10 June 2014

Natalya Hughes at Milani Gallery: Warping the Woodblock

Words: Saskia Edwards
Images: Jonathan Rae
Original Artwork: Natalya Hughes

Yoshitoshi was the last great master of the Japanese woodblock print. He gave the ancient form its final resplendent moment. His life spanned the old feudal Japan to the modern Japanese era.

The style of Yoshitoshi’s work was in flux throughout his life. His prints are often mystical, delicate and enchanting. But equally so, they can be disturbing, macabre and violent. Many of Yoshitoshi’s early works were vivid with sprays of blood in extreme scenes of sword fighting, beheading and cannibalism.

Tumultuous finances, a waning demand for prints and a series of mental breakdowns led Yoshitoshi’s life to an isolated and dishonoured end. When he died in 1892, the traditional Japanese woodblock essentially died alongside him.

While Yoshitoshi’s legacy often may remember his violent subject matter, Sydney-based artist Natalya Hughes took inspiration from Yoshitoshi’s other great muse: women.

“So the original portraits have some of the key indicators of his work, which are quite intense patterning and fairly intense colouring as well,” Natalya says.

“But they’re a series of portraits that I then abstracted in kind of pushed a little bit further.”

Yoshitoshi’s women are often draped in sumptuous kimonos, rich in intricate designs.

Natalya’s paintings and sculpture take on these patterns in warped and symmetrical forms.

“I am interested with the way people engage with things that might otherwise be overlooked, like decoration.

‘To say something is ‘merely decorative’ is usually a disdainful comment and to rethink what that is and why it’s usually pitched in negative terms and to use it to speak of things it’s not usually associated with.”

The pieces Natalya is currently exhibiting at the Milani Gallery are also permeated with feminist themes. The works serve to breakdown the negative connotations towards women as decoration in Yoshitoshi’s woodblocks.

“The names of the portraits in his series are things like, ‘looking shy’, ‘looking cute’, ‘look as if she wants to change’.

“And I read them as fairly prescriptive of women’s behaviour.

“I was thinking about their particular representation of the feminine.

“And then I’m always interested in the way the decorative is associated with the feminine and so is excess. So I suppose it’s about a revaluation of those terms and a revaluation of that association.”

After four shows in a month, Natalya is digesting her latest opuses. For now, you can see the exhibition Looking Thrice at Milani Gallery until the 14th of June.

holding back the night
with increasing brilliance
the summer moon

- Yoshitoshi’s death poem

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