Yoshitoshi, Exploits of the Tokugawa Clan

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) Exploits of the Tokugawa Clan, 1876. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

This unusual Yoshitoshi - I’ve not seen it on sale before or since - was shown in our Warriors exhibition in March 2011. Warriors, historical figures and heroes are the other great staple of the Japanese print artist after portrayals of kabuki actors. Of course, commonest of all is both - kabuki actors playing great warrior characters!

Yoshitoshi was a student of Kuniyoshi and saw the upheavals of the emerging modern Japan first hand. His biography is dramatic and reflects the time he lived in... he spent most of his life in and out of poverty and his prints are often seen as displaying hints of the madness that is attributed to him.

In this print we see Yoshitoshi experimenting with radical western-style perspective. The painted banner dramatically opens the space of the picture, the more so since he continues in the use of flat rectangular, cartouches against the surface of the picture plane. The clash of these two forms; the perspectival lozenge against the flat symbol, emphasises the deep space, and perhaps also the space between the two traditions in which he found himself working.

Pictorially there is much sophistication going on here; by placing the two smaller white cartouches at the ‘back’ of the picture in spatial terms - behind, as it were, the figure group - he pushes back further the implied space which the figures occupy. There are problems of course; the two kneeling figures are smaller than the central figure but closer to us in space, a contradiction of the efforts at realism he has made elsewhere. Whilst the figure at the extreme right has much of Kuniyoshi’s model about him, the gestures of the left-hand figures owe much more to the western tradition.

There is much to praise in this startling image, including the rich blue mica laden background. The print is trimmed to the image and has been previously mounted, colour and impression are good, some scuffing to the edges. An unusual series and not often seen.