‘Living Colours’ at Japan House explores the ancient art of colour mixing

‘The Tale of Genji’ was written a thousand years ago and is considered one of the first modern novels. Penned by a lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibuthe, it describes the colourful lives of the courtiers and courtesan of the Heian period (794 to 1185), the peak of Japan’s imperial court and a time noted for its appreciation of the arts, in particular poetry and literature. Members of the court wrote and exchange love poems on dyed fans or elaborately folded paper. Often hidden from public view, courtesans would layer their kimonos with colours, subtly coded to reveal elements of their personalities to attract a possible suitor when glimpsed through the passing carriage.

A new exhibition at Japan House London highlights the historical importance of colour in Japan, weaving together the ancient art of using natural pigments inspired by seasonal changes, and elements extracted from the customs of the Heian period. ‘Living Colours’ is a delicate show focused on the work of the 200-year old Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop, a bastion of this method of colour making. The Japan House London deco building is swathed in vibrant colours with a series of ceiling-high installations of silk – each communicating a specific seasonal message – to the soothing hum of a well, a recording of the sounds at the Yoshioka workshop in Kyōto.

In ancient Japan, textile production relied on natural dyeing techniques and it focused on the concept of kasane, meaning the art of colour combinations sensitive to the changing seasons. Since joining the workshop in 1988, fifth-generation master of colour Yoshioka Sachio and his daughter Sarasa, a specialist dyeing weaver, have looked to revive this technique. They have abandoned the use of synthetic colours in favour of pigments harvested from the natural world and plant-based dyeing techniques. ‘Kyōto’s natural beauty is perfect for the dying business,’ Yoshioka tells us. To salvage the tradition, he initially began researching the past, visiting the old shrines and talking with experts to understand the world of the Heian period.

Yoshioka’s work expresses the beauty in the natural pigments of plant-based colours. The seasons are prominent in Japan, especially in Kyōto, but evolve constantly, and the kasane layering of colour and tone is about appreciating these small changes. ‘The cherry blossom pinks of spring and deep plums of autumn,’ he muses. Yoshioka uses only natural dyes in his workshop, some 100 or so shades are fused and mixed slowly for complex and vibrant pigments to immerge.

With the help of the literature, historical documents and textile samples, the Yoshioka studio has recreated the palette of the Japanese court, reviving this age-old craft with all its hidden meanings to be appropriate for modern times. On until 19 May 2019, ‘Living Colours – Kasane, the Language of Colour Combination’ shines a spotlight on the guardians of this tradition, and introduces us to the art of mixing vivid seasonal colours in the most natural and organic way.

All images are strictly under © by Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop and © Jeremie Souteyrat for Japan House London.

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