Matsubara Naoko was born in 1933 in Tokushima prefecture, Shikoku (a large island in the Inland Sea southwest of Osaka). Raised in Kyoto, the daughter of a Shintô priest at the Kenkun Shrine, she graduated from the Kyoto Municipal College of Fine Arts (1960). It was there that she was taught to carve directly into the woodblock (à la Munakata Shikô) without first sketching a drawing to paste down and serve as a guide for carving. She also studied paper cutting, leaf printing, wood and lino cutting, and bamboo carving, as well as traditional sumi ink painting. Matsubara next relocated temporarily to the U.S. where she received an MFA from the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh (1962), exploring lithography, collage, painting, and woven hangings. Then came a year in the Department of Graphic Arts, Royal College of Art, London.
The admiration that Matsubara feels for the inimitable Munakata Shikô (1903-1975) comes in part from a shared aesthetic and technique. Munakata said of her work, "I have tasted both surprise and joy. That is, in this great work there is no trace of sluggishness or hesitation in the dextrous handling of the knife.... I don't see any works [by other artists] which so continuously, profusely, and furthermore, so powerfully bring to life the entire surface of the block."1 In fact, like Munakata, Matsubara does indeed use the entire block. She considers the kentô (registration marks cut into "margins" of the wood surface in traditional Japanese printmaking) "a waste of wood." She has also said of her work, "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"2
Matsubara's prints and paintings are in numerous public and private collections, including the British Museum, London; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Library of Congress; Cincinnati Museum of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Boston Public Library; New York Public Library; Detroit Art Institute; Brooklyn Museum of Art; Sackler Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (de Young); Seattle Museum; Worchester Art Museum; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia; Haifa Museum, Israel; and National Museums of Modern Art in Kyoto and Tokyo.
It was during a trip to Tibet in 1986 that Matsubara experienced a profound change in her sense of space and color. This experience resulted in a series titled Tibetan Sky that needed over ten years to complete and comprised 27 woodcuts. These works reveal a more complex interplay between decorative pattern and unusual color juxtapositions, such as red and turquoise or ochre and navy — suggesting that Matsubara found a new freedom in her perception and use of color.
Tibetan Sky E was a pivotal work: "The sorting out of the possible modes of expression that would most closely realize her vision was for Matsubara a fraught process. She considers Tibetan Sky E as her breakthrough — the first print pulled that truly resonated with her general conception. Here she uses both cut and uncut blocks, presenting the latter as a field of straight color (red). In other areas she creates rich polychromatic and intricate design fields by cutting a single block, rolling onto it two or three different colors of ink as discrete areas, then printing the block over a single color zone (lower left and right), or in the case of the lower central section, printing first a virtually uncut block inked with three different colors (dark blue, light blue, emerald green), then superimposing on this a block that has been cut away with a fine dremel gouger, leaving striations and swirling motifs to be inked in medium blue."3 Matsubara used eight blocks of cedar, pine, and yew to print on hôsho (pure kôzo) paper made by a designated Living National Teasure, Iwano Ichibei, Jr., in Fukui prefecture.
Tibet Sky E was printed in a relatively small edition of 25. As it should, our impression retains the deckle edges along the top and bottom of the sheet.
- Joan Stanley-Baker, Mokuhan: The Woodcuts of Munkata & Matsubara. Art Gallery of Greater Vistoria, 1976, pp. 19-20.
- Stanley-Baker, ibid., p. 21.
- Gehmacher, et al., Tree Spirit: The woodcuts of Naoko Matsubara (Royal Ontario Museum, 2003).