Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Taiso Yoshitoshi) 1839 – June 9, 1892
The west likes its artists to be mad, romantic and colourful. Taiso Yoshitoshi fits the model very nicely, to the extent that his innovative genius like that of van Gogh has been greatly overshadowed by his mental health and his (at times) unconventional life. Most biographies of Yoshitoshi dwell on his depression and on the events of his personal life in an attempt to explain his lurid images of violence and cruelty. Taking his life and his work as a whole it is fair to say that much of this emphasis is exaggerated or not relevant.
Yoshitoshi was the son of a merchant and a pupil of the great Kuniyoshi. Key to his development as an artist was Kuniyoshi’s emphasis on drawing from life; it is Yoshitoshi’s sensitive draughtsmanship and nuance of observation that makes him so outstanding as a Meiji era artist. His early work, perhaps done in response to the social upheavals in Japan at that time are lurid, sometimes cruel expositions of violence. Notably, Twenty-eight Murders with Verse - a series of graphic depictions of domestic violence from 1866-1899 - and Biographies of Modern Men from 1865, about power struggles between gambling rings, are both shocking in their use of violent imagery, but nevertheless established him as a leading artist of his day. It should be noted that Yoshitoshi was not alone in reflecting the mood of Japan through bloody prints but his career withered as the public tired of such brutality.
By the 1870’s, Yoshitoshi was in poverty, living with the first of several women who sold themselves into prostitution on his behalf. Despite a mental breakdown he was able to recover and produced hundreds of designs for popular newspapers and continued to run his own studio. His greatest works were to come in the 1880’s. As a prosperous artist with many students and admired by the public, he embarked on a series of prints that were to engage him for the rest of his life. 100 Aspects of the Moon (1885 -1892) became a sensation with the public who queued to purchase the prints as they were released. This and his fine series of prints of women such as Thirty-Two Aspects of Customs and Manners (1888) established him as a great and sensitive artist in Japan and latterly across the world. Despite financial and artistic success his mental health once again deteriorated and he was admitted to a mental hospital in 1891. Released in 1892, he died weeks later of a brain haemorrhage leaving this as his death poem:
holding back the night / with its increasing brilliance / the summer moon
Like all ukiyo-e artists of the nineteenth century, Yoshitoshi has been undergoing revaluation for the last few decades. There has been a tendency in the west to classify Japanese woodblock prints in the same manner as western art; the appreciation of an early ‘classical’ period against a ‘modern decadent’ era. This aesthetic approach is misjudged and artists such as Yoshitoshi are now viewed as just as great as their predecessors. Outstanding in Yoshitoshi’s work are the 100 Aspects of the Moon which is a thoughtful, understated series of exceptional skill and draughtsmanship. So too is the series 32 Aspects of Women and A Collection of Desires from 1877.
Unique and contrary to his apparent disparagement of the west is his use of western drawing techniques and observation, which is often quite at odds with traditional Japanese methods. His understanding of western art lends his work a startlingly modern aesthetic whilst somehow remaining uniquely Japanese. His appreciation of women is also revolutionary; Yoshitoshi’s women are real and individual. He eschews the standard bijin genre (where it is hard to distinguish women from male kabuki actors in female roles) for moving, true portraits who communicate real feelings through character, observation and line. In this respect Yoshitoshi is a woodblock print artist of enormous importance and individuality, a synthesis of old and modern Japan and one of the truly great artists of the nineteenth century.