Books: Kimono for modern times


This elegant history of kimono focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries – of which the cover photo is emblematic. It shows a woman’s summer kimono with a design of plovers in flight over stylised waves, the design radiating outward from the centre front of the kimono. Dating to the years 1900-1925, the design is based on a classic motif seen in the printed pattern books 100 years earlier, but recalibrated for the modern age.

This is exactly what drew me into this book – the quest to analyse different elements of that transition from old to new, in the Meiji era (1868-1915) and beyond.  Japan was opening up and so much was on the brink of change.

Milhaupt’s narrative covers both technical aspects and social history: the growing use of foreign materials and technologies in kimono manufacture; the rise of the big Japanese department stores; and new advertising techniques, such as posters, pamphlets and women’s magazines.

She also explores more conceptual trends such as the popularity of the kimono in Europe and North America and its connotations there; and a new nostalgia in contemporary Japan for the vintage kimono of olden times. These broader themes are complemented by a stand-alone chapter that presents the individual histories of a handful of specific kimono designers.

Technical terms from the Japanese are used throughout and, though explanations are given, I think a glossary at the back would have been beneficial. The illustrations are excellent and eye-opening – there were many items I had not seen elsewhere. A detailed and interesting read, recommended for those with a passion for costume and fashion.

Kimono: A Modern History
Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, 2014.
Reaktion Books Ltd, 312 pages, $29.00 (paperback).

This book was received as a gift from family.

San Diego visit, part 2: Japanese art at the Mingei International

Continuing the San Diego theme from my last post on Brush and Ink, I want to highlight an exhibition I saw at the Mingei International Museum, showcasing folk art and craft objects from Japan. It was a rare opportunity to explore this field in depth, and I was blown away by the bold designs and exceptional quality of the pieces.

The selection covers different regions of Japan and different categories of object: fans, folk paintings, baskets, cabinets and so on. The textiles displayed on the walls have huge visual impact, be it an Ainu coat from Hokkaido, or a summer kimono in a wonderful gold colour, by Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984).

Ceramics form the backbone of the exhibition, encompassing older traditional items – a sturdy plate with horse eye motif, such as you would find at a roadside inn – and later craft pieces from the ceramicists of the Mingei movement, started by Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961) to champion the beauty of ordinary, handmade objects.

They include works by Masu Minagawa (1872-1953), who liked to paint her teapots with landscape designs, and by Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) and his apprentice Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1919-2007), who used rope impressions and a salt glaze to create unique effects. All three worked at Mashiko in Japan.

A beautiful, balanced show, designed to give the visitor a strong and lasting sense of the riches of Japanese folk art.

Mingei of Japan
Mingei International Museum, San Diego, CA
2 April to 2 October 2016 (now closed)

Below: Ainu coat, unknown maker, late 19th c. Hokkaido, Japan. Cotton, indigo; hand-spun, handwoven, sewn, appliqued, embroidered. Mingei International Museum. All photos: SF.


Below: Keisuke Serizawa, summer kimono, mid 20th c. Japan. Banana fibre (bashofu); indigo; hand-spun, handwoven, stencil dyed (katazome).

Below: Plate with horse eye motif, unknown maker, early 19th c. Japan. Glazed stoneware with brushwork design. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Bowl, unknown maker, 20th c. Okinawa, Japan. Glazed stoneware. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Tea bowl, unknown maker. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Masu Minegawa, ceramic teapot, ca. 1900-1950. Mashiko, Japan. Mingei International Museum.


Below left: Lidded jar, unknown maker, late 20th c. Onta, Japan. Chatter-glazed (tobikanna) stoneware. Mingei International Museum.

Below right: Tatsuzo Shimaoka, bowl, 2004. Mashiko, Japan. Salt-glazed and rope-impressed stoneware with inlaid slip. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Tatsuzo Shimaoka, tea bowl, ca. 1971. Salt-glazed and rope-impressed stoneware with inlaid slip. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Shoji Hamada, plate, 20th c. Glazed stoneware. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Shoji Hamada, cup, 20th c. Glazed stoneware. Mingei International Museum.


Asian art in the Musee du quai Branly

image musee du quai branly blossom

It is a decade since the 2006 opening of the Musee du quai Branly in Paris, under the auspices of President Jacques Chirac. The collections span Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, and the focus is on ethnology and art combined.

The opening generated plenty of excitement at the time, but when I visited in March the Parisians I spoke to seemed less enthused. One friend criticized it for being too dark inside; another for poor quality labeling, with not enough effort to explain or contextualize the objects.

This was my first visit and – given the negative comments – I was pleasantly surprised. The building is unusual and somewhat womb-like inside, with its organic contours and earthy colours. The galleries are not always easy to navigate and there is, deliberately, no demarcation between the four main sections, allowing a free flow from Oceania to Australia to Asia and so on. But the collections are huge and cover every area of human activity, from masks and bowls to spears and boats. The displays are spacious and easy on the eye (although it is pretty dark, especially for taking photos).

The Asia section is interesting because it focuses on the folk art and indigenous cultures that regular museum displays tend to overlook. These include the Miao and other groups from China, represented here by their textiles – jackets, headdresses, baby-slings and so on. These displays work well but in other parts the Asia section can feel a bit thin, as though a single object is being introduced as proxy for a whole culture – perhaps the Buddhist statue from 11th century Nepal, exquisite but isolated on its plinth. It makes for a visit that has great moments but doesn’t quite satisfy. Overall, though, the museum is a must-see.

Musee du quai Branly
Paris, France
Permanent collection

Above: trees in bloom at the Musee du quai Branly. Photo: JF.

Below: Buddhist temple door, Myanmar. 19th c. Teak, traces of red lacquer. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image temple door Myanmar

Below: Buddha, Myanmar. Late 19th to early 20th c. Wood with gilt and lacquer, glass inlay. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image buddha Myanmar

Below: Shakyamuni Buddha, Nepal. 11th century. Copper, mercury gilt. Height 52.5cm. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image Buddha Nepal

Hidden Gold at the Asian Art Museum

han sang-soo korean bridal robe (1)
Hidden Gold is being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the Asian Art Museum. It brings together a diverse selection of pieces from the museum’s collections, each golden in some respect, but covering a wide range, both geographically and chronologically. You will find Japanese screens, Chinese fan paintings, Buddhist artefacts from Cambodia and Mongolia, and much more besides.

I enjoyed the presentation very much and found this a refreshing show to visit – not too large, but still plenty to take in. Unlike the big 2012 exhibit Bronze at the Royal Academy in London, this dwells less on the technical aspects of working with the metal, and more on its symbolic value.

This could explain the pleasing bias towards textiles, where gold is used to glorify the wearer. There are two contrasting but highly decorative robes from China: a Daoist ceremonial robe, with a design that reflects the structure of the cosmos in Daoist thought, and a Qing dynasty Emperor’s dragon robe, emblazoned with nine dragons. There is a contemporary bridal robe from Korea, produced in 2002 by renowned artisan Han Sang-soo (b. 1934), with motifs to emphasize creativity and fruitfulness, including a stylized rainbow mountain and peaches.

Definitely recommended.

Hidden Gold: Mining its Meaning in Asian Art
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
4 March to 8 May 2016

Above: Han Sang-soo, bridal robe, 2002. Silk embroidered with silk and gold thread. Asian Art Museum. Photo: SF.

Travels in California: Seduction at the Asian Art Museum

robe wisteria
Happily, my visit to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco coincided with the opening weekend of “Seduction”, a show that explores the aesthetic delights of the “floating world” – the term that came to mean the pleasure quarters of a city, such as the Yoshiwara in Edo (modern-day Tokyo).

The starting point of the exhibition is a handscroll by Hishikawa Moronobu (d. 1694), “A Visit to the Yoshiwara”.  Rich in social detail, the scroll is displayed unrolled to its full length, with excellent captions explaining each scene and highlighting individual objects that feature later in the exhibition.

The show is spread across two galleries.  The first section is focused more on the floating world as an artistic construct, perpetuating the myth of the Yoshiwara as the ultimate escapist/erotic fantasy.  There are many jewel-like paintings of courtesans, of the sort executed as expensive commissions for the wealthy.

The second section looks at themes of costume and disguise, with plenty of material on the ultra-popular Kabuki theatre.  What I really loved, though, were the textiles – sumptuous robes in glorious colours, with an explosion of decorative detail.  Strictly, these were not courtesans’ outfits (few of which survive) but they give us a flavour of what true luxury looked like.

Seduction: Japan’s Floating World
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
20 February to 10 May 2015

Above: Outer robe with wisteria and stylized waves. 1750-1850. Silk satin, silk, and couched gold thread embroidery. John C. Weber Collection. Image at

Books: Ming The Golden Empire

pic ming golden empire

I do enjoy reading the catalogues for exhibitions that I can’t attend in person, as in my last book review, and this was no exception – a National Museums Scotland catalogue, for an exhibition of Ming art held in Edinburgh over the summer of 2014, opening a few months ahead of the Ming exhibition at the British Museum.

The exhibition was based primarily on loans from Nanjing Museum, with additional objects from National Museums Scotland. Ceramics and painting feature very prominently, but the scope is wide, including bronze, jade, furniture, lacquer, maps, textiles, and even the examination scripts of those seeking to join the ranks of officialdom.

Particular items speak to the cultural output of Nanjing itself – for instance, high-quality textiles such as silk brocade from the Nanjing workshops, or earthenware bricks from the Nanjing City Wall, each stamped with the name of the worker who made it, and his supervisors, in case it turned out substandard.

I liked the clean design of this catalogue and the excellent illustrations – though it was disappointing that a small minority of entries carried no image. Best of all, I found the text lucid and very readable, not just the text-box explanations of key themes (silk, Daoism etc) but also the informative essays fronting each chapter. This was accessible in the best possible way, an enjoyable read for those new and not so new to the field.

Ming: The Golden Empire
Kevin McLoughlin, ed., 2014.
National Museums Scotland, 144pp, £20.

Talks on kimono design and Japanese lacquer

yuzen kimono

As part of Asian Art in London, the RCA hosted presentations by two outstanding practitioners of Japanese traditional arts, Moriguchi Kunihiko and Murose Kazumi, both Japanese Living National Treasures.  Moriguchi designs yuzen textiles, using a resist-dyeing technique that became popular in the 17th century.  He is identified particularly with geometric patterns that change subtly from one end of the design to the other.  A video was shown that traced the development of a single piece, a stunning kimono with triangles of onyx black, white and yellow.  Murose produces maki-e (“sprinkled picture”) lacquer pieces of all kinds, ranging in size from tiny boxes to a frieze for a railway station, 1.5m high and 4m long.  His illuminating talk explored the origins and properties of urushi (the basic lacquer substance) and the different steps in maki-e technique: an exquisite box with a design of foliage and flowers took six months to complete.

Presentations by Japanese Living National Treasures
Royal College of Art, London
1 November 2013

The presentations accompany the exhibition Four Living National Treasures of Japan at The Fine Art Society.

Above: Formal kimono by Moriguchi Kunihiko, 2012. Yuzen dyed silk. Image: Nihon Kogeikai at:

Japanese textiles at the Ashmolean Museum

Textile sea eagle

This display of Japanese textiles from the Meiji period (1868-1912) was a treat, showcasing breathtaking works of ornamental embroidery, including screens, wall hangings and framed panels.  They were exported from Japan to the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a number have been brought together in a new collection at the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum in Kyoto.  These form the backbone of the exhibition.  Motifs from nature predominate, especially images of birds, the plumage realized with acute sensitivity, to look as much like feathers and as little like silk thread as possible.  A wall hanging depicts a sea eagle perched on a rock with the sea frothing white around him – cotton wadding under the embroidery adds a kind of relief effect.  A hanging scroll shows a hawk on a snowy pine branch – a powdering of snow that deceives the eye completely.  A show both unusual and mesmerizing. 

Threads of Silk and Gold: Ornamental Textiles from Meiji Japan
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
9 November 2012 to 27 January 2013

The exhibition is also available in an online version.

Above: Embroidered wall hanging of a sea eagle beneath a pine tree on a rocky seashore, Okamoto. Late 19th c. Silk with embroidery in silk and metallic thread.  Width 114.8cm; height 77cm. Image: Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum, at

Below: Embroidered hanging scroll of a hawk on a snowy pine branch. Mid-1890s. Silk with embroidery in silk thread. Width 64cm; height 137.5cm. Image: Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum, at

Textile hawk