The first thing you notice as you enter the grounds of the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum is its garden. I visited the museum when the colours of autumn were at the peak of perfection. I particularly appreciated the contrast of dark green bamboo with fire-red Japanese maple leaves. This combination of colours was quite beautiful. As colourful as the garden is, however, nothing can prepare you for the profusion of colours on display in the museum’s main exhibit.
You will want to linger in the main exhibit hall to look at the fine details of each magnificent kimono on display. I fell in love with all 27 handcrafted kimono, but my favourite had to be Scarlet Maple Leaves in Autumn (Shuuyou). Itchiku Kubota, the artist, captures the essential qualities of autumn in this magnificent piece.
Itchiku Kubota was born in Tokyo in 1917. He became a textile arts apprentice at the age of 14 and soon gained a reputation for being a skilled craftsman. At the age of 20, his life was suddenly changed during a visit to the Tokyo National Museum where he saw an example of tsujigahana-dyeing (a long-lost technique of ancient Japanese tie-dyeing). From that fateful day he dedicated his life to reviving and modernizing the technique by recreating the style to suit modern fabrics and dyes. Before he could set to work on his dream in earnest, he was caught up by WWII and eventually sent to a prison work camp in Siberia where he toiled for 3 long years. Upon his release, he returned to Japan and spent the next 30 years working to realize his dream of reviving tsujigahana. It wasn’t until 1977 that he held his first solo exhibition “Itchiku Tsujigahana” at the age of 60. He was honoured in 1995 as the first living artist to have his or her works displayed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Kubota’s dream was to complete a series of kimono called “Symphony of Light” that would depict the “grandeur of the universe”. His goal was to produce 80 kimono, but he had only managed to create 36 by the time of his death in 2003, at the age of 85. However, work continues to this very day to finish the series with 10 additional kimono having been completed thus far by his apprentices.
The tsujigahana technique dates as far back as the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), but the technique disappeared during the early Edo Period (1603-1868), probably due to a growing preference for the easier yuzen dyeing technique which uses a paste-resist method for dyeing instead of the intricate tie-dyeing (shibori) which is characteristic of tsujigahana. The technique came to be referred to as “the phantom flower” after its secrets were lost to time. Paste-resist and tie-dyeing both protect sections of silk from being dyed so that other colours can be applied later. Kubota’s “Itchiku Tsujigahana” technique employs the masterful use of tie-dyeing to create exquisite patterns in silk. His technique requires intensely tight tie-dyeing (maybe hundreds or thousands of ties) and then the painstaking removal of threads for further dyeing. One very unique feature of Itchiku Tsujigahana is that the tie-dying process produces a delicate raised relief in silk.