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Ghost and Moon Stories By Ukiyo-e Woodblock Master Yoshitoshi.

 

It is uncertain if Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) had a happy childhood but the violent and disturbing prints he designed in his later life suggest he did not. At the age of 11 Yoshitoshi was introduced by his uncle to Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) and soon after became a member of his school. There was an instant rivalry between Yoshitoshi and Kuniyoshi's foremost pupil Yoshiiku (1833-1904). Although they worked together on some print series, like the disturbing and infamous '28 Stories of Violence', the anomisity remained. Kuniyoshi was very impressed by Yoshitoshi's talent and enthusiasm while making copies of his master's sketches. This training had a major influence on Yoshitoshi which can be traced in his later work where he returned to Kuniyoshi's themes and subjects incorporating a Western orientated style. When Kuniyoshi died in 1861, the school fell apart leaving Yoshitoshi on his own. He had a tough time trying to make ends meet and was struggling to justify his place into the world of the woodblock print.

 

Recognition

In his quest to success and recognition he formed symbiotic relationships (and also friendships) with the popular kabuki actors Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1839-1903) and Onoe Kikugoro V (1844-1903). They provided him with design work of their plays and Yoshitoshi's portrayals contributed to their fame. In 1868 he witnessed (together with his pupil and friend Toshikage) the massacre at Ueno where the anti-shogunate forces defeated the shogun's forces proclaiming an Imperial 'Restoration' with the new era name of Meiji (meaning 'Enlightened rule'). This violent event had a huge impact on Yoshitoshi and became a recurring theme in his future work. During his life Yoshitoshi had multiple mental breakdowns and early 1872 he fell into a deep depression from which he recovered later that year. Although Yoshitoshi was the artist most in demand at this time, he still lived in poverty and only survived because of the help from his mistress, friends and an altruistic landlord. This situation lasted another decade but renewed inspiration in the 1880s would finally change his financial (unfortunately not his mental) cares.

Yoshitoshi's Success

In 1883 Yoshitoshi designed a triptych based on an earlier painting (1882) depicting the well-known poet and flute player Yasumasa. In this design he places Yasumasa in the centre panel playing on his flute, with the bandit Hakamadare Yasusuke (Kidomaru) on the right panel, ready to attack him. The moon depicted on the left panel perfectly counterbalances the composition and the successive rows of weed in the background lend a peculiar sense to the dramatic tension. The print was a commercial success and after this masterpiece Yoshitoshi consolidated the high level resulting in some marvellous vertical diptychs of which the important and influential painter Kaburagi Kiyokata (1878-1973), who met him at a young age, remarked that these are ' the most polished and absolutely perfect of Yoshitoshi's work'. At this time (1885) Yoshitoshi's first five designs from 'One Hundred Aspects of the Moon' were published. The series portrays historical and mythical figures from both Japanese and Chinese history with the moon as a returning theme but with the emphasis on mood and human emotions. The series was well received by the public and also by the critics and became Yoshitoshi's greatest success.

 

 

Final Years

Yoshitoshi's last years were also his most fruitful with the 'Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners' (1888) series, his finest of the bijin (beautiful women) prints echoing the old Ukiyo-e masters like Utamaro, and his meditative 'New Forms of thirty-six Ghosts' (1889) concerning the supernatural (Yoshitoshi was a firm believer in the existence of ghosts and spirits) focusing on the mental processes of his human subjects instead of concentrating on the ghosts and demons. While working on this 'Ghost' series Yoshitoshi's mental problems again started to afflict him and he was admitted to a mental hospital in 1891. In the many hospitals Yoshitoshi stayed in that year he kept on working, some of the designs of his Ghost series were issued while he was in there. He was discharged from hospital in May 1892 and died three weeks later on 9 June 1892.

Recommended Literature on Yoshitoshi
> Beauty and Violence- Japanese Prints by Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) by Eric van den Ing and Robert Schaap
Yoshitoshi: The Splendid Decadent   by Shinichi Segi
Divine Dementia: The Woodblock Prints of Yoshitoshi    by T.Liberthson
Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Aspects of the Moon   by John Stevenson



 

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