Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, Ghost of Seigen Haunting Sakurahime, New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts

Original Japanese woodblock print.
yoshitoshi tsukioka, ghost of seigen, sakurahime
yoshitoshi tsukioka, ghost of seigen, sakurahime yoshitoshi tsukioka, ghost of seigen, sakurahime

The artist known as the last, great traditional woodblock print artist, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, was entranced by ghost stories and the spiritual. This was partly due to his teacher, Kuniyoshi Utagawa, being superstitious, and partly due to his own experiences with ghostly sightings, including a supposed run-in with a spirit in 1871. Throughout his life, Yoshitoshi produced many prints of a more macabre nature touching on spirits in other series besides his Thirty-six Ghosts.

The eeriness of this series is playfully rendered by the mock-worm eaten border around each print. Interestingly, Yoshitoshi's Thirty-Six Ghosts was produced at a time when the recently established Meiji government actively discouraged anything that contradicted Western science and rationality, leading some critics to regard this series as a criticism of the government's new ideology. These works show that Yoshitoshi still found great inspiration from the rural folk tales that were prevalent throughout Japan's history.

Sakurahime was a famous courtesan, the most beautiful of her time. Seigen was the abbot of Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. As Sakurahime was visiting the temple gardens one day, they became infatuated with each other. The resulting scandal led to Seigen abandoning his studies and Sakurahime giving up her position. Even so, their story ended in tragedy as Seigen was killed by Sakurahime's outraged servant.

In this print, based on the play 'Sakurahime', Seigen's ghost appears in the smoke from a sunken fire. The smoke blends into the pattern of the wood-grain in the sliding door behind. Sakurahime's kimono is appropriately decorated with cherry blossoms, which, apart from their beauty, are a symbol for the transience of human life. The white hem of Sakurahime’s kimono is beautifully embossed.

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka was one of the leading woodblock print artists during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and one of the last to work in the traditional ukiyo-e manner. Born in Edo (today’s Tokyo), he showed a strong interest in classical Japanese literature and history. When he was 11, he became a student at Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s studio. Under his teacher’s guidance, he showed exquisite draftsmanship and learned how to draw from life, something not necessarily part of the training schools of painting and illustration in Japan.

Yoshitoshi’s rise as an artist came at a time when Japan was faced with great changes and challenges. The new Meiji era (1868-1912) brought many conflicts between those loyal to tradition and those wishing to embark on a process of forced modernisation and adoption of western values. These sentiments, along with having witnessed some of the violent uprisings, influenced his early career, with intense, often disturbing images that reflect turmoil and pain. Even so, many other prints from this early period show whimsical touches, with reinterpretation of themes seen in his teacher Kuniyoshi’s works. With deep cultural roots, Yoshitoshi’s style was dynamic and distinctive: he was known for experimentation in style and genre, as well as for his innovative works. He worked on series depicting kabuki actors, bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), warriors, monsters and ghosts. Supernatural themes abound in his later work, showing a fascination for old Japanese folk stories.

The publishing of Yoshitoshi’s most popular series 'One Hundred Aspects of the Moon' commenced in 1885 and 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 images of lyricism, calm, spirituality and psychological depth. 'Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners', published in 1888, shows Yoshitoshi’s ability to portray emotions like no other artist of his time, presenting women of various background and eras in Japanese history, each with distinct traits.

In 1889, the series 'New Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts' started to be published, showing images of apparitions, mostly based on folklore and plays, depicted powerfully and imaginatively. This was, perhaps, a catharsis for the artist who claimed to have seen ghosts and strongly believed in supernatural beings. Many of Yoshitoshi’s late works were acclaimed at a time when western techniques of mass production such as photography were making the woodblock obsolete, breaking new ground by portraying intense human feelings through a traditional medium. He became a master teacher and had notable pupils such as Toshikata Mizuno and Toshihide Migita.

More Information
Print FormatOban (Vertical)
ArtistYoshitoshi Tsukioka
SubjectBeauty & Female, Ghosts & Religion
Dimensions37.0 x 25.3 cm
Condition ReportLight creases.
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