Saturday, 3 May 2008

Kombuin Fukusa - Important Cultural Properties

From the year 1713 to 1981 the Temple of Kombuin in the Saho foothills of Japan faithfully preserved 31 embroidered fukusa (gift covers) which had covered gifts given by Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (5th of the Tokugawa shoguns - 1860-1709) to his favorite concubine the Lady Zuishun'in. The best craftsmen in Japan were retained to create these fukusa, and they would have covered gifts presented to her on various occasions such as New Year, mid summer, and year end.

We don't know when exactly these covers were created, but we do know that the art of embroidery in Japan reached is height in the Genroku period (1688-1704) so it is likely that they were given during this time. Quite why the covers were kept by the Lady Zuishun'in rather than being returned to the gift giver, as is usual practice, is also a mystery. Perhaps she was such a favorite that she could do as she liked and therefore kept both cover and gift!!

In 1713 Zuishun'in presented the fukusa to the abbess of Kombuin where they were kept for many years. As time went by it became increasingly difficult for the temple to look after the fukusa, and in 1981 after the fukusa were designated Important Cultural Properties they were handed over to the Kyoto National Museum where they could be carefully preserved.

For students of Japanese embroidery these fukusa are a fabulous resource, the colours and stitching are so well preserved that we can study them in order to improve our own work. And of course we can see how techniques have changed over the years.

The black silk has suffered degeneration over the years due to the chemical content of the dye.

Modern copies of these works stitched by students of Kurenai-kai were on display at the World Exhibition in Cambridge in 2007 - a CD of the exhibition is available which features all of the fukusa exhibited.

For those of us not lucky enough to live within easy visiting distance of the Kyoto National Museum there is a wonderful book on the Kombuin fukusa. Most of the text is in Japanese although it does contain a short introduction and list of plates in English. It's a large format book (about A3)the photographs are fabulous, one per page so also large format, and include great close ups of the stitching. It's very expensive (about £300!), but is well worth it if you can find the money. My friends over at Art Garage sometimes have copies, the number is ISBN4-87949-516-7.

I'm stitching an adaptation of one of these fukusa for my Phase 9 piece, check out my other blog.