion shows that further challenged conservative notions about how the kimono should be represented.
Atkins explains that the women who modelled Kubota’s designs in these shows would “come out with wild contemporary hairdos and all kinds of decorations, wearing high heels and a lot of makeup and jewellery.” His art made quite the impression on his peers, a number of whom disapproved of what Kubota was doing.
The 41 kimonos on display in the Artistry In Silk exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada have been selected by Atkins to illustrate the full breadth of Kubota’s talent and dedication to tsujigahana. They also are presented in a way that Kubota intended – as some kimonos are linked together through a visual series, such as the Symphony Of Light sequence (above).
While the Textile Museum has been around since 1975, having presented thousands of artistic works over the years, Natalia Nekrassova says this exhibition has brought a vibrant energy to the space.
“We have shown many Japanese textiles over the years, so that part was not new to us,” she says. But from the moment the exhibition arrived in Toronto and the Textile Museum staff began unpacking the boxes, they have been “blown away” by Kubota.
“When we started hanging the kimono on the wall, it was an extraordinary experience – just the beauty of his work, his mastery and dedication, it was inspiring!” says Nekrassova.