Itchiku Kubota’s Fascination With an Ancient Textile Art

The Japanese master has devoted his life to reviving a long-lost technique of fabric design and to creating handcrafted kimonos of lasting beauty

If Japanese artist Itchiku Kubota has his way, he will live to be 120. That's how long the 78-year-old textile master estimates it will take him to complete his life's work a series of 75 elaborately handcrafted kimonos, which, when hung side by side, will form a panoramic tapestry celebrating the four seasons and the cosmos. Kubota, a renowned craftsman and painter, considers this series, entitled "Symphony of Light," to be his masterpiece.

 Thirty of the finished works, tracing the transition from autumn to winter, are currently on display at the National Museum of Natural History. "Landscape Kimonos by Itchiku Kubota" also features 15 other kimonos inspired by motifs, such as a burning sun, that reflect the artist's reverence for nature. The exhibit, on view through April 14, 1996, was made possible by the Nippon Foundation (formerly the Sasakawa Foundation).

 Born in Toyko in 1917, Kubota began studying yuzen (rice-paste resist) dyeing at age 14. Six years later, he stumbled upon a fragment of elegantly patterned cloth in the Tokyo National Museum. "Trembling in the face of such mastery and refinement of beauty," he relates, he stood transfixed for three hours. "In a sudden moment, I encountered a source of boundless creativity which revealed to me my calling."

More than 350 years old, the remnant was a rare example of the lost art of tsujigahana, a complex method of tie-dyeing embellished with intricate embroidery, elaborate brush painting, sumi ink drawing and gold-leaf application. The technique, often referred to as "illusionary dyeing," flourished in Japan during the 14th to 16th centuries.

 Over the years, Kubota's fascination with tsujigahana grew. After his release in 1951 from a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp, he decided to devote himself to creating a modified version of the lost art a goal that consumed 20 years. He has since won international acclaim for his unconventional designs, distinctive use of color and unwavering dedication to an extraordinarily laborious craft.

The juxtaposed kimonos of the "Symphony of Light" series compose a continuous mountain landscape that pans poetically through the purple shades of evening, the mauve starkness of a sudden snow and the golden shafts of autumn's last light. "I cannot die in peace until I have finished the series to which I have devoted my life," insists Kubota. "While envisioning a panorama of 75 works, I am but a traveler wandering on a path in search of more depth to my dye-colors."

By Diane M. Bolz

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.