January 2009 Issue
The Canton Museum of Art celebrates Itchiku Kubota’s exquisite kimonos.
“There aren’t superlatives to describe what we were seeing,” Joy Timken recalls. “To call it magnificent is an understatement.”
The breathtaking vista they saw while visiting Japan in 2005 was not glimpsed from a beach or hotel balcony – it was a scene created on a silk kimono by the late artist Itchiku Kubota.
“One look at his kimonos, and we knew we wanted to bring them home to share with the people of Canton,” recalls Jack Timken. The couple, Canton Museum of Art benefactors, made arrangements to do just that.
From Feb. 8 through April 26, the museum is presenting “Kimono as Art: The Landscapes of Itchiku Kubota.” The exhibit showcases 40 of the artist’s exquisite garments, which he patterned after tsujigahana, a style of kimono-decoration popular during the 16th century. The Canton stop represents only the second time these pieces have come to the United States from Japan – the first was in 1995, when they were on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The story of Itchiku Kubota, explains Canton Museum of Art executive director M.J. Albacete, is as captivating as the art itself.
Born in 1917, Kubota began mastering the dyeing process at age 14. He quickly became enthralled with the idea of recreating the tsujigahana technique, which had become a lost artform.
That dream, however, appeared to be shattered with the onset of World War II. While fighting in North Korea, Kubota was captured by the Russians. He spent three years as a prisoner of war in Siberia.
“Kubota has said the only thing that kept him going was the brilliant Siberian sun,” Albacete says. “He would see it set every evening, and it became his inspiration. He vowed to someday resume his research on tsujigahana.”
Upon his release, Kubota resumed that quest: In 1977 at age 60, he realized his artistic goal. Up until his death in 2003, the artist never stopped refining his own labor-intensive reconstruction, which involved complex dyeing and drawing on oversized kimonos frequently woven with gold or silver thread.
The end results are gloriously rich canvases of texture and color that critics have compared to French impressionist paintings.
“To call the process tie-dyeing is a great oversimplification,” Albacete says. “In some cases, some of these textiles went through the dyeing process 30 or 40 times to make patterns like these.
“They are truly awesome.”