Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, Poet Sogi Encounters Two Ghosts, New Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts


Artist: Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839-1892)
Title: Poet Sogi Encounters Two Ghosts
Series title: New Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts
Publisher: Matsuki Heikichi
Date: 1902 (posthumous)
Size: 23.4 x 35.3 cm

Original Japanese woodblock print.

Yoshitoshi's last woodblock series, 'New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts', draws on an array of supernatural tales from both China and Japan. The images depict the weird, wonderful, and sinister ghost stories that were widely told among the Japanese population. The eeriness of the designs is playfully rendered by the mock-worm eaten border around each print. Interestingly, Yoshitoshi's series 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.

Sogi was a 17th century poet and priest who spent his life travelling and teaching. One night, he takes refuge in an abandoned house. The walls are decrepit, and plants are growing through the cracks . A full moon shines through the empty window frame and Sogi notices two shadows in the corner who are arguing about a poem, unable to find an ending line. Scared of the apparitions, Sogi tells them…‘The ever-reflecting water is frozen and covered with ice, it does not mirror the evening moon in the sky.’ Angry that they were interrupted, the ghosts threaten Sogi, but disappear soon after, leaving the poet lonely on a very eerie night, with only screeching sounds from old floorboards.

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
SubjectSamurai & Male, Ghosts & Religion
Dimensions23.4 x 35.3 cm
Condition ReportTrimmed, lightly faded, minor stains, paper residue on the back.
SeriesNew Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts