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Misako Mitsui stands before one of the images digitally reproduced from her collection of zuancho or design idea books, published over a 50-year period for a sophisticated clientele of kimono dealers and wealthy consumers in Kyoto. (Right) a woodblock print of peony from Shokei Kakicho. (Photos by Pamela Hunter)

March 5, 2008

Misako Mitsui’s Zuancho in Kyoto

In Stanford University’s Peterson Gallery Misako Mitsui led me on a stroll through Japanese history intended to provide some understanding of a phenomenon in textiles that may have occurred in no time or place other than mid-Meiji period (1868-1912) Kyoto.  We were surrounded by an exhibition you may see for yourself between now and April 16.   Zuancho In Kyoto:  Textile Design Books for the Kimono Trade  lifts the curtain for the sparest glimpse of the proud three-century legacy of Misako’s merchant class family.

Misako grew up with these design idea books, tools of her family’s trade, which she quite naturally took for granted.  It wasn’t until years later when she looked at them with fresh eyes that she found herself captivated by the work of kimono textile designers who created an original woodblock print for every single page.  And, was struck that each book of designs opened with a woodblock print of calligraphy by one of the country’s most famous artists, then was custom bound and stitched. 

Today, what we find most remarkable is that the designs so exquisitely presented in these books were not necessarily chosen for replication in kimono textiles, rather they were tools for dialogue between textile artist and client.  Something like, “Is this what you’re looking for?” 

They reflect a moment in history when the availability of synthetic dyes from the West introduced bright, bold colors to the Japanese printing and textile industries. Too, they manifest a transition, which may also have been introduced from the outside, popularizing the use of graphic abstraction of traditional Japanese themes drawn from nature. 

To me, the richness of these books comes from the nexus of a heightened aesthetic apparent in both kimono buyers and every artist involved in the creation of kimonos.  The artists were challenged and I’m sure inspired by the extraordinary aesthetic of their clients developed from a considered cultivation of the senses.  Kyoto culture nurtured this convergence of client expectations and the artists’ creations.

Born after World War II, Misako grew up in a family steeped in the kimono trade.  And even though the aftermath of the war would forever change Japan and its arts heritage, Kyoto’s remoteness bought time for Misako so she became one in the last generation to grow up in what she calls, “the old way of tea.”

The preciousness of her education was enhanced by her role an only child so that both father and grandfather schooled her as they might have a male heir to their family business and traditions.  “I was their only hope, their last hope,” she muses.   Under the tutelage of two men who held her unbridled adoration, Misako was encouraged to explore and develop the full range of her senses. 

A finely tuned palate, cultivated appreciation of music, art, philosophy, literature and nature held equal importance in nurturing life in the way of tea.  Weekly visits were paid to her home by the tea master and involved consideration about the tea bowl that would be used, the scroll to be displayed and what the topic of discussion would be.

Awareness of the subtleties and nuances of our world was paramount.  Could she hear that the master craftsman who made the tea kettle used in their house took care to make the sound of almost-boiling water sound like wind moving through pine trees?  Or, did she notice the rustling of silk made a sound  effected by no other fabric? And, then, she was given a pastry with a tiny bit of sweetness.  Where did she think that flavor came from?

“In that way I learned that the pleasures of tea lay in the harmony of all of the senses,” she explains.

One trip with her grandfather to have his new kimono made stands out in her memory in vivid detail.  “The day came. I was filled with excitement thinking—oh my god, I am going to buy a kimono with my grandfather.   By looking, he determined the origin of the thread.  He held the fabric to his ear and rubbed it back and forth to absorb the sound of the tooth against his fingers.  Through touch and sound, he affirmed his visual perceptions.  That’s how he communicated with fabric,” she explains.

And most dramatically, Misako tells the story of her 13th birthday when her father invited her to visit his room at 10 a.m. and again at 2 p.m. to receive her birthday gift.  “Oh boy,” she recalls thinking.  “I get two presents for my birthday.”  When she arrived at the door of her father’s room at the appointed time, she opened the door to find her father sitting in a room he had hung with hundreds of prisms, each brilliantly splashing the surrounding space and surfaces with dancing light in every color.  Stunned and delighted, she stood taking in the sight before her. 

After wishing her a happy birthday, her father silently lit his pipe sending a smoke plume wafting through the prismatic reflections.  “I thought, maybe I shouldn’t stay too long and left in a few moments,” Misako recalls.

At 2 p.m., she returned, not knowing what to expect.  There her father sat, waiting, surrounded by his installation.  But, this time everything was changed; the room was washed in afternoon light.

Now the proprietress of Mitsui Fine Arts based in San Rafael, California  and Kyoto, Japan, Misako turned her back on her culture and came to the United States 20 years ago to enroll in Cornell University where she studied English Literature. Soon after she began her journey back to the art world with independent art studies in Europe, America and with a Chinese mentor. Finally, in 1998, during a routine visit to her Kyoto home, she discovered the treasure trove of Zuancho in a
family-owned storage building.

Whether zuancho is art or craft is a discussion scholars will pursue, in the estimation of Misako’s co-curator for this show, Roberto Trujillo Curator of Stanford University Libraries’ Department of Special collections.  Trujillo met Misako by chance five years ago at a San Francisco art event and immediately asked that she introduce him to zuancho. 

The moment he saw the books, each hand-bound with every page manifesting refined woodblock printing techniques, he recognized the importance of zuancho to scholars in myriad disciplines and set about assembling the eighty volumes behind the stunning show he opened in January.

Says Trujillo, “We hope to spur interest in the genre for teaching and research on Japanese art and art history, material culture and industrial, graphic and textile design history, and perhaps contribute to a new reception for these works.” 

A few years ago when I was in Kyoto I was told that even today 80 percent of the city’s population is employed in the kimono business.  But, the world of kimono has changed greatly in Misako’s lifetime and in the seven years I have been visiting Japan, the opportunities that arise for women to wear kimono in the course of daily life have become fewer and fewer.

Click here to view the press release from the show at Stanford.

Click here to view photos of the various books and wood block images from the show at Stanford.

Click here to view Mitsui Fine Arts website.

Posted by Pamela at March 5, 2008 12:29 PM| Share on Facebook | Art Education

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