Kunihiko Moriguchi, machiya

Kunihiko Moriguchi

The master in front of his machiya, a traditional town house where he lives and works.

A silk kimono and obi on display at MoMAK.

A silk kimono and obi on display at MoMAK.

Yuzen dyeing requires numerous brushes for the various stages of production.

Kunihiko Moriguchiat work on a piece of stretched fabric in his studio.

Designated one of Japan’s “Living National Treasures,” master kimono painter Kunihiko Moriguchi fuses traditional yuzen dyeing techniques with his own abstract designs, which were influenced by his years in Paris. We meet him in Kyoto, where an exhibition explores the links between Japanese and French crafts, illustrated in the jewelry designs of Van Cleef & Arpels.

“Start like this: C’est un homme terrible!” (What a formidable man!) says Kunihiko Moriguchi with a young man’s laugh, patting the notebook that lies on the dining table. Dusk is filling the small interior garden of his house with a bluish light. His French is perfect, the guttural “r” as clean as a mountain stream. Moriguchi seems to have French in his blood; or rather, in his memories, his youth, his education and his emotions. Although he has spent most of his life in Kyoto, in his native Japan, this “Living National Treasure” has been shaped by the bridges between cultures that he forged aged 20, while he was studying at the Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the painter Balthus took him under his wing. He goes to get a model for a cup he designed for the Sèvres porcelain factory, delicately extracting it from its box, which he has taken down out of a high cupboard. The shapes of the cup and saucer form a geometrical juxtaposition, and they have a kind of grainy texture that are quite new. The modern motif is reminiscent of the vibrant prints of the Memphis Groupbut as if created through a microscope, for a postage stamp.

Perhaps that’s what best sums up this master’s work: minutely precise, ancestral craftsmanship combined with contemporary forms. And when Moriguchi thinks of Paris, his manual skill and his visionapparently contradictoryforge a cross-continental dialogue. In a time-space continuum, Japanese crafts resonate with those of France, sharing a heritage of craftsmanship and objects that are rooted in the present yet will stand the test of time. To demonstrate this, the Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto invited the Parisian jewelry house Van Cleef & Arpels to exhibit 267 of its finest heritage pieces alongside Japanese objects created over the past two centuries. The frontiers are blurred. The admirably supple body of a carp designed in the late 19th century by Takase Kozan echoes a Zip necklace with a tassel; a curvaceous Coquillage Mystérieux ring rivals a trompe-l’oeil ivory carving of fruit, a work by Ando Rokuzan from the early 20th century. And then suddenly, out of the shadows skillfully orchestrated by the architect Sou Fujimoto, a work by the venerable Moriguchi appears: “Snow Reflection,” a black and white kimono covered with a shaded lattice pattern, like windmill sails in the breeze. When asked about the precise links behind each of these dialogues between jewels, screens, vases and powder boxes, the exhibition’s curator, Ryuichi Matsubara, prefers not to go into detail. It’s more about “inviting people to see the decorative arts in a different light.” In other words, it’s up to the visitors to interpret them however they like. Moriguchi is no more forthcoming. At most, he concedes that his work aims to “make women beautiful,” just as jewelry does.

“Make women beautiful” is the mantra of Western fashion designers, when they’re turning out their drawings and gouache sketches of clothing and jewelry. But the drawings on display here have absolutely nothing in common with a fashion sketch. The master’s designs are created as flat compositions to begin with. A row of drawings hang above his small desk, upstairs. They are like kimonos laid out on paper, on which he uses ruler, compass and set square to create a motif that will come to life when wrapped around the body. You have to imagine it being worn, make calculations, create a composition, distort parallel lines to make them whirl cheerfully. “I am the first creator, but the woman who wears the kimono is the second,” he says. “She will choose her obi or the jewel to wear on her belt. And strangely enough, my work goes well with antique things.” Because the kind of motifs you’ll find on a Moriguchi kimono are the lines of a shaded diamond or a series of repeated squares that invite exploration. Figurative designs like those created by his father, also a yuzen kimono painter, are a thing of the past. His son’s patterns tease the eye, challenge your sense of perspective and bear mysterious names, like “Snow Dance” and “Frame Change”. But his kimonos have something else: they quiver; they seem to be made of something intangible and vibrant, their interplay of nuances covering the silken surface and calling to mind a jeweler’s “snow setting.” In lieu of precious stones are dots of color with irregular shapes, produced by resist dyeing. To obtain these effects, the craftsman spends many an hour tracing the geometrical forms on the fabric stretched on a bamboo frame; then scatters thousands of grains of rice paste that will stick to it. The color is painted on with a brush. And then the paste is removedrevealing the motif’s pattern of empty spaces and lines traced by the pigments.

Pigments evidently colored Moriguchi’s childhood. When his father, who was especially fond of pink, drew his cherry blossoms, he searched for the perfect hues by testing them on scraps of fabric, which his son respectfully keeps in his studio, mixed up with his own samples. “When the patterns are taking shape, the colors come to me,” he says. “I do lots of tests; I need to create the color to progress with the work.” Naturally, he has his favorites: black, which he uses in compositions with three shades and which contrasts so wonderfully with pale skin, yellow, and the colors he absorbed in the light of Marseille, where he arrived in 1963, before heading to Paris and meeting Balthus. Then there were the colors he contemplated when looking at the Italian paintings in the Villa Medici in Rome, where Balthus was the director at the time.

Balthus convinced him to take up his father’s profession, to take possession of his heritage and identity, and choose the rigorous aesthetic of the kimono rather than Parisian bohemia. The young Moriguchi gradually, unconsciously embraced his destiny. One day in December, when Balthus and his wife, Setsuko, had left the Villa Medici for Christmas, the young man stood at the window. From the tower of the Turkish Room where he was staying, he gazed at the swallows “training for their Mediterranean crossing.” “It was a beautiful landscape, a choreographed ensemble, an abstract painting, which was starting to prepare me for my return. I found it so hard to say goodbye. I left to join my father.” Kunihiko Moriguchi, in turn, studied fabric, seeking out his own world, little by little, one far removed from his father’s flowers. Today, the swallows are still there, hidden somewhere among the scraps of silk.

Mastery of an Art: Van Cleef & Arpels – High Jewelry and Japanese Crafts

Jusqu’au 6 août. MoMAK. 26-1, Okazaki Enshoji-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto.



Mastery of an art: van cleef & arpels – high jewelry and japanese crafts

Jusqu’au 06.08.2017

MoMAK. 26-1, Okazaki Enshoji-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto.



Peter Bellerby