Imagine a gallery full of shimmering, oversized kimono, hanging side by side to create a panoramic vista of mountains, sunsets, and oceans. Anything you can dream in your mind’s eye would pale in comparison to standing in front of “Symphony of Light” in the exhibition Kimono as Art: The Landscapes of Itchiku Kubota, on view at the Canton Museum of Art through April 26, 2009.
“Symphony of Light” is comprised of 30 kimono – 15 representing autumn and 15 winter. It was Kubota’s vision to create each of the four seasons, but sadly he passed away before beginning spring and summer. He has left detailed instructions for apprentices to eventually complete the “Symphony of Light.”
Kubota purposely began with autumn, since he did not figure out how to replicate the lost art of tsujigahana, an ancient, complex tie-dying technique, until he was 60 years old – in the “autumn” of his life.
The kimono are exquisite on their own, but together they create a spectacular landscape, each one flowing into the next. The gold weft of the silk kimono glistens beneath the layers and layers of carefully placed dye.
The autumn series dazzles in reds, oranges, and yellows. As the kimono gracefully move from the brilliant hues of autumn to the cool whites and silvers of winter, the visitor feels the transformation of the seasons. The final kimono is exclusively white, with multiple textures and metallic embroidery creating the sparkle of winter.
The accompanying documentary shows Kubota at work, placing layer after layer of dye onto silk until he created the perfect color combinations, twisting and untwisting the fabric and sewing it with threads that would later be removed.
Kubota’s inspiration was a 350-year old silk remnant that he encountered in a museum when he was just 20 years old in 1937. It sparked something in him that he could not squelch. He set out to uncover the secret of the ancient art.
World War II interrupted his quest. Kubota enlisted in the military, and was later taken prisoner by the Soviets and sent to a work camp in Siberia. He would not return home until 1951.
He devoted his life to unraveling the secrets of tsujigahana. Finally, in 1977, he succeeded in developing his own method to replicate the process he had seen so many years before. He used a complex process of layering dyes, inks, and embroidery on an oversized kimono that was never meant to be worn.
Kubota created several stand-alone kimono before embarking on the ambitious “Symphony of Light” project. Each kimono must be admired close-up, to appreciate the detail, and from a distance, to admire the artist’s eye. The photos of the kimono simply don’t do them justice. This is one exhibition you truly have to see with your own eyes.
The kimono were exhibited at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in 1995. In November 2008, the exhibition opened at the San Diego Museum of Art, the first of only two venues in the United States. The exhibit opened in February at the Canton Museum of Art, in Canton, Ohio, and will return to Japan at the end of April.