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The Ex Libris World of Hideko Matsubara

Women of exceptional talent have made important advances in Japanese ex libris art during recent years and in this article I offer a brief outline of the unusual and entirely delightful work of Hideko Matsubara.

When my wife and I visited Hideko and her gifted husband Kunimitsu at their atelier in Kyoto some years ago, we were astonished by the spectacle of hundreds of sheets of Japanese washi (handmade paper) strung up in lines in some of the rooms, looking rather like brightly colored washing on clothes lines.

This was the drying state of the katazome process employed by the Matsubaras. They have since moved to a large old house in Matsuyama on Shikoku Island where there is much more space and a more convenient setting for their fascinating work.

(2 13/16 x 4 1/8", 72 x 106 mm) (2 11/16 x 4", 69 x 102 mm)

Our visit had been prompted by our enjoyment of her ex libris at a Tokyo exhibition in a rather inconvenient gallery that year used by the Japan Ex Libris Association.

We had been astonished by the fire and brilliance of her early ex libris work. The subject matter was traditional Japanese (she told us later that as a child she had listened entranced to the ancient folktales told by her grandparents) but the flowing, intricate designs in their sharp, jewel-like colors were like nothing we had seen before and are just as timeless as they are traditional.

Katazome or dye stencil is an ancient and exceedingly labor-intensive craft. In the katazome work of the old master Keizuke Serizawa the designs were mostly fairly simple, though dignified and elegant, and the colors restrained – he probably employed natural dyes which offered a fairly restricted palette. However, in the work of the Matsurabas the most challenging range of subjects is tacked with consummate energy and skill in a kaleidoscopic brilliance of color.

(3 1/4 x 2 11/16", 84 x 68 mm) (2 7/16 x 2 13/16", 72 x 62 mm)

In a recent exhibition Hideko has produced a magnificent collection showing images of fifty Bunraku puppets – all women. Bunraku is the traditional art of Japanese puppetry, and it so happens that the female Bunraku figures are mostly strong and determined women – not an unusual type of woman in Japan though the general impression of the Japanese woman displays her as merely compliant and replete with all the soft and obliging feminine attitudes. In fact as is well known in Japan, the Japanese woman is the tough, resilient heart of every family.

Another series of katazome images is based on a traditional folk dance – the deer dance of Hanamaki, in which the dancers dress in horned deer masks and costumes rather reminiscent of the Morris Dancers of ancient England. Anyone who has witnessed one of the magical and very memorable performances is sure to be deeply impressed. Hideko found that the impressions remained long in her memory and her katazome images convey much of the strange magic of the dances.

In her typical ex libris Hideko shows joyous exuberant movement – often that of children – dancing, leaping, flying. She designed for me an ex libris with a character from Classical Bunraku. In the story, a lord or daimyo found that a valuable sword was missing and ordered the young samurai in charge of this castle to find it. When he could not do so, the young man was ordered to commit suicide. His lover O’Hichi was terribly upset and in her despair and madness she started a fire which burnt down a large part of the city of Edo. The writing in the background is the letter of the samurai Kichisaburo in which he tells his lover about his fate. A terribly tragedy thus results from a small incident. The craftsmanship of the plate has been much admired by connoisseurs who understand the katazome process.

Hideko Matsubara started to study this ancient art after her fortunate meeting with her artist husband Kunimitsu. The young artist felt that they needed a new challenge and set about achieving the technical mastery of an ancient craft which to many might seem to be rather outmoded, but which most will now agree they have entirely transformed. It has lost a little of its hand-knitted, ‘arty crafty’ appeal, and developed into a striking and gorgeous modern art form – yet still with strong roots in ancient tradition.

In their work Kunimitsu tends to produce often complicated, rather more Western inspired designs, and seems to prefer a more restrained range of colors in keeping perhaps with a masculine talent. On the other hand Hideko’s designs are spontaneous, seldom reaching for any perspective effects but entirely suitable for decorative graphics. Her colors are joyous, translucent and lively with matching images, though there is just occasionally an element of menace, perfectly appropriate to the subject, as in her ‘ deer dance’ images. There is usually a strong element of fantasy in her work; sometimes the figures rise one above the other as on a totem pole, but in other design concepts the figures are flowing and mobile. After sketching or planning her plates she frequently makes changes as the work proceeds so that the final conception may be seen growing and coming more to life in her hands.

Technically the katazome is very demanding and not easily mastered by beginners. As with any handicraft there is a possibility of error at any stage of the work. Often there are minute variations from pint to print and sometimes different color ways are experimented with. Climatic conditions have to be kept in mind, as the paste which is used in the process becomes tacky in the conditions of high humidity often experienced in the Japanese June and July. The paper used must be tough without thickness, the most suitable being a kozo washi with closely knitted fibers from the Nasu area which is specially made for the artists.

There are six separate stages in the production of a katazome plate, from the initial design to the final drying of the plate. The most critical stage is the use of starch past to block out part of the design. It s possible for the starch to develop a mold, small insects may stick to the past and so on. It is not a craft to be lightly taken up as may be readily imagined, but it does produce designs in superb glowing colors which cannot be achieved in any other manner.

Apart from the artistic work which she greatly enjoys, Hideko loves the ancient theatrical arts of Japan; kabuki, and the older and slower NO dramas in which the performers wear masks as in ancient Greek drama, also of course the puppet theater or Bunraku in which black-clothed operators manipulate the large puppets in full view of the audience. Sadly, these old theatrical spectacles cannot compete for the time and interest of the Japanese youngsters with pop music, movies and idiotic computer games.

A selection of Hideko’s richly colored bookplates is presented here, but unfortunately, photographic process can never do justice to the vibrant color tones and background texture of her work. As with other Japanese hand crafts it needs to be seen in the originals to be fully appreciated and enjoyed.

She recently produced a book of her ex libris in an edition of only fifty copies. Of course work of this superb quality cannot be other than expensive, but nevertheless it was immediately sold out. Such books I feel sure, will be treasures to many future generations as are the illuminated manuscript books of the Middle Ages, but modern collectors can at least make a private ‘on the shelf’ gallery for themselves by commissioning and exchanging single bookplates of the same quality. Modern Japanese collectors tend to aim rather for a fairly small collection of such superb plates than of the huge collections of mediocre plates often assembled by previous generations. Many members of the Japan Ex Libris Association have commissioned at least one of Hideko’s lovely glowing plates.

As with the work of the other gifted women in this series Hideko Matsubara’s work are everywhere accepted as true modern classics.

Mrs. Hideko Matsubara’s address is as follows:

Mrs. Hideko Matsubara
Takayama-cho 3365-2
Matsuyama City
Ehime 791-8079


Ex Libris Chronicle
Director: James P. Keenan