Dynamic red and orange patterned planes of abstraction framing icy-blue Himalayan skies – Matsubara’s Tibetan Sky B (1987) seems to embody the essence of her exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum. The woodcut, inspired by her visit with her husband to Tibet in 1985, hosts a conversation, one that is sparked by contrasting complexity, pallet and energies evident in her representations of the elaborately decorated monasteries and the palpable coolness and expanse of the landscape beyond.

This dialectic is a recurrent theme throughout her exhibition which displays an assortment of woodcuts; ranging from buildings and figures for book illustrations, to organic forms from over 60 years of artistic endeavor. Yet despite their eclecticism, all images are unified in their invocation of a time, a place, and of the artistic varieties which compose her culture and heritage. Growing up in Kyoto, Matsubara’s father was the head priest at the Kenkun Shrine where she spent much of her childhood and often performed. These formative years are manifested in the pinto figurations of traditional Japanese lifestyles and dwellings, her continual references to landscape and setting, and her desire to marry spiritual and physical beauty. Likewise, each woodcut is mounted on silk panels, reminiscent of Japanese folding screens, suggesting a peripheral connection with her homeland within the typically modernist exhibition space at the Ashmolean.

Beyond geographical influences, the dynamism and diverse subject choices can be traced back to a concert she attended by Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, whose highly emotional and intimate performance is depicted in a figurative and grey-scale woodcut (1962). This sense of excitement and momentum distinguishes this exhibition; Matsubara’s retrospective is a collection of defining moments catalogued in a series of joyous compositions, but which sensitively allude to wider cultural tropes.

Image: Naoko Matsubara, Foliage A 1992 © Naoko Matsubara. Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

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