The Embroidery Qualities in Paintings and the Painterly Qualities in Embroideries

According to some folklore tale in Japan, the reason why cuffs and necklines of kimonos were often embroidered was because the stitched adornments were thought to prevent evil spirits from entering into the wearers from those entry points. In other words, people believed that the shamanic embellishments were the charms that warded off evils.

A complete embroidery consists of long threads that are stitched onto the surface of a fabric, forming a certain image or a pattern. If the knots at its ends are unknotted and the thread is pulled out, the image can break apart at once, disappearing like a mirage.

Thus, this modus operandi constitutes a kind of fragility whereby the finished work can easily revert back to the original state of its mere materials. And perhaps it was because of its fragility too that the sewer had to lay a spell on the needlework during its long process, praying for reaching its completion without being interrupted. Therefore, embroideries often convey certain impressions that allow us to imagine the feelings and thoughts of the charmers vested in them. I find this aspect of embroidery particularly imaginative and somewhat painterly.

One day, I came across a photograph of stitched Sanskrit letters and was instantaneously held spellbound. It revealed to me that every single thread on one side corresponded to the image rendered on the other. While the reflective association was intact, the patterns of the Sanskrit stitched on the front and back consisted of surprisingly different arrangements. The two sides of the embroidery appearing in the picture showed me the painterly qualities of reflexivity, the kind found in Monet’s Water Lilies, or pointillism, the technique adopted by Neo-Impressionists like Seurat, of using tiny dots of various intense colours that become blended in the viewer’s eye. The realisation introduced me to the whole edifice of the painterly language itself.

Unfortunately, I did not receive any particular training in the art of embroidery, therefore when I first tried the needlecraft I simply looked at some illustrated book of traditional Japanese embroidery and tried to learn by imitating the examples shown in it. Once I was working on a floral pattern and noticed that petals of a flower were, botanically speaking, supposed to be six. But according to the pattern in the book, there were only five of them. On another occasion, I found a stitched flower in the book but without a stamen, which was supposed to be in it. With a big grin on my face, I thought that the sewer took a shortcut. I felt the creator of the embroidered flower somehow intimately close to me, transcending all the time that separated the sewer and me.

The reason why I have been fascinated with embroidery is because its technique encompasses a kind of instability, suggesting that the whole process of building up the final image is actually entangled, at all times, in the risk of regressing to the very beginning, had a single thread been pulled out. Also, stitches unveil every step of the way to its completion, making the intricate process of construction visible to the viewers.

In painting, the surface layer often shows the imposing singularity of the front side where, for example, once blue is painted over red, the layer underneath is glossed over for good. This line of thinking has made me contemplate over ways of preserving layers concealed underneath the surface that are often opaque to viewers while keeping the correlation between the front and the back somehow intact.

Although embroidery is a form of painting to me, such a view is not consistent with conventional wisdom. This, however, does not bother me, to tell the truth. When painting, painters are often wrapped up in the thought of visualising things that are not quite possible within the framework of painting, whereas in making things other than paintings, artists are curiously preoccupied with painting. Within this entangled relationship, this oscillation of contrasting forces, a work of art with the dualistic quality can be produced. Such is the painting with the embroidery quality and the painterly quality of embroidery that I strive to create.

I like paintings made by sculptors. Sculptors work towards something that has not yet been materialised, whereas paintings often obligatorily emerge out a kind of necessity. To paint out of necessity seems as if painting is self-righteously harping on about its self-referential nature that postulates its exclusivity, so much so that painting is becoming an end in itself as opposed to a means to an end of creating wonderful images. While painting succumbs to self-indulgence, it undermines its creative potential. In the age when ways of expression proliferate, some people may believe that the exclusivity of painting as a discipline should be protected at all cost. However, from the artist’s point of view, setting oneself a limitation on creative energy can be rather a hindrance than an advantage. When outcomes become fairly predictable, the work often grows stale. Coming from this perspective, I have long divorced from the exclusive side of painting, and instead, been exploring wider possibilities.


Aiko Tezuka, 2007, Kyoto, for the exhibition “Painting as” Forest “: Thinking in” Pictures ” at Okazaki City Art Museum (Mindscape Museum)