Art of Yuzen - The Thrill of Treasure Hunting: Conversation 2
“Humans are born with a hunting instinct,” and modern man has simply modified that impulse into collecting. This observation from Alex serves quite well to explain the richly varied artifacts that grace his living room, where we are continuing our conversations on kimono. He reminisces on scouting trips---travels far and wide to search for items of desire. Time and age has narrowed his hunting fields, but the treasures packed in his living space speak of energy well spent and objects lived with and enjoyed.
Today, the main wall has been refreshed with a Meiji-period uchikake, with its “three friends in winter” theme anticipating the coming season.
But we are here to discuss yuzen, a process of hand-dyeing fabric that was perfected around 1720 and used extensively throughout the Edo period and beyond. Introduced by Kyoto fan maker Miyazaki Yuzen in the late 17th century, the technique allowed subtle, painterly patterns on textiles; in the best hands, it allowed watercolor-like effects in the illustration of flowers, leaves, insects and other decorative elements on kimono.
Though Alex owns numerous pieces that feature yuzen, he treasures a late-Meiji long-sleeved beauty, one that he found in a junk shop. “I stepped down into this place---somewhere on the East side---and spied a sleeve hanging out of a bag. The kimono was just wadded up inside, but it looked clean.” The hunter (he had been collecting kimono for twenty years by this time) was immediately struck by its quality. He asked the price---so low he wouldn’t divulge it to me---and bought the piece without even taking it all out of the wrapper.
“I took it home and opened it, and nearly fainted. It was wrinkled as hell---but undamaged.” What nearly killed him was the sheer beauty of the furisode. On a sky blue background, shading to a golden peach at the hem, an exquisitely painted design of flowers and foliage of the four seasons was deftly executed. A branch of maple leaves in delicate shades of orange commingle with dangling wisteria blossoms at the shoulders; the top of the sleeves wear bunches of cherry blossoms that swoop down to meet a bank of peonies. Summer flowers rise from the hem.
The colors, as well as the way the design elements are arrayed in curved, swirling patterns, surrounded by sinuous tendrils, make a case for dating this kimono to around 1890 to 1905, when the influence of Art Nouveau became a feature in Japanese design. (In a remarkable rebound, the characteristics of Japanese woodblock prints that inspired European artists to forge Art Nouveau and Art Deco recrossed the oceans to breathe fresh ideas into Japanese crafts.) Alex sees more than a touch of (Alphonse) Mucha in this furisode’s sinuous lines.
A botanist would delight in the accurate depictions of nature, and a water colorist would envy the shadings of hues on each petal and leaf---from the palest traces of color at the edges to the deep saturation of dyes near the centers. One is simply awed by the amount of work and skill that went into achieving such painterly effects.
Collectors are, if nothing else, fanciful, and they can be excused for imagining or even inventing the lives of the women who wore these gorgeous confections. Alex and I agree that the original owner of this particular kimono was a young lady of highly developed tastes. She had a very refined and delicate external sensitivity and inner self confidence. Evidently, she came from an extremely wealthy family. (A conservative estimate of the cost of this garment in Japanese money of that period would be $20,000.) So, think Kate Middleton, a.k.a. the Duchess of Cambridge. This piece of wearable art would have been custom ordered---in a manner that goes beyond the concept of couture in the West.
A bespoke kimono starts with a bolt of white fabric, in this case, the very finest silk crepe, called “kinsya chirimen.” The lady (and probably, her mother) would have sat down with the yuzen master to discuss the patterns and colors she wished to have. A paper pattern would have been presented for her approval before the dyeing process could commence.
The following description is paraphrased from “Japan: An illustrated Encyclopedia.” Panels of undyed fabric are basted together in the form of the finished kimono, and an outline of the design is drawn on it with a liquid made with plant sap. The outline is covered with glutinous rice paste [which creates fine white lines around separate elements of the pattern] and the whole cloth soaked with soybean milk to prevent the blurring of colors during the dyeing process. When the soybean milk is dry, the designs are hand brushed onto the fabric with vari-colored dyes. These colored portions are in turn covered with rice paste resist, and the background color hand brushed on the textile. After steaming to fix the dye, the cloth is rinsed in running water to remove the rice paste and tracing fluid.
In former times, this washing process was done in a close by river. If you are a Japanese film aficionado, you will have glimpsed this activity in movies. Even Hollywood’s wretchedly flawed Memoirs of a Geisha featured such a scene.
After the yuzen dyeing, this kimono was far from finished. Next, it went to the embroiderers---who lavished a variety of fine stitches to outline the edges of petals and leaves, heighten the color and suggest the texture of stamens. Many high-end kimono have embroidered parts---mostly on the prominent areas in the front and back, plus the edges of sleeves, but this one has embroidery scattered all over the pattern, including the hem. Some flowers and leaf veins are even picked out in gold thread!
Only after these embellishments were executed could the kimono be handed on to expert sewers who hand stitched the pieces together, also attaching the lining, which in this case is a vivid red that, in Alex’s view, makes the otherwise subdued design “pop-out.”
The whole creation process could very well have taken a full year to complete. One can only speculate for what event such a kimono was intended for. By the Meiji era, Japan was rapidly adopting Western technology and customs. An afternoon concert or a tea party in the imperial gardens would have been suitable settings for such a subtly elegant gown.
And what about that uchikake on the wall? Alex imagines a very different woman in that kimono over-robe. The bold colors and patterns suggest a more mature, worldly creature. On a ground of shiny, wine-tinted damask, large boughs of pine, clusters of bamboo leaves and plum blossoms (the three friends in winter) run riot while fan shaped frames display other blooms in a variety of decorative techniques---hand-dyeing, embroidery and tie-dyeing among them. The fans are further outlined in gold couching; embroidered, multi-colored ribbons sweep around the patterns, somehow uniting all the elements.
This piece easily could have tipped over the top but for a certain restraint in the colors---apricots, lavenders and tender gray-greens predominate the field and tame the overall picture. And yet, more boldness asserts itself in the lining, just visible at the lightly padded hem---a bright vermillion that contrasts wildly with the wine, yet is so typical of Japanese kimono color pairing that it astonishes but does not disturb the knowing eye. A further surprise, which would have been visible only to a few intimates, is a single huge crest on the lining.
Alex sees someone like Cher or even Lady Gaga in this robe or perhaps, that empress of fashion, Diana Vreeland, who wore brilliantly patterned kimono in new, creative ways.
But beware kimono wearers! The patterns and details that boggle the hunter-collector’s mind can sometimes lead to unintended rude behavior. It would not be too far fetched for a bedazzled fancier to sidle up to a woman, magnifying glass in hand, and start scrutinizing the design---perhaps going so far as to lift her skirts! Make sure you have your fan at the ready to swat away such besotted intruders.