Naoko Matsubara: an artist of place and process

Exploring the crafts(wo)manship behind the Japanese woodcut artist’s prints


By Kateryna Pavlyuk

“Whose Sleeves?” is a question seldom asked in anglophone spheres and not a particularly common line of inquiry posited by an artwork. In Japan, however, the question constitutes a distinct genre of painting, Tagasode byōbu (“whose sleeves?” screens), which dates back to the early Edo period of the 17th century. Typically painted onto folding screens (byōbu), Tagasode screens depict kimonos draped over a wooden rack, enigmatically suggesting their absent owner – often (and unsurprisingly) a beautiful woman.


Japanese woodcut artist Naoko Matsubara offers an imaginative interpretation of this sartorial motif in Lifelines, an exhibition celebrating her work, currently on display at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. As with much of her later work, Matsubara’s Tagasode print uses traditional motifs and techniques as her point of departure, and through imaginative detours and skilled distillation of her subject, arrives at a work centred on abstraction rather than representation. Marrying a classical theme with a modern aesthetic, Matsubara’s ‘sleeves’ are implied through gestural markings, geometric blocks of saturated colour, and seeping gradients, which often serve as the hallmarks of her graphic and dynamic style.


Tagasode is one of 100 prints Matsubara donated to the Ashmolean Museum in 2018, which, spanning over five decades, document the evolution of her practice, driven by an evident desire to constantly explore new possibilities proffered from the meeting of wood and paper. From her early monochrome prints, which in their intimacy and intricacy testify to Matsubara’s mastery of her craft, to more experimental pieces produced later in her career, characterised by collage and bolder colour schemes, the exhibited works attest to the remarkable scope of both woodcut printing as a medium, and of Matsubara’s imagination.


Naoko Matsubara (b. 1937) Tagasode 2014 Colour woodcut print, 91.5 x 191 cm © Naoko Matsubara. Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


True to tradition and mindful of artisanship, Matsubara often prints onto paper made exclusively for her by Iwano Ichibei, a Japanese ‘Living National Treasure’, celebrated for his delicate handmade Mulberry paper. However, the woodcut artist is also open to experimentation and modernisation, using carving tools ranging from pizza cutters to electric appliances. Where contemporary art increasingly accommodates for work that is heavily conceptual – which is no negative shift – this exhibition reiterates the enduring allure of crafts(wo)manship, making the case for an age-old art form in the age of the iPhone.


However, Matsubara’s prints are, to a large extent, uninstagrammable – unlike fellow female Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s famed and social-media-ripe pumpkins. This is not an insult, but a fact; photography is not permitted. But above all else, this is because Matsubara’s work is deeply analogue. To look at her woodcuts through a screen would be to rob yourself of the joys that come with picking out the traces of a labour-intensive creative process and intricate handicraft present in each print.


Veering on a Pop Art aesthetic, her prints from a distance seem like they’re digitally designed, rather than hand-carved woodcuts. But get up close and any such illusions are instantly gone as you see the sinewy lines that ripple through swathes of ink and the subtle imprint left by blocks of wood, that defiantly cracks up the colours. By exposing and incorporating the organic patterns made by woodgrain into her prints, Matsubara allows nature to serve not merely as instrument, but as collaborator. In Matsubara’s hands, wood is not a means to an end, but a material that possesses its own inherent artistic possibilities. Nature, too, leaves its mark.


Naoko Matsubara (b. 1937) Lifelines 2015 Colour woodcut print, 63.6x 47 cm © Naoko Matsubara. Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


From the outset, Matsubara adopted an organic and instinctive approach to her practice. As the daughter of a Shinto priest, the artist first came to printmaking in her native country Japan, at the Kyoto City University of Arts. Under the teaching of Austrian artist Felice Rix, who encouraged spontaneity over revised sketches, Matsubara learnt to carve directly into the woodblock – a freeform practice that calls for a confident commanding of the medium, but in return affords greater liberty of expression. She then honed her craft in the U.S. – on a Fullbright scholarship no less – and travelled widely across Europe and Asia, before finally moving to Canada in the 70s, where she continues to live and work.


Owing to this itinerant nature, it comes as little surprise that the exhibition foregrounds the prevalence of place in Matsubara’s work. From the considered placement of lines and shapes, to her many prints produced in response to specific sites – such as her Tibetan Sky series, which won approval from the Dalai Lama – Matsubara’s prints showcase an acute spatial awareness and geographic sensitivity. Even her materials are localised; Matsubara works with woods native to her environment, using mahogany and pine in North America, and katsura in Japan.


Finding inspiration not only in location but also in literature, Matsubara produced multiple portfolios in response to literary texts – from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, the writer’s ruminations on two years spent living simply and self-sufficiently in nature, to the haikius of James Kirkup, an English poet who embraced traditional forms of short Japanese poetry. It is in these prints that Matsubara’s capacity for both receptivity and simplicity manifests itself. Matsubara compresses entire poems and passages into their felicitous pictorial counterparts, highlighting a sophisticated understanding of the permeable wall – or rather, foldable screen – that separates written and visual language.


Above all else, Matsubara’s work shows that Japanese woodcut can be both relevant and revelatory today – and that, as great as it is, Hokusai's Great Wave is far from the only example par excellence of this printmaking technique. Over the course of her long career, Matsubara has not only made countless incisions into many blocks of wood, but has carved out a renewed space for this traditional medium in the 21st century. This in itself is no mean feat – that she achieved it with a pizza cutter is only further testimony to her artistry and ingenuity.