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Itchiku Kubota

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In 1937, a promising 20-year-old Japanese artist, Itchiku Kubota, paid a visit to the Tokyo National Museum. He saw a fragment of a 17th-century textile with imagery so vivid he stared at it for hours. The technique used to make it, tsujigahana, was lost to history. But Kubota vowed to recreate it in his own work.

“This find seemed like a revelation from God,” he would recall, “and I vowed then to devote the rest of my life to bring its beauty alive again.”

Forty years later, in 1977, Kubota had his first solo exhibition. Clearly, he had a kind of patience that is hard to fathom in a world fueled by the desire for quick fame and celebrity. But as “Kimono as Art: The Landscapes of Itchiku Kubota” reveals, good things come to those with patience and the talent to go along with it.

Kubota, who died in 2003 at age 85, earned his living by making kimonos for the commercial trade, but these don’t overlap with the examples on view, which are art, pure and simple. This exhibition is being shared by the San Diego Museum of Art and the Timken Museum of Art. The curator is Dale Carolyn Glucksman, a leading figure in the field of Asian textiles, who has also assembled a beautiful book to accompany the show.

Contemporary photographic reproductions, being as good as they are, can give a reasonable facsimile of the look of this work. But even they don’t capture the vibrancy of the color in these objects – or the way Kubota used texture and layers to make them virtually sculptural.
Most of all, though, his kimonos are pictorial, taking a venerable Japanese tradition in a new direction. They are landscapes just as surely as paintings are.

The artist’s magnum opus is “The Symphony of Light,” 40 kimonos placed together at the Museum of Art. They loosely form a continuous panoramic image. The landscape is imaginary: Land and water don’t conform to that of actual places in Japan or anywhere else, though it was Kubota’s 1981 visit to the Canadian Rockies that was a direct inspiration for the series. Nonetheless, the bond with observed nature is evident: the palpable sense of light, of scenic grandeur, of changing seasons, is instantly accessible.

This series is installed so you can view a single image or take in the sweep of the series. It’s an enveloping experience. Surely, Kubota, who was well-traveled, exhibited internationally and had a wide curiosity about art, saw this as his form of installation art.

His choice of colors is as much about his passion for nature, about creating a mood, as it is about nature as it appears to the eye. In “Incandescence” (1981), the sky is a brilliant orange and the clouds are thin bands of lavender. But in the adjoining kimono, “Twilight on the Lake” (1981), colors lighten across both clouds and the pictured scene; greens and grays are prevalent. Here and across the entire series, it’s not just imagery that is so affecting, but the way Kubota’s surfaces shimmer and seem to embody light as he perceived it.

He pictured changing light in the shift from kimono to kimono. The evolution of the seasons occurs over the longer procession of works. Kubota’s chief inspiration was Monet in this regard. He wasn’t interested in adapting the impressionist style to textiles, but used the French master’s overarching concept.

Though Monet worked in series (think of his haystack or Rouen cathedral paintings), Kubota’s vision of multiple works is quite different. Monet was as empirical as he was imaginative: He wanted to capture places as he saw them. Kubota idealizes nature, in the way cliffs seem to rise out of multicolored mist and vegetation on hills looks more symmetrical than in the everyday world.

You might not think that Kubota was a city dweller – he was born in Tokyo and lived much of his life there – as you look at his “Symphony.” But as with artists in almost any country, the major cities provide the centers for training and selling of work. He maintained his studio and school in Tokyo.

Still, when it came to realizing his dream of a permanent home for his work, the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum, the site he chose was along Lake Kawaguchi near Mount Fuji, a dramatic bucolic landscape that is iconic in the history of Japanese art and culture. (The museum, which opened in 1994, is now directed by his son, Satoshi Kubota, and the Itchiku Atelier is still creating kimonos according to designs that remained uncompleted at his father’s death.)

The artist’s pursuit of tsujigahana (pronounced tsu-jee-ga-ha-na) was, in a sense, a search for a mythic golden age of Japanese textiles. While the term was real and referred to work that had been made in medieval times, no known description of its particulars of dyeing and painting survive. No matter: it became the prime catalyst for Kubota’s method of tie-dyeing, stitching and ink drawing anyway, for a method he called “Itchiku tsujigahana.”

Kubota didn’t have an exhibition until 1977 simply because he wasn’t satisfied with his method until then. “Kimono as Art” is one of those shows where watching a documentary (showing continuously) about the artist is eye-opening. Seeing the amount of labor devoted to stitching, dying and other forms of decorating helps you understand why he often took up to a year to complete one kimono.
Thinking of this form as a pictorial surface, much like a painting, has a rich history in Japan, as Gluckman and others explain in their catalog essays. It reaches back to the 17th century; she says he would have known this history, as a professional kimono dyer and student of textiles.

But as Gluckman also makes clear, he wanted to broaden the scope of that tradition. Kubota increased the size of his kimono, to make the surface larger – much larger than would be needed for any functional purpose.

Works in his smaller Mount Fuji series and his individual creations are as persuasive as his “Symphony of Light.” The colors in “Fuji and Burning Clouds” (1991) verge on psychedelic. Along with the clouds in fiery reds and oranges, there is the lush blue of the lower hills and the bright yellow of the peak itself.
In “Masses of Blooming Hollyhock” (1998), flowers cascade across the kimono’s surface. In “Hijiri” (1981), a repeated design uses pine-bark, wisteria, leaves, grasses and flowers to evoke, in Kubota’s words, “the image of a nymph or nature figure.”

These individual works are divided between the Museum of Art and the Timken; this show is their first joint exhibition. Co-organizing credit goes to the Canton Museum of Art in Ohio, which is the only other venue for the exhibition. (Canton is the home of the Timken Foundation, which has funded the project.)

“Kimono as Art” is also the first big show of Kubota’s work in the United States in more than a decade – and that exhibition came no closer than the Smithsonian Institution. Gluckman, who worked for many years at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has long wanted to curate a show of Kubota’s work. Now, she has – and San Diego is the lucky recipient.

Robert L. Pincus
San Diego Union-Tribune

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