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Utamaro print showing


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MATSUBARA Naoko (松原直子)


Matsubara Naoko inner strength Matsubara Naoko (松原直子) was born in 1937 in Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku, an island on the Inland Sea. Her father became the chief priest of the Shintô shrine Kenkun Jinja in Kyoto. She graduated from the Kyoto Geijutsu Daigaku ("Kyoto University of Applied Arts") in 1960 and then studied at the School of Fine Arts, Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, where she received an MFA. She also spent a year at the Royal College of Art, London. She lives in Ontario, Canada.

About her early prints, Matsubara once said, "I need great strength, great physical health to arrive at clarity in my mind for a new work. That is the most difficult and the most challenging part. Each new work must have a freshness and meaning — or it should not be made." One of the most important influences upon Matsubara was Munakata Shikô, a preeminent artist of 20th-century Japanese printmaking. In 1962, after she sent him some of her woodcuts for his examination, she received a long letter praising her work, noting, among other things, how unusual it was for a woman in Japan to create works of such weight, mass, and intensity. Like his own work, Munakata sought and admired powerful and expressive art that brought forth "life" from "within" the woodblock. He pointed out that in one of her large-format tree prints (A Big Tree, 1962), she demonstrated "superb power in your knife usage ... [that] truly makes clear you have reached the infinite world of the woodcut." [see Baker in Biblio.]

Much of Matsubara's work exemplifies a forceful style of carving the blocks that is reminiscent of Munakata's work. Although she has designed images in color, her monochrome or limited-color prints are especially indicative of her understanding of the power of the woodblock. Matsubara has applied the word "strength" to the titles of some of her early woodcuts, such as large-scale images of solitary trees that are among the most expressive and monumental woodcuts ever made on the theme. These works remain among her best works. In the design titled "Inner Strength" from 1966 (shown above), the massive gnarled tree is printed at immense size for a woodcut, printed on paper measuring 996 x 621 mm. An elemental life-force seems present in such works, which can instill in the observer a sense of nature's timelessness.

In addition to woodcuts, which she has produced for more than 50 years, Matsubara has also worked in woodcut-paper collage, acrylic painting, watercolor, handmade paper sculpture, and large-scale public murals. Among Matsubara's various early portfolios is a set of 11 prints entitled "Solitude," published in 1971 and designed to accompany an essay from "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). There is also a woodcut portfolio cover design of Walden Pond (see top left of composite image shown below right). The title print, "Solitude," is shown below right, signed and titled in pencil, with the red artist's seal reading Naoko Matsubara. All the portfolio designs were printed on hôsho paper (奉書紙) made by Ichibei Iwano VIII (1901-1976; 八代 岩野市兵衛 designated in 1968 as a Ningen Kokuhô, Living National Treasure: 人間国宝). The portfolio was printed by the Aquarius Press in Baltimore under Matsubara's supervision. The artist's proof (A/P) shown below, however, is a self-printed impression. The image measures 352 x 283 mm on paper with sizable margins, so this particular impression is on paper of a different size from those used in the portfolio. The design exhibits a vigorous carving style, but the angularity familiar in the influential works of Munakata as well as in some of Matsubara's early prints is attenuated here by the curvilinear motif of a willow tree in black and its reflection in dark green. The result might be seen as an expansion of the Munakata style and expressionist woodcuts (which Matsubara cites as another important influence), filtered through her own vision and appropriate for the subject. Certainly the intention is to express the stillness and quiet reflection that is a main theme of Thoreau's essay.

Matsubara Naoko solitude set Matsubara Naoko solitude
Matsubara Naoko: Solitude (complete set), 1971
11 prints and cover
Woodcuts, each 365 x 400 mm; ed. 200
Matsubara Naoko: Solitude, 1971
Self-printed artist's proof
Woodcut, 352 x 283 mm

The Kenkun Jinja (Takeisao Jinja; Kenkun Shrine) was built in 1880 in Kyoto by the Emperor Meiji to commemorate its main deity — general Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), the first military leader to attempt to unify Japan at the end of the Warring States period. The Shinto shrine was first located on a slope called Funaokayama ("Boat-hill Mountain": 船岡山), so named for its shape, but it was moved 30 years later to the summit. The image shown above is a large print (690 x 495 mm) from 1977, signed and sealed 'Naoko Matsubara', titled Kenkun Jinja ("Kenkun Shrine"), from the edition of 50. Matsubara cut her lines and forms vigorously into the block, creating multiple perspectives as the viewpoint shifts to accommodate receding depth. To focus on the details is to appreciate the spirited energy invested in the design, yet to step back and view the whole is to observe the balance among the many pictorial elements.

Matsubara Naoko kenkun jinja
Matsubara Naoko: Kenkun Jinja (Kenkun Shrine: 建勲神社), 1977
Woodblock print from the series "Kyoto Woodcuts"; edition of 50 (image: 690 x 495 mm)

In 1986 Matsubara made a trek to Tibet, an experience that led her to new approaches toward rendering color and space in her woodcuts. She considered the print "Tibetan Sky E" as a breakthrough design in this regard — the first design in a series of 27 color prints that truly resonated with her general conception of fresh ways to explore color and space. The series, which was ten years in the making, is characterized by unusual color juxtapositions, such as red with turquoise, ochre with navy, and aqua-blue with white. She used both cut and uncut blocks, inking the latter for single color zones (in this instance, red). In other sections, Matsubara created intricate polychromatic design fields by cutting a single block, rolling onto it two or three different colors of ink as discrete areas, and then printing the block over a single color zone (see the lower left and right sections in the image below). However, for the lower central section, she first printed an uncut block inked with three different colors (dark blue, light blue, and emerald green) and then cut away from the three color areas with a fine Dremel gouger, leaving striations and swirls that she inked in medium blue.

Matsubara Naoko tibetan sky
Matsubara Naoko: "Tibetan Sky E," 1989
Woodblock print from the series "Tibetan Sky" (image: 690 x 495 mm)

As color and abstraction became increasingly more important to Matsubara, she worked in various media to find expression for this new vision. The example shown below is an acrylic painting titled "Field of Abundance" from 1990 (1,480 x 2,072 mm). The colors applied in wide swaths of sweeping curves is reminiscent of certain works by lyrical abstractionist painters who emerged in the U.S., Canada, and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. In particular, Matsubara's sensuous, expressive, and loose application of paint can be found in certain gestural works by those other artists. In "Field of Abundance," a dominant field of large, curving, brightly colored bands is superimposed over a section of similar bands flowing across the pictorial space. A small third section at the top left has gauzy effect on the underlying colors. The work is a bold statement on a grand scale for an artist often known for her monochrome trees in woodcut.

Matsubara Naoko field of abundance
Matsubara Naoko: "Field of Abundance," 1990
Acrylic painting (1,480 x 2,072 mm)

Matsubara eventually began to explore alternative approaches when working with color on paper, which led her to the construction of paper collages. In the larger works, she relies on the techniques learned from conservation specialists to mount her collages on panels. In the example shown below, "Color Stanza D" from 2008, she assembled a composition from strips of printed papers laid out at slight diagonals in a progression of long strips and rectangles of different sizes. When viewed from right to left, the colors shift from warm to cool, although the wide gradated blue strip and cropped orange rectangle at the lower left disrupt and reverse this chromatic sequence. Varied textures and subtle patterns also play a role in adding complexity to the arrangement.

Matsubara Naoko color stanza collage
Matsubara Naoko: "Color Stanza D," 2008
Paper collage (380 x 550 mm)

From around the late 1990s, Matsubara was also been engaged in making a series of handmade abstract paper sculptures of what she considers to be "simple shapes." In the example shown below, the nested, deckle-edge, concave and convex forms are intended to be abstract in arrangement, but it is tempting to see a flower in bloom.

Matsubara Naoko color stanza collage
Matsubara Naoko: Untitled, c. 2000-2010
Paper sculpture

In addition to numerous solo exhibitions in art galleries around the world for more than five decades, the honors bestowed upon Matsubara include Elected Member, Royal Canadian Academy of Art in 1981. She was commissioned in 2007 by the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto to design three large panels for long-term display in the Bloor Street window of the new Asian Galleries. Two years later, she received an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts, Chatham University, Pittsburgh, PA (2009), and at that time, was also given a retrospective exhibition titled "Matsubara: A Celebration in Pittsburgh" at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA. Most recently, in 2019, Matsubara was given another solo exhibition titled "Lifelines: The Woodcuts of Naoko Matsubara" at the Asmolean Museum, University of Oxford, England.

Collections of Matsubara's art in public institutions include the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; Art Institute of Chicago; British Museum; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh; Cincinnati Museum of Art; Detroit Institute of Arts; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Haifa Museum, Israel; Harvard University Art Museum; Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art; Library of Congress, Washington, DC; Metropolitan Toronto Library, Ontario; Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Library of Canada, Ottowa; New York Public Library; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Royal Ontario Museum; Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC; Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art; and Winnipeg Art Gallery. © 2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Baker, Joan Mokuhan: The Woodcuts of Munakata and Matsubara. Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1976. Matsubara, Naoko: Kyoto Woodcuts. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1978; pp. 18-21, 100-101, 109-111, nos. 39-74.
  • Gehmacher, Arlene and Ruitenbeek, Klaus: Tree Spirit: The woodcuts of Naoko Matsubara. (Exhibition catalogue, Royal Ontario Museum, Feb. 22-June 1, 2003.) Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 2003.
  • Matsubara, Naoko: Kyoto Woodcuts. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1978.
  • Matsubara, Naoko: In Praise of Trees. Oakville, ON; London; New York: Mosaic Press, 1984.
  • Matsubara, Naoko: In Praise of Trees (Limited deluxe edition portfolio). Oakville, ON; London: New York: Mosaic Press, 1985.
  • Matsubara, Naoko: Hagoromo (Limited deluxe edition portfolio). Oakville, ON: Pine Tree Press, 1986
  • Matsubara, Naoko: Tibetan Sky (Limited deluxe edition portfolio). Calgary, Bayeux Arts, 1997.
  • Matsubara, Naoko: Tokonoma (Limited deluxe edition portfolio). Bath, UK: Old School Press, 1999.
  • Smith, Laurence: Modern Japanese Prints 1912-1989. London: British Museum Press, 1994, pp. 30, 56, and no. 75.
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