Introduction to the Kubota kimono collection

5th November 2018

symphony of light exhibition

Itchiku Kubota (1917-2003) was an innovative artist whose spectacular creations gave new meaning to the art of the kimono. He revived and modernized a sixteenth-century decorative technique known as tsujigahana (“flowers at the crossroads”), a technique that was once thought lost forever. His subsequent production of sumptuously beautiful kimono featuring “Itchiku tsujigahana” and his adaptation of this art form expanded contemporary ideas of surface design for kimono and assured Kubota of a legacy as an out-of-the-ordinary artist and artisan whose work stimulated the mind as well as delighted the eye.

Kubota’s understanding of both Japanese and Western art forms, his skill in traditional surface design, his willingness to incorporate modern textiles and dyeing methods into traditional modes of production, and his vivid contemporary vision of conventional design are all on display in the gorgeous kimono that make up this collection.

The garments he created were not restricted to wearable art: they were transformed instead into unique works of installation art, sometimes placed as key elements of a seemingly endless charmed landscape that stretched through light, time, space and season, sometimes separated for individual display and sometimes even draped as ceremonial robes on the performers in Noh, a traditional Japanese theatrical art form known for its superlative artistic costuming.

The Kubota Collection features 104 kimono created over some four decades by the artist and Itchiku Kobo, the Kubota‘s atelier. Taken as a whole, the collection provides a look at the products of Kubota’s vivid and evocative imagination, from the ground-breaking individual kimono he produced in the late 1970s to the complex contiguous images of seasonal landscapes that he was crafting on oversize kimono until his death in 2003.

His willingness to step outside the conventional boundaries of design, his distinctive use of color and his intense commitment to his art and craft won him international recognition and encouraged a radical and transformative concept of the kimono as a work of art rather than simply as a beautiful garment to wear.

Kimono are usually treated as unique entities, with designs confined to the individual garment, but in Symphony of Light, a central feature of this collection and the largest group of related imagery that Kubota produced, the kimono are linked compositionally, with the design flowing from one garment to next, a consecutive sequence resulting in a panoramic display that, like a Japanese scroll painting, moves and changes, with fresh elements revealed as the scroll is carefully unrolled until the full beauty of what it conceals is open to view. The Mount Fuji and Oceans series highlight Kubota’s reverence for nature through two motifs that have been recurrent themes in Japanese art.

The collection also includes a group of individual kimono that reflect the development of Kubota’s design artistry over more than thirty years, offering a window into the depth and breath of his design interpretations as expressed through Itchiku tsujigahana. The kosode-style kimono – a formal style with small wrist openings and short sleeves – were initially the type most used for Kubota’s designs. Many of these kimono were made to be worn and, although the earliest ones sometimes reflected more traditional formats, Kubota’s version of tsujigahana brought them to a new standard of elegance and grace, one that made them highly desirable. As Kubota’s vision for kimono design gradually evolved into a more comprehensive and painterly approach, the kosode style gave way to the furisode, with its long and gracefully flowing sleeves that became integral parts of the overall image and the primary template for his work.

Above all, Kubota sought for ways to make kimono, this codified icon of traditional Japan, relevant to the contemporary world. He once said, “My desire is to create kimono having a soul, calling out to those who see it.” The relevance that Kubota sought today comes less through the kimono as fashion, but very much through its transformation into an object of installation art.

In perusing Kubota’s work, whether contemplating the raw beauty of the setting sun as seen in San, confronting the impressive majesty of the Mount Fuji series, experiencing the silent, frosty touch of winter in Symphony of Light, or feeling the gentle pull of the delicate blossoms of tsujigahana, his kimono call out to us, and our own souls cannot help but be touched by their beauty and power.

 

Introduction to the work of Itchiku Kubota – One of Japan’s greatest textile artists of the 20th century – by Dr Jacqueline M. Atkins, Collection Curator