I was lucky enough to escape from Boston winter to enjoy a few weeks in the Australian summer over the holidays. While in Adelaide, I visited the The Art Gallery of South Australia, where I saw an exceptional exhibition on Japanese textile dyeing techniques called “The Power of the Pattern.” The exhibition displays pieces from the Ayako Mutsui private collection, never before shown to the public. It is quite a small exhibition, but the intimacy that such scale fosters works beautifully, especially when you know that you’re looking at a family’s collection.
The Mitsui family have been associated with Japanese textiles for hundreds of years. They made their first foray into the textile industry in the late 17th century–they operated both a purchasing office for textiles as well as high-end kimono store–with great success until the industrial tide of the late 19th century forced their business into decline. The family’s shops were located in Japan’s urban centers such as Edo (now Tokyo), which facilitated the Mitsui clan’s access to new designs, sophisticated technologies, and luxurious textiles. Although the family had access to fine textiles from around the globe, most of their work was made and dyed in Japan.
There are a number of garments on view, but the most exciting pieces in the exhibit were the intricate katagami stencils. These stencils emerged as a response to Shogunate sumptuary legislation that prohibited individuals from wearing lavish and expensive textiles. These stencils enabled the production of textiles that did not violate sumptuary legislation while simultaneously producing garments with exciting and varied patterns.
As someone unfamiliar with Japanese textile history, I appreciated the amount of historical information I was able to glean through the exhibition and its supporting materials. (You can take an exhibition guide from the room for a $1 donation.) The most basic katagami stencils are “carved on two or more layers of mulberry paper laminated together and waterproofed with persimmon tannin kakishibu, which has fermented for several years.” Some of the more ornate versions of katagami are reinforced with a filmy silken netting.
The Mitsui collection on display shows stencils from 1868-1911, and these stencils are displayed in two long glass cases in the exhibition room. Having the stencils laid out in this way allows visitors to easily admire the incredible detail and complexity of each of these tools. Visitors can also see the breadth of types of stencil designs.
One of the things that I appreciated most about this exhibition was its celebration of the tools of the Japanese textile world. Workers used these stencils in their work every day. Each individual stencil carver was known for his own technical speciality. Pattern cuts fell into three primary categories: komon, meaning small motifs, chugata, meaning medium patterns, and daimon, meaning non-repeating large patterns.
In addition to textile artefacts, there are a number of Japanese paintings on display. One of my favorites was this diptych (pictured below) of “Courtesan wearing obi with carp design” next to “Carp ascending in a waterfall.”
This exhibition is well worth a visit. It is quite small, but you really can get lost staring at the intricacy of the katagami designs. More generally, the Art Gallery of South Australia is a really friendly and interesting museum to visit because of the vast collection and the eclectic organization of the pieces. Rather than abiding by chronology or geography, the museum organizes its rooms thematically, which makes for an intellectually provocative visiting experience.
The “Power of the Pattern” exhibition is showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia until 13 March 2016. For more information about the exhibit or museum hours, visit the gallery website.