Monday 25 August 2003


Over the next two months, the Art Gallery of New South Wales is staging an exhibition entitled Seasons: The Beauty of Transience in Japanese Art, co-organized with Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Japan Foundation and consisting of 94 works, covering the 15th to early 20th centuries. Because of the fragility of many of the works, the exhibition changes halfway through. Currently, the seasonal focus is on spring and summer, with the theme switching to autumn and winter during the second month. Yesterday I attended a tour, organized by the Australia-Japan Society, in which the curator of the exhibition, Dr Chiaki Ajioka, acted as a guide to the works.

I went without high expectations since so many overseas exhibitions that come to Australia consist of a few major pieces along with dozens of minor works to make up the numbers. Not in this case: almost every work was first-rate, making me aware of how little I’ve seen in Japan and elsewhere, despite all the museums I’ve visited. Consequently, there is simply too much to take in at a single viewing. (Who was it that suggested you should only look at one or two works when visiting an art museum?) But, since a ticket for both exhibitions only costs AU$10 (US$6.50), I can afford to go once a week.

In addition to the traditional screens, scrolls, lacquerware, and ceramics (and a few “modern” paintings), a variety of kimono were displayed. My interest in kimono is comparatively recent—when I was younger I would have foolishly dismissed kimono as “craft” rather than “real art”. But a 1998 exhibition of ukiyo-e and kimono at the National Gallery of Australia—titled Beauty and Desire in Edo Period Japan—cured my ignorance.

Kosode with moon and chestnut treeMost of the kimono in the current exhibition are kosode (小袖), the traditional name for what is regarded nowadays as a typical kimono. The kosode, whose name comprises the characters for “small” () and “sleeve” (), is more practical than the long-sleeved furisode (振り袖).

This 19th centurykosode uses paste-resist dyeing and embroidery on purple and yellow silk crepe to depict a chestnut tree with the moon behind the clouds on the left shoulder and bush clovers and chrysanthemums on the ground below the tree.

The kimono illustrated on this page devoted to an exhibition held at the Suntory Building a few years ago, titled Edo á la Mode: Aesthetic Lineages Seen in Kosode Kimono Motifs, demonstrate the elaborate tie-dyeing, embroidery, and paste-resist dyeing techniques used in decorating both kosode and furisode.

Furisode with tea-picking scenesMy favorite from the Seasons exhibition is a relatively simple 19th century furisode, in which paste-resist dyeing has been employed on glossy gray silk to depict a variety of tea-picking activities. According to the catalog, “no other designs of tea-picking scenes in kimono are known, making this an unusual piece.” It’s the austerity rather than the rarity, as well as the explicit connection to everyday life, that I find appealing.

The furi () in furisode primarily means “wave, oscillate, swing” but the character has a range of secondary meanings including “dress, personal appearance”, “make-believe, pretence”, and “posture, gesture”. It is the numeric counter for Japanese swords (as in sanburi, three swords) and—using its on reading, shin—can refer to a baseball swing so that sanshin, 三振, (three + swing) means “strikeout”.

As a suffix, -bu(ri), it can mean “after a lapse of” and is used in the common expression 久し振りですね (hisashiburi desu ne), “I haven’t seen you for a long time”. It can also mean “manner” or “style”, as in 飲みっ振りが良いね (nomippuri ga ii ne), “You can really down it [alcohol], eh!” (which I’ll be able to say to the WonderChicken when we eventually get together).

Historically, the furisode is associated with the disastrous Meireki Fire of March 1657, which broke out in the Honmyōji temple in the Hongo district of Edo (now Tokyo) and swept through the city for two days, killing more than 100,000 people.

Woodblock illustration depicting the Meireki fire of 1657

In the woodblock illustration, people plunge into a canal in an attempt to escape the flames, just as they did nearly 400 years later during the firebombing raid of March 1945.

The Meireki Fire is also known as the Furisode Fire since, according to my Illustrated Japanese Encyclopedia, it is believed to have been “caused by sparks from a kimono being burned in an exorcism ceremony” (although I always imagined it occurred when one of the female attendants accidentally brushed the long sleeve of her kimono against a lit brazier). Whatever the actual cause, this may be another example of blaming women for disasters, whether natural or man-made.

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Oh, I'm jealous. I (rather desperately) wish I could see that exhibition.

Posted by tara. on 25 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Wow. I had no idea kimonos could be that beautiful. You're right, that's genuine art.

Posted by language hat on 26 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Ditto on the jealousy. When I lived in Kyoto my sponsor was the father-in-law of a friend of mine and he, amongst many other businesses, owned a kimono "factory" (they were all hand made). I spent a number of days in the shop admiring the sheer beauty of their work.

Posted by The Dynamic Driveler on 26 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

tara, as I said, I was really amazed at how many excellent works there are in the show. There's quite a nice catalog, with an accompanying CD-ROM (done in Macromedia Director) that's actually pretty good too.

LH, I'd be surprised if the Metropolitan Museum in New York didn't have at least a few good kimono in their collection.

DD, now I'm jealous. I'd love to spend a few days in a kimono "factory". And I can't even imagine how much a handmade kimono would cost nowadays.

Posted by Jonathon on 26 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I was there in 76/77 and if memory serves me right I believe the price at that time was around $5,000 US so it would be well over 10K today I should imagine.

Posted by The Dynamic Driveler on 27 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour