Scholten Japanese Art presents
Scholten Japanese Art is pleased to present during the September 2017 Asia Week DARKENING SKIES: THE TUMULTUOUS TIMES OF TSUKIOKA YOSHITOSHI, a continuation of our March 2017 landmark single-artist exhibition on Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), one of the last great ukiyo-e artists of the 19th century. Drawing from a collection assembled over a period of nearly ten years and recently published in a full-color catalogue illustrating 180 woodblock prints, the September show will focus on the dynamic and tumultuous times in which Yoshitoshi lived as reflected in some of his more violent imagery.
Yoshitoshi came of age during a period of great turmoil as the Japanese society was suddenly exposed to foreign influence after a 250-year long seclusion, prompting a period of regime change and rapid modernization. In the summer of 1853, coincidentally at the same time when the fourteen-year-old Yoshitoshi's first full-sized print was published, the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1794–1858) arrived in Edo Bay. Perry's 'gunboat diplomacy' forced Japan to open up to trade with the west and initiated a chain of events which would eventually lead to the downfall of shogun military rule and the restoration of the emperor in 1868. Heady times for a young artist to make his way in the world.
During his twenties, as Yoshitoshi established himself as an artist, he designed subjects typical for the Utagawa school he trained in including actor and beauty portraits but especially scenes of heroic warriors, the subject that Yoshitoshi's teacher Kuniyoshi (1798–1861) had dominated for decades. Yoshitoshi followed in his footsteps as seen in the 1867 triptych, Chronicles of the Toyotomi Clan: Picture of the Water-Siege of Takamatsu Castle; a classic Utagawa school treatment of a military story. It depicts a legendary episode during the Battle of Bitchu-Takamatsu in 1582 when the ingenious feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598) had a dyke built in just twelve days to divert the nearby Ashinori River in order to flood the plains surrounding the castle of the enemy Mori clan and thereby forcing their complete surrender.
In contrast, Eight Views of Warriors' Fine Tales: Descending Geese over Yahagi Bridge, a triptych from the following year also depicting an episode from the legendary life of Hideyoshi, shows Yoshitoshi departing from Utagawa-school compositional conventions and incorporating Western point perspective and his own narrative flare. Based on a rarely performed scene of a kabuki play, it shows the young Hideyoshi (known as Hiyoshimaru) as an itinerant child found sleeping late at night by the Yahagi Bridge by a gang of robbers. Yoshitoshi concentrated on the gang leader, Hachisuba Jiroku, the central figure facing away from the waif, while his companions recede to the left into the distance across the bridge illuminating their path with torches held aloft. The future warlord Hideyoshi is captured on the right as a forlorn child with disheveled clothing. He reaches out to grasp the base of Hachisuba's halberd which is transformed to a potential lifeline of protection from the three armed and menacing robbers that have lingered to harass the seemingly vulnerable street urchin.
Many of the violent conflicts which sealed the fate of the Tokugawa occurred very close to Yoshitoshi's hometown Edo, today's Tokyo. The Boshin War (1868–1869) was a civil war caused by the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the enthronement of Emperor Meiji (1852–1912) who restored the Imperial reign over Japan. The first exchanges took place in early 1868 south of Kyoto at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi. Although Imperial forces were outnumbered by those loyal to the ousted Tokugawa shogun by order of 3:1, the modern Imperial army presented howitzers, French-made rifles, and a Gatling gun. In contrast, of the over 15,000 shogunal troops, some were armed with only pikes and swords while many front-line riflemen were not even provided with bullets. By the third day, the Emperor's forces had achieved a decisive victory and the shogun had fled Edo Castle. In summer of that year, Yoshitoshi, along with two of his students, apparently witnessed another major battle (or the aftermath thereof) that took place at nearby Ueno, where the shogunal forces were massacred by the better-equipped Imperial army.
Early in 1871, Yoshitoshi designed the series Eight Views of Warriors in the Provinces (Shokoku musha hakkei) which depicted contemporary battle scenes utilizing an unusually dark and ominous palette. Although he did not identify it as scenes from the Boshin War, the locations, uniforms, and flags displayed in the compositions were clearly referencing the recent civil war. Yoshitoshi's depiction of the War's first battle, Fushimi in Yamashiro, shows mounted Imperial forces engaged in swordfights in close quarters with Tokugawa-supporting samurai on foot amid rising dark grey clouds of modern warfare obscuring their surroundings.
As the feudalistic social and political order was torn apart, Yoshitoshi would utilize his portrayals of past legends to address the often-bloody tumult of his present day, a common practice by artists and writers to circumvent various restrictions on authorized subjects. The triptych illustrated above, Picture of the Battle of Odai Castle in Shinano Province shows Oda Nobunao (1546–1574), the sixth lord of Odai Castle, as the central figure grasping at his injured eyes. Published in the 5th lunar month of 1868 in the midst of the Boshin War, the chaotic battle scene with choking billowing smoke engulfing warriors hurling themselves up against a wall of regular soldiers armed with rifles seems to reference the desperate futility of samurai battling the Imperial army, without overtly identifying it as such. The gruesome bloody details including the decapitated heads tumbling the foreground reflect both on Yoshitoshi's increasing facility with violent imagery but also the appetite of the buying public at the time.
A fascinating example of the complexities of publishing graphic arts in the shifting political landscape is the triptych Picture of the War in Kagoshima, dated twice, 1868 and 1877. The design was originally published in 1868 under the title The Battle of Yuki from the series Chronicles of Nobunaga (Nobunaga-ki). The title itself is an anachronism to the Official Records of Nobunaga (title can be read as Nobunaga koki or Shincho koki), the diary of Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) from 1568 until his death in 1582. The Nobunaga referred to in Yoshitoshi's triptych, however, is Takeda Nobunaga (died c.1477) who fought on the side of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori in the Battle of Yuki of 1440. Furthermore, there are several clues indicating that while the subject in the title was a medieval amalgam, the battle scene visually actually refers to the ongoing Boshin War. While the soldiers to the left wear traditional armor that could date to a much earlier era, the soldiers on the right wear jingasa (war helmets) common in the 19th century, and in the foreground, a fallen soldier has dropped a brass bugle. In 1868, when the original version of this print was published, the print designers were confined to utilize the imagery of Japan's medieval wars of unification and had to disguise any depiction of a current conflict. Only a year later those restrictions were lifted, and subsequently this triptych was adapted nine years later to overtly portray another modern conflict. The modified version (illustrated here) was given a new title, Picture of the War of Kagoshima. It incorporates a lengthy descriptive panel from 1877 as well as new cartouches identifying individual figures from the Satsuma Rebellion, a short-lived uprising of marginalized samurai. The era of heavy-handed censorship had ended and depicting actual people was now possible, hence the figures on the right and center can be identified as the rebel officers Saigo Kohei (1847–1877) and Shinohara Kunimoto (1837–1877) from the nearby Kumamoto garrison who both died in the rebellion.
Yoshitoshi's shocking depictions of violent imagery was not limited to reportage of the realities of current events and modern warfare. The print Shima Sakon Slays Saito Daihachi at Horagatoge Pass from the 1872–73 series Essays by Yoshitoshi depicts Shima Sakon (1540–1600), a samurai who is remembered for leading the forces fighting against the future shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Here Yoshitoshi presents an unflinching image of an enraged Sakon pressing forward, his face contorted, his bloody hand raised above his head in a rallying gesture and his likewise bloody long tachi sword piercing the outline of the composition as he lunges to the left. Above, hurtling through the air, the severed head of Saito Daihachi hovers above a thick plume of smoke.
Yoshitoshi became well-known for these bloody prints, variously called chimidoro-e ('blood-stained pictures'), muzan-e ('atrocious pictures'), or zankoku-e ('cruel-pictures'), some of which were issued following a period when he was known to have suffered an unidentified illness around the end of 1872. Scholars have often theorized that along with his witnessing the Battle of Ueno, the illness (sometimes described as a depression or mental illness although there is scant evidence to confirm the nature of his ailments) may have led to a break-down and an apparent fascination with disturbing imagery. However he began designing bloody prints years before both the war and his illness and as such, a direct correlation is tenuous at best.
In the years that followed, as the rollicking uncertainty of the early Meiji period settled and Japan continued to rapidly Westernize, Yoshitoshi's work reflected the forward-facing optimism of the nation focused on the future, while simultaneously glancing backward at a culture at risk of being lost in this new modern era. His legacy came to be defined by his extremes: on the one end are disturbing images; at the other are lyrical works for which he is equally famous, such as the series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon and New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts, both exploring Japan's rich history and culture by reveling in legends, myths, and ghost stories. In the end, Yoshitoshi's oeuvre—his early embrace of dark and violent subjects, and his later association with the moon itself— is a manifestation of the supposition that without the darkness, there can be no light.
The gallery exhibition will display approximately 40 prints and will open on Thursday, September 7th, and continue through Friday, September 15th. An online exhibition will be posted in advance of the opening at www.scholten-japanese-art.com.
Scholten Japanese Art, located at 145 West 58th Street, Suite 6D, is open Monday through Friday, and some Saturdays, 11am - 5pm, by appointment. To schedule an appointment please call (212) 585-0474.
Scholten Japanese Art is open Monday - Friday, and some Saturdays by appointment only
Contact Katherine Martin at
(212) 585-0474 or email
to schedule a visit between 11am and 4pm preferably for no more than two individuals at a time.
Visitors are asked to wear face masks and practice social distancing at their discretion.
site last updated
October 3, 2022
Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
fx: (212) 585-0475
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