Tsukioka Yoshitoshi was the last great master of the Japanese woodblock printing tradition, (generally known as ukiyo-e). In the second half of the 19th Century, Japan was undergoing a massive cultural shift from traditionalism towards the embracing of western cultural ideas. Old cultural practices were slowly disappearing. The great painters of ukiyo-e such as Hiroshige and Hokusai were just names in history. With the death of Kuniyoshi, his teacher and mentor, in 1862, Yoshitoshi stood almost alone against the inevitable tidal wave of ‘westernism’ .
He had lived much of his life in extreme poverty and only in middle age did he start to have success and recognition for his artistic work. Although he did have an interest in modern ideas, his artwork sustained and supported the old values of Edo, kabuki theatre, and the historical folk tales which were inextricably linked with the woodblock tradition. In the 1860s his work reflected the social unrest and bloodshed which was all around him as feudal Japan fell into chaos. His paintings were explicitly bloody and violent. This gave him notoriety but ultimately fame and respect in the cultural milieu. He continued these gruesome themes with his legendary series ’28 Famous Murders with Verse’. This graphically blood-filled series of paintings propelled him into the pantheon of Ukiyo-e gods.
However even this success could not stem the general public feeling that the era of woodblock masters was over and that now was the time to step into the future, the modern world with its new technologies, fashions, fads, arts and sciences. Towards the end of his life Yoshitoshi did complete a set of pictures which would eclipse even his most successful previous work. The series ‘100 Aspects of the Moon’ was one of the greatest masterpieces of the entire Ukiyo-e canon. His artistic zenith, the hundred paintings show his unique vision, original and stunning approach to composition, bold use of depth and colour, tender subtlety of draughtsmanship and a lifetime of technical and aesthetic knowledge distilled into a fantastic expression of beauty. It was the last great explosion of genius in the long history of the Japanese woodblock print as it faded in the ever increasing shadow of the lithograph and the new fangled photography.
Yoshitoshi died in 1892, at the age of fifty three. It was the tradition in some Asian cultures such as Japan and Korea, that as one approached the inevitably of old age and death, it was considered honourable to compose a verse, a poem which would define ones life and illuminate ones death. this would be a short piece, probably in haiku or waka form. It was a practice which went back more than a thousand years, common with zen monks, and can still be found in contemporary Japan.
Here is Yoshitoshi’s death poem
holding back the night
with its increasing brilliance
the summer moon
In classic haiku form, the poem not only reminds us of the series ‘100 Aspects of the Moon’, his greatest work, but also the moon represents Yoshitoshi himself, as a bright light trying to hold off the darkness, that darkness which will bury the old values of ancient Japan, old Edo and the disappearing world.
The video featured here is a celebration of Yoshitoshi’s 100 Aspects of the Moon. The music is a piece from an album by Makmed the Miller and Astral Gonad.