Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: Spirit and Spectacle

Takagi Umanosuke Kneeling by Huge Head (1866) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, colour woodcut, sheet (chuban tate-e), about 9 3/4 x 7 inches. Gift of Sidney A Tannenbaum, 1978. All images courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2018

One of Japan’s great printmakers, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, is being celebrated in the exhibition Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: Spirit and Spectacle, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this month.

In 1603 (or 1615, depending on the school of dating to which one cleaves), the new Tokugawa bakufu, or military government, moved to a new capital to be located at the northern coastal fishing village of Edo. This was done in order to avoid the cauldron of plots, schemes, court intrigue and the constant threat of war in the southern part of the country. The transfer of the seat of power brought an end to 262 years of wars, power struggles and bloodshed of the Muromachi and Momoyama Periods, 1338-1573 and 1574-1600 respectively.

This village of illiterate peasants lacked the cultural and sophisticated cultural influences of the Imperial Court, aristocrats, feudal lords, scholars and Machiavellian intrigues, so freeing it to enjoy whatever pleasures it chose to enjoy – and enjoy them it did. The expanding population (by 1776 it was the largest city on earth) included a heathy dose of kabuki, prostitutes, small shops, teahouses and the like. The only restrictions in Edo were sumptuary laws to remind the population of its social status.

Ukiyo-e – Pictures of the Floating World

The new residents included print artists, who depicted the world around them in their ukiyo-e, ‘pictures of the floating world’ prints. They chose as subjects what they saw around them, mainly prostitutes and actors as well as exaggerated images of sex in prints called shunga, or ‘Spring prints’, prints that would be considered scandalous even by modern standards. The art of ukiyo-e, which began in the mid-17th century, grew to include a number of schools of printmaking, the best-known being Torii, Katsukawa, Kawamata (Harunobu,) Hokusai, and Utagawa (sometimes called Kitagawa).

The Prints of Yoshitoshi

However, it is a single artist in this last school who is the subject of this excellent exhibition at Philadelphia – showcasing 70 of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s prints. The school to which he belonged included Toyokuni I, II, III, IV; Toyoharu; Hiroshige I, II, III; Kunisada I, II aka Toyokuni III; Hirokage; Sadakage; Kunichika; Kuniyoshi; Yoshiiku; Yoshitoshi; Toshihide; Toshikata, and Kogyo. However, the show focuses on just one artist, Yoshitoshi, not just the last of this group, but also the most inventive, groundbreaking and graphically innovative in the entire history of classical Japanese prints, particularly in his mastery of dark and light and his ability to capture movement as kinetic energy rather than posed energy.

The heyday of ukiyo-e prints was with the artists of the last quarter of the 18th century and the first decade of the 19th, plus the times of Katsushika Hokusai in the 1830s through the late 1840s and Utagawa Hiroshige I from the 1830s through the 1850s. However, during the second quarter of the 19th century, through the 1870s, there was an outrider branch of ukiyo-e tradition, first by Eizan and Eisen in the first half of the 19th century, but mainly by several of Kuniyoshi’s students, Toyokuni III, Kunichika, Yoshiiku – and Toshihide Migite in particular.

The motto for this group could well have been ‘Nothing Succeeds like Excess’. Eizan and Eisen depicted prostitutes with eye-blinding kimono and enough hair pins to resemble a hedgehog. Toyokuni III was the most prolific print artist to ever live, but his designs were basically the same, repeated ad nauseum: triptychs of kabuki actors against a stage backdrop, frozen into position, with no feeling of movement or emotion.

The Meiji Restoration

By the time of the Meiji restoration in 1868, ukiyo-e was in decline. These last three Kuniyoshi pupils, plus many others, created works that not only included prints of foreigners and scenes of the then-renamed Tokyo, but also genre scenes, prostitutes in particular, using the garish colours created by aniline, synthetic cochineal, naphthol, and other dyes imported from Europe. This cabal of bad taste has always been referred to verbally and in print – quite correctly and accurately – as The Decadent School. Some may object to the name as demeaning and that may be true, but, however ‘decadent’ is certainly accurate.

Only a very few artists made a successful transition into the world of the new Japan. One of these was Kogyo, known for his delicate depictions of birds, but the greatest success came to Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1832-1892), the brilliant, exploding supernova of the ukiyo-e tradition. When the artist was just 11 years old, he was apprenticed to Kuniyoshi, one of the great masters of the 19th century and from Kuniyoshi he learned that the goal was to draw from real life and to capture the subject rather than to make a literal translation. From Kuniyoshi’s collection of foreign prints, he also saw the importance and dramatic potential of correct perspective.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s First Print

Yoshitoshi’s first print was created in 1853, but nothing else appeared for many years, probably because of the influence of Kuniyoshi’s poor health and eventual death in 1861. He did manage, however, to produce 44 prints in 1862 and 63 kabuki prints over the next few years, an outstanding example of which in the exhibition is the 1866 print of Takagi Umanosuke kneeling before the gigantic head of a ghost, compositionally under the direct influence of Kuniyoshi.

The designs of his ‘Bloody Prints’ in the late 1860s were those of depictions of graphic violence and death, themes inspired by the death of his own father in 1863 and the social upheaval, lawlessness and violence across the country that accompanied the death rattle of the shogunate. Bloody prints of the warfare were received with enthusiasm, because of their precarious reality and temporal immediacy, rather much like the work of modern press photographers in war zones today.

Creating Troubling Images

Between 1866 and 1868, the two years flanking the Meiji Restoration, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi created some extremely troubling images, such as in the series Eimei nijuhasshuku (Twenty-eight Famous Murders with Verse) that showed murders quite graphically, including decapitations of women with bloody handprints smeared on their robes. This series, together with his equally bloody 1868 series, One Hundred Aspects of Battle, have examples in this mind-expanding exhibition.

Around 1869, Yoshitoshi, although very highly regarded, fell out of favour with the public, now tired of the parade of violence; commissions faltered, and he fell into a lengthy period of depression, mental breakdown and poverty that lasted for years.

The Satsuma Rebellion

A few years later, in 1877, the Satsuma Rebellion began as a revolt of a number of daimyo, feudal lords, against the fiercely enforced centralisation of power in the new Japan and the loss of their power and influence. It was a brief but bloody event that called Yoshitoshi back to work to depict violent warfare as no-one else could. The rebellion was traditional warfare on the part of the daimyo, but they stood no chance against the Western-armed and trained Imperial troops. The defeated daimyo were ordered to destroy or dismantle their castles, down to the stone foundations and all samurai were now forbidden to wear swords in public.

The Satsuma resurrection and its immediate aftermath coincided with the creation of the set of prints, New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts (1889-1892) and the most brilliant work of his entire career, One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (1885-1892). Both represent the brilliance of the artist’s final 12 years.

Yoshitoshi: One Hundred Aspects of the Moon

Of all of his creations, One Hundred Aspects of the Moon was the culmination of his inventiveness and wide-ranging sense of graphic possibilities. It was conceived at a time when his mental health was declining, but the series illustrate brilliantly the thin line separating madness and genius. Yoshitoshi was able to manipulate both brightness and darkness within the same composition. He had mastered the use of deep background perspective and most importantly and he was able to depict kinetic energy through his completely unique ways of depicting the body, garments and light/shade and depth of field.

There are four prints, among others in the exhibition, that brilliantly display Yoshitoshi’s mastery of tour de force, two from the Moon series, a triptych and a single oban tate-e vertical sheet, each displaying differing ways of treating that celestial body that rotates around the earth. The triptych format was wisely chosen because it depicts the nobleman Fujiwara no Yasumasa (958-1036) standing in the broad expanse of an uninhabited grassy landscape, serenely playing a flute. Lurking just behind him is a bandit, who had become transfixed by the enchanting sound of the flute, a sound so serene that he gave up his planned murder and robbery. The nobleman is standing motionless in his sang froid with the overcast moon highlighting him, but leaving the sinister figure of the bandit, in this particular version of the print, in appropriate darkness.

The other non-Moon print is a single sheet depicting the historical general Kobayakawa Takakage debating the goblin-priest of Mount Hiko. The standing goblin-priest occupies the right half while the left half is also dark but slashed through with angled streaks of light through which is seen the partial figure of Kobayakawa Takakage. The concept of visual layering is staggering in its inventiveness and is a great expansion of the idea that originated with Kuniyoshi.

Two Moon Series Prints

The two Moon series prints are quite different in their concepts; one depicts a noh actor as the warrior Kamasaka Chohan in elaborate uchikake and wielding a naginata against a midnight blue background. The misty moon is only slightly illuminated, but the scene is given depth by Yoshitoshi’s extension of the imagery by crossing it over the frame of the composition.

The second print is a depiction of one Gohei Chikako in Chikako (The Filial Daughter Chikako and the Moon after Snowfall at the Asano River). She pleaded with the authorities to free her father from prison and to prove the sincerity of her pleas, she kills herself and the moon captures the moment she begins her suicidal plunge into the river. It is a heart-rending image and one accentuated by the very realistic rendering of her clothing being pulled and fluttering upwards by the fall; depth and emphasis are added by the well-planned use of a brilliant cochineal red dye on her clothes. The composition is beautifully worked and somehow slightly softens the tragedy unfolding before our eyes.

Final Years

In his final years, Yoshitoshi’s mental health began to fail and he was overtaken by hallucinations and the cold grip of dementia. His physical state began to crumble and after a brief stay in a mental hospital, he was discharged in May 1892, but he died in a rented room on 9 June, 1892 – the day that marked the death of ukiyo-e.


Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: Spirit and Spectacle, at Philadelphia Museum of Art, from 16 April to 18 August, philamuseum.org

The subject of dyes used in Japanese prints has been a subject of ongoing research by retired Dr Henry Smith of Columbia University. Imported European dyes have been mentioned before, but Dr Smith has published an extremely scientific essay in the Spring 2918 journal, Heritage Science. Next year it will be republished in a form understandable outside the laboratory in Impressions, the journal of the Japanese Art Society of America, edited by Julia Meech