This section introduces a range of Japanese woodblock print artists whose work comes through our gallery.
1839 - 1892
Yoshitoshi Tsukioka was one of the leading figures in ukiyo-e during the Meiji era (1868-1912), and perhaps the greatest ukiyo-e artist among his contemporaries. Yoshitoshi’s style was dynamic and distinctive: He was known for experimentation in style and genre, as well as for his innovative works. No other artist had produced ghost prints or included a range of different subjects in a single series before he did.
Born as the second son of Hyobu Yoshioka and named Yonejiro, Yoshitoshi was later adopted by his uncle. At the age of 12 he became an apprentice of the great ukiyo-e master Kuniyoshi Utagawa and, at the age of 14, his first full-colour print depicting the battle of Danno Ura was published. From there on, the production of Yoshitoshi’s warrior and actor prints continued. He also collaborated with his school mate Yoshiiku to produce the series “Twenty-eight Infamous Murderers” (Eimei Niju Hasshu). Yoshiiku would become his life-long artistic rival.
In 1868, when the feudal regime (bafuku) collapsed following the resignation of the last shogun (supreme commander of bafuku), a fierce battle was fought between the shogun’s troops and an imperial force, ending in the defeat of the bafuku troops. Yoshitoshi happened to be a witness of bloodshed during the conflicts and soon afterwards designed the extremely bloody series “One Hundred Selections of Warriors in Combat”, which was extremely successful and resulted in him rising to become the the fourth most popular ukiyo-e artist of the time.
Even though Yoshitoshi’s career was successful around this time, he soon experienced a sharp decline in commissions. In the early 1870s he suffered a nervous breakdown and became unable to work. Some argue that his mental instability was caused by his tendency to create gory, horrifying images. However, looking at other ukiyo-e artists, particularly Kuniyoshi’s students, also composed bloody and gruesome prints, but did not have a similar reaction. Additionally to his mental condition the overall working conditions for ukiyo-e artists as a whole were not easy, due to the radical modernisation of the nation. Yoshitoshi’s poverty reached such heights that his mistress sold herself to support him financially. It is also said that he had to tear up the floorboards of his house to use as heating fuel.
After two years of debility and depression, Yoshitoshi finally recovered and, turning over a new leaf, changed his name to Taiso (“great resurrection”). Around this time, Yosai Kikuchi’s style was an inspiration for the artist, which helped him to cultivate the skill to depict historical figures. Another influence was Kiyochika Kobayashi, whose Western-style prints set Yoshitoshi on a path to realism.
In the mid-1870s, after Yoshiiku had begun contributing illustrations to the Tokyo Nichinichi Newspaper, Yoshitoshi started designing for newspapers, too. His financial problems were resolved in 1882 when he was employed by one of the newspaper companies for a good salary. Meanwhile and despite his continuing poverty, Yoshitoshi’s creative energy remained undiminished. He produced a number of print series, including “Yoshitoshi’s Miscellany of Characters from Literature” (Ikkai Zuihitsu), “Forty-eight Aspects of the Harvest Moon” (Meigetsu Shiju Hakkei) and “Comparison of Great Japanese Generals” (Dai Nihon Meisho Kurabe). As his reputation gradually grew, the number of his students increased. It is said that he had more than 80 students, including Toshikata Mizuno who would himself become a great artist. Yoshitoshi’s school flourished, providing him with a steady income.
The publishing of Yoshitoshi’s most popular, and possibly best, series “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon” (Tsuki Hyakushi) commenced in 1885. Consisting of 100 prints, this series spanned a wide variety of subjects, such as warrior, animals, ghosts, natural phenomena, beauties and others. The artist’s early tendency for gore and horror was replaced by 100 images of lyricism, calm, spirituality and psychological depth. This series also seemed to mark Yoshitoshi’s artistic independence and departure from a traditional ukiyo-e style.
“Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners” (Fuzoku Sanju Ni So) is the series, in which Yoshitoshi’s new style, as seen in “One Hundred Aspects”, was successfully blended with the traditional ukiyo-e style. The series was published in 1888 and portrays different women. In 1889 another great series, called “New Forms of Thirty-six Apparitions” (Shinkei Sanju Rokkai) started to be published. In this series, images of apparitions, mostly based on folklore and plays, were depicted powerfully, imaginatively and very beautifully. This was, perhaps, a catharsis for the artist who claimed to have seen ghosts and strongly believed in supernatural beings.
In his last years, Yoshitoshi was again plagued by mental illness but continued to work. Having been discharged as incurable, he did not return home but instead rented another place to live, in which he died three months later at the age of 53.
0 - 1880