“Fabric of Light. Itchiku Tsujigahana”, here is the title of the book that caught my eye in the middle of a myriad of bookshelves. It was sitting right there, in a former bookshop of Namur. I went through my precious find quickly and slowly at the same time. That growing feeling of curiosity has been quickly replaced by awe and amazement. A sophisticated, colourful and unexplored world was slowly but surely revealing itself in front of my overwhelmed eyes. This is how I began to discover what was hiding behind this title. The story of a man promoted to the rank of master, along with a method whose name is of obscure significance that will ironically allow him to come out of the shadow and step into the light all the way through Europe.
Let’s start our journey with the master Kubota Itchiku (久保田一竹, 1917-2003). His artistic path began very early in 1931 with the master Kobayashi Kiyoshi (小林清師) via the study of Yûzen (友禅) and Rôkechi (﨟纈) processes. Those two dyeing methods have direct filiation. The first one is characterised by the making of paste resist on the decorative patterns to protect these during the dye baths immersion. It is thus named by the one who modernized it in 1700, the Kyoto fan painter Miyazaki Yûzen (宮崎友禅, active from 1684 to 1703). The second one is older, its usage dating back to the days of Nara and is, for its part, a wax-resist.
Then, in 1934, he increases his artistic knowledge by studying figurative painting under the guidance and instructions of Ohashi Gekko (大橋月皎). Besides, in 1936, he began to study landscape painting, sansuiga (山水画) and suibokuga (水墨画), under the teaching of Kitagawa Shunko (北川春耕). Although at the end of the 18th century, Japanese landscape painting is influenced by Western realism, this movement is usually characterised by the idealized representation of reality with the use of specific shapes such as mountains, clouds, streams, etc. The same applies to the suibokuga painting in which landscapes are made with Chinese ink by playing on gradients to bring light and dark within the composition.
After discovery of his background and amazing career, I cannot help but think of other great names of the Japanese art like Ogata Kôrin (尾形光琳, 1658-1716) or Shibata Zeshin (柴田 是真, 1807-1891). The first one gave origin to the Rinpa school of painting and created lacquers of exquisite quality. The second one, man of many talents, definitely marked the 19th century. I’m neither an art historian nor an expert but, in my opinion, they do have a commonality : their study of painting leaving a mark in their work. Indeed, Louis Gonse (1846-1921) in his book “the Japanese art” described decorative arts as follows: “Any artist is a painter before being carver, lacquerer or ceramicist”. He adds: “Japan has such an amazing quality in the selection of its artists that it led to universality of abilities not often encountered with us”. Those were the words written by the author in 1883, which I believe continue to resonate this day seeing the career of Kubota Itchiku.
His discovery of the Tsujigahana process took place in 1937 at the Tokyo National Museum. There, in a display case, he saw a fragment of fabric whose brilliance sparked a great fascination within himself. The magic happened and never left his mind once. Not while he was doing his military service in 1938, neither during his mobilisation in 1944, or even throughout his detention in Siberia in 1948 after World War II.
Upon his return, and for about twenty years, he devoted himself to bring that lost in time process back to life. However, he didn’t want to meticulously use the original method step by step. His goal was the rebirth of its beauty via modern dyeing techniques, which gave rise to the Itchiku Tsujigahana. By combining tradition and modernity, the master paid tribute to this forgotten know-how.
Let’s continue our discovery with the original Tsujigahana (辻が花). It made its début at the beginning of the Edo period (1615-1868) and enhances the Yûzen process. Shrouded by an aura of light and mystery, the origin of the name itself is unclear. The author Helen Benton Minnich, in her book “Japanese Costume and the Makers of Its Elegant Tradition” published in 1963 put forward two main hypotheses. The first one refers to an intertwined flowers pattern which finds its meaning in the kanji « 辻 » and the flower « 花 ». The second one, for its part, is related to “Tsutsujigahana” (つつじが花) which refers to objects dyed in red, similar to azalea flowers.
From a technical perspective, this one is based on the tie and dye method which consists of coloured patterns being produced in the fabric by gathering together many small portions of material and tying them tightly with string before immersing the cloth in the dyebath. However, the Tsujigahana pushed the method to the pinnacle of its aesthetic outcome by adding additional techniques to bring more nuances and details. The use of golden and silver leaves or ink, drawings and embroideries for a better rendition can also be noticed.
Let us now return to the master’s creation: the Itchiku Tsujigahana. There are different production methods and the following explanations are a short summary of the different steps explained in the book presented in the introduction of this article. The preparation of the silk kimono and its homemade background pattern mark the beginning of the process. Then, different parts of the fabric are assembled and tied with yarns to form small bumps. The next step may vary depending on the desired aesthetic goal, but generally, colours are placed on the small bumps before being covered with yarns. Thus, the colour is protected from the dye bath.
After the dye bath, the kimono is steamed, aiming to stabilize the colour. Then ensues a series of rinses followed by drying periods. The purpose of this sequence of operations is twofold. Firstly, draining the silk will allow it to absorb other colours. Indeed, silk can only absorb a certain amount of dye. For an Itchiku Tsujigahana, the author specifies that the silk is rinsed about fifteen times.
However, to achieve the desired effect, the colour is applied thirty times, which means that the material is rinsed nearly four hundred times. Secondly, stretch drying will prevent the silk from shrinking. At last, the yarns are carefully removed to avoid damages on the fabric. Then, embroideries and gilding are added as the final touch. As you will have gathered, creating a kimono takes a lot of time.
The final pieces definitely are unique items. A kimono isn’t simply a piece of clothing anymore but rather a true masterpiece. A striking and disconcerting beauty in which all aspects of nature are unveiled before our eyes in a poetry of colours. Plunge into the heart of Japanese aesthetics and feel the connection between nature, its beauty and Japanese society while admiring one of those kimonos.
The Master passed away in 2003 and could not achieve what seems to be the greatest project of his life: the “Symphony of Light”. It would be easy for me to explain his purpose but I urge you to explore the world of Itchiku Tsujigahana on your own. Imagine the different aspects of nature as an inseparable whole because when you look at a landscape, it is impossible to have an overview of everything that is taking place before your eyes. Take a look at the picture below and it will probably lead you to an awakening moment.
Our journey draws to a close, but the Tsujigahana Itchiku, for its part, travelled the world through multiple exhibitions that allowed the Western world to discover this extraordinary art. Thus, our beautiful country welcomed this unique collection several times. Firstly, in 1985, a first exhibition took place in Brussels at the INNO store. Secondly, in 1989, as part of the international exhibition Europalia. Finally, in 2016, at the Antwerp Fashion Museum.
This adventure of a lifetime was full of successes along with difficulties and while the work of the Master almost sadly vanished like its creator, Patokh Chodiev acquired the collection in 2010 and saved the Kubota Museum to promote and protect this unique art of the Japanese culture.
Nowadays, the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum, located near Lake Kawaguchi in the Yamanashi prefecture, opens its doors to visitors and allows everyone to enter the world of Itchiku Tsujigahana.
I would like to express my warmest thanks to Mr. Mudretsov Victor, a member of the International Chodiev Foundation, for all the photographs that illustrate this article and for sharing his knowledge.
Author: Sébastien Bourgeois
Translator: Flore Wiame
You can find further information on the collection and the International Chodiev Foundation via the following links:
- Kubota Museum website: The Kubota Collection | The Itchiku Kubota Collection website
- International Chodiev Foundation website: ICF (internationalchodievfoundation.com)
- Facebook page: @TheKubotaCollection
- YouTube channel: The Kubota Collection – YouTube
Photo credits: The Kubota Collection