Lifelines: The woodcuts of Naoko Matsubara at the Ashmolean

Art Art & Lit

“I like to dance when I am cutting into the woodblock images of dancers. I feel that I am doing each gesture myself.” Those are the words of Naoko Matsubara, a Japanese born, Canadian based printmaker. Her 1975 work ‘Maiko’, a colour woodblock print on paper, captures the graceful movement of a trainee geisha as she dances. With a single head tipped to one side, an arm jutted out at an angle and a fan splayed, the print overlays pink and orange colour blocks in a celebration of movement, femininity and Japanese culture.

‘Maiko’ is just one of over 40 dynamic woodcuts by Matsubara currently on display at the Ashmolean. Tucked away in Gallery 8, the Lifelines exhibition aims to promote the understanding of this longstanding and ever-evolving Japanese traditional art form. More specifically, it is an homage to the remarkable 60-year career of Matsubara, an artist who is credited for single-handedly innovating the woodblock medium.

Born in Kyoto in 1937 to an eminent Shinto priest, Matsubara’s love of art began in childhood, with musicians and dancers frequently coming to perform at her father’s shrine. Despite having lived outside of Japan since her early 20s and thereafter immersing herself in the modern artistic traditions of Europe and America, Matsubara’s Japanese heritage is manifest in all of her works.

Striving always for the maximum variety of expression, Matsubara has employed a number of different woods, tools, watercolour and oil-based inks and the best hand-made Japanese washipaper in her 1500-strong portfolio. Her work is described on her website as ‘organic’, and that is precisely the case; through her woodcut images she is able to show her love for trees and nature. But her thematic focus ranges far beyond this, from bodies to mountains, music to sport, Tibet to Boston. Her colour palette is sometimes greyscale, sometimes polychromatic. She revels in the abstract as much as the figurative, and is spontaneous and contemplative by equal measure. Needless to say, it is an eclectic and entirely joyous mix.

Take Matsubara’s 1978 piece, ‘Higashiyama’, from her Kyoto collection. It is predominantly black, with trees and temple roofs meticulously etched into the printed landscape. A receding perspective is expressed as a pile up of buildings and structures, with mountains looming high in the background. Matsubara here explores the possibilities of expressing the three dimensional world within the two dimensional medium of the woodcut, using negative space to outline various structures. A dramatic and detailed piece, the woodblock carving vividly delineates the faraway land of Kyoto’s eastern mountains.

It is both contemplative and energetic, sombre and yet vivid.

Worlds apart from this is a piece entitled ‘Tibetan Sky A’, which is one of the 27 works Matsubara created over 10 years after a transformative trip to Tibet in 1986. Juxtaposing unexpected hues through colour blocking and gradation techniques (the latter of which is called bokashi), this series marks a pivotal shift in the artist’s perception of space and colour. Far more abstract than the architectural structures of her ‘Kyoto’ series, ‘Tibetan Sky A’ represents the beauty and opposition of the natural world; it is both contemplative and energetic, sombre and yet vivid.

Matsubara’s most recent works demonstrate a freedom from figurative obligations and take an ever-larger scale. Mounting them on panels with a technique she learned from Japanese conservation specialists, the artist continues to honour her heritage while pushing the boundaries of the woodcut medium.

Lifelines… is a biography in pictures, a quiet celebration of innovation, and one that is entirely worth taking the time to see.

A retrospective of such a prolific and diverse artist requires painstaking curatorial vision, a task successfully undertaken by Clare Pollard, curator of Japanese Art at the Ashmolean. In her words, “Naoko Matsubara has been pushing the boundaries of the woodblock medium for nearly 60 years. Her woodcut prints radiate joy and energy, and express the very personal vision of the artist. What a privilege to be able to showcase her work.”

And what a privilege it is to see it. Lifelines is more than just a chronology of Matsubara’s career: it is a multi-faceted collection of works that, brought together in a single show space, constitute a brilliant rendering of the artist’s mind in visual form. It is a biography in pictures, a quiet celebration of innovation, and one that is entirely worth taking the time to see.

Image credits: OIST & Naoko Matsubara (respectively)