The apogee of Kubota’s genius – The symphony of Light

31st December 2018

kimonos on display in museum

The Symphony of Light, a contiguous series of kimono of outstanding beauty, is Itchiku Kubota’s most significant and memorable work. It is the product of a unique vision influenced and inspired by his interest in the ever-changing effects of light that, as he once said, “plunges everything into endlessly changing colour. Such light brings a special beauty to bloom.”

He was also strongly motivated by his long-standing reverence and love for nature, a vision that is clearly evident in all his work. The artist, who had visited the Canadian Rocky Mountains in 1981, was strongly affected by the power and beauty of nature that he found in the light-filled landscapes of the mountains. On his return to Tokyo, he immediately began work on five kimono that, when shown together, would form a continuous mystical landscape coloured by the glancing light of a setting sun and adorned with tsujigahana motifs. Kubota gave the name Symphony of Light to this series and exhibited them to great acclaim in a 1982 exhibition that toured twenty-one cities throughout Japan.

The enthusiastic response encouraged him to develop designs for another group of kimono that would further expand the series, and it was at this point that Kubota began to contemplate the production of a larger and more elaborate contiguous group of panoramic kimono. It did not take him long to envision an expansion of Symphony to a far larger number than the perhaps twenty or thirty pieces he initially contemplated.

These were also radically different in other ways than Kubota’s earlier works; they were oversized, based on uchikake, the full-length, unbelted outer robes with trailing padded hems, giving the garments an aura of drama and presence. They were made with a heavier silk crepe woven with wefts of gold or silver, adding an extra reflective quality to the designs. They were no longer wearable art as were his earlier kimono: but rather canvases for display as panoramic masterpieces.

By 1986, the artist had added ten more kimono to the series and displayed them as part of the exhibition Garments of Reverberating Light. This was another major success for Kubota, as a review in the Asahi Shinbun (a Japanese newspaper) indicated: “In recent years Mr. Kubota has been rising to the challenge of depicting the appearances of mountains through the four seasons and the image of the sun together in a single continuous work entitled the Symphony of Light. In this current exhibition, the sea of clouds and the changing forms of mountains from autumn through winter, from colored leaves to snow, have been created in a continuous series of ten furisode kimono.”

It is clear from this review that he had already expanded his concept of Symphony from kimono reflecting the golden light of autumn to ones that showed winter, too. The initial five pieces created in 1981 had so spurred his imagination that he now envisioned a grand panorama of 80 contiguous pieces for Symphony of Light; by means of these, he would present his vision of the world through two major themes, The Four Seasons and Universe. When he died in 2003, twenty-nine additional stunningly composed works representing Autumn and Winter from The Four Seasons and five from Universe had been completed. Since then, two additional works based on Kubota’s designs for Universe have been completed by Kobo, the Itchiku atelier, giving a total of 36 Symphony of Light kimono in this collection.

The Autumn and Winter kimono form part of a compositionally linked landscape that sweeps without interruption from one garment to the next. When observed from a distance, the terrain emerges as a whole in which russet coloured leaves shimmering in the autumn light of a setting sun gradually give way to an austere landscape veiled by pervasive snow and steeped in winter’s stillness.

The seven vividly colored Universe kimono burn with light and color; they represent the glowing core of Mount Fuji, Japan’s iconic mountain, as well as a symbol of Kubota’s own blazing creative powers. And ever-present yet discreetly integrated into the overall design are Kubota’s recreated and delicately drawn tsujigahana flowers that reflect their ancestor’s style, yet show the evolution that has allowed them to fit comfortably within a twenty-first century context.

A sense of Kubota’s visualization of the relationship of the Four Seasons and Universe is captured in the multi-level presentation of the 36 Symphony kimono. The Universe kimono stand above kimono from the Winter segment of Symphony, yet the concept of contiguous design is still carried through, this time vertically rather than horizontally. The design is based on a pyramid-shaped schematic that echoes Mount Fuji’s shape and places the Universe kimono called U (Deep Space), representative of the mountain’s molten interior, at the apex of the pyramid.

For the 2014 exhibition at the Russian Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg, Russia, Symphony was exhibited on two levels for the first time, matching Kubota’s schematic. A choice was made, however, to exhibit U separately, at floor level, so that the complex designs and intricate dyeing techniques of the Universe kimono could be seen and appreciated by viewers.

Although Kubota did not reach his ultimate goal of completing all 80 of the works envisioned for his masterpiece, the pieces he left behind are an effective demonstration of his unique creative genius that recast the kimono into a transformative art form, one that no Japanese artist had yet attempted. He once said that perhaps it would be impossible to capture the precise flow of nature’s grand design, but in these panoramic and evocative compositions of colour, light, and energy he indeed came close to achieving the impossible.

The apogee of Kubota’s genius – The Symphony of Light – by Dr Jacqueline M. Atkins, Collection Curator