March 15, 2019

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi @ Philadelphia Museum of Art - Spirit and Spectacle

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: Spirit and Spectacle
Philadelphia Museum of Art
April 16 – August 18, 2019

The Philadelphia Museum of Art presents an exhibition devoted to the colorful and expressive prints of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), widely-known as the last great master of the traditional Japanese woodcut. Spirit and Spectacle celebrates the full scope of his achievement, tracing his efforts to champion the artistic culture of feudal Japan while addressing the new realities of his modern world. The exhibition features nearly one hundred works drawn primarily from the museum’s holdings—the largest collection of the artist’s prints outside of his native country—to highlight the ways in which Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, in a remarkable display of inventiveness and imagination, re-energized the art of the woodcut before it fell out of favor in Japan. While other exhibitions have often dramatized aspects of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s personal life—his bouts with mental illness, his complicated relations with women, and his personal misfortunes—Spirit and Spectacle takes a broader view of the artist’s achievements through the lens of the social and political upheaval that characterized 19th-century Japan and other external factors that shaped his artistic production.

Timothy Rub, the museum's George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer, stated: “This exhibition offers an opportunity to share a truly exceptional, but perhaps lesser known aspect of our collection with the public. While Yoshitoshi was among the finest Japanese artists of his age, he was also a contemporary of the Impressionists, many of whom became inspired by ukiyo-e prints just as the genre began to decline in popularity in Japan. We are delighted to present the artist’s achievements in tandem with an in-depth exploration of Impressionism nearby in the Dorrance Special Exhibitions Galleries, to illuminate the various ways in which artists working at the same time in different parts of the world benefited from a growing artistic exchange.”

The exhibition begins with select examples of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s work in the 1860s following his apprenticeship with the master Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). These prints reveal his mastery of the woodblock technique and his exploration of various conventions of ukiyo-e printmaking, or “pictures of the floating world,” through subjects such as actor portraits, historic battles, legends and ghost stories. By the mid-19th century, such prints were characterized by exaggerated foreshortening, asymmetry of design, and cropping of figures. As Tsukioka  Yoshitoshi honed his technical skills, he also developed his own artistic voice, creating inventive approaches to subject matter that reflected major cultural shifts as the isolationist policies of the shogunate rulers of Edo Japan (1603-1868) gave way to international exchange and modernization under the newly restored Meiji emperor (1868-1912). His triptych General Masakiyo at Shinshū Castle during the Invasion of Korea in 1590, (1863) reflects a growing global awareness; the image of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background is a subtle reference to Japan's battle with the British at Kagoshima in the year the print was made.

While the depiction of gruesome subjects had entered the repertoire of Japanese prints earlier in the 19th century, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi gained a reputation for his visceral portrayal of violence, as reflected in selections from his Twenty-Eight Famous Murders with Verse, (1866-67), and One Hundred Warriors, (1868). The latter was his last series before he took a short hiatus from printmaking. This was a period of financial struggle and residual health complications for the artist, one that coincided with a waning market for traditional prints and social upheaval during the Meiji Restoration.

A section of the exhibition explores how the rapid growth of the newspaper industry in the early 1870s provided new opportunities for Tsukioka Yoshitoshi and renewed his career as a print designer. Beginning in 1873, he produced imaginative designs for The Postal Newspaper, which led to other commissions. Increasing competition from the introduction of photography and lithography to Japan led Tsukioka Yoshitoshi to seek new ways to invigorate the woodblock print. He alternated between traditional subjects and styles and a more expressive approach that combined western perspective with energetic lines. Additionally, he imbued his prints with vivid colors made possible through the use of aniline and other inks that were newly available due to trade. A striking example of his application of intensely colored inks is found in the series, Beauties and Seven Daytime Flowers, (1878), which presents beautiful women of the Imperial court paired with flowers. Two other prints displayed in this section demonstrate the different approaches Tsukioka Yoshitoshi took in his portrayals of women, from a more traditional ukiyo-e example, The Courtesan Usugumo Holding a Cat, 1876 to the modern style reflected in the color woodcut, Strolling: A Fashionable Married Woman of the Middle Meiji Period (1880s) Dressed in Western Style, 1888.

Prints demonstrating the significance of fires and firemen in everyday life in Japan are juxtaposed with other objects such as A Fireman’s Coat and a Fireman’s Hood from the mid-late 1800s. As the population grew and cities became crowded with wooden structures in the late Edo and early Meiji periods, fires were a frequent occurrence. A rare early triptych of a fireman’s parade from 1858 and another recording a devastating fire in Tokyo from 1876, as well as a single-sheet print from his series Fireman’s Standards of All Great Districts,1876, among other examples, illustrate Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s fascination with these contemporary subjects.

The last decade of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s life was his most productive and successful. By the early 1880s, he had gained financial stability through his newspaper commissions and headed an active studio with loyal students. Additionally, a new concern for the preservation of Japanese cultural and literary traditions arose in the 1880s, following the rapid modernization of the previous two decades, which created more opportunities for Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. It was during this time that he completed his most celebrated series, One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (1885-92). Images of the moon in its many phases is the common backdrop for the characters in this series. Stoic warriors, samurai, everyday townspeople, demons, poets, and courtesans reference stories relating to the moon and are drawn from Japanese and Chinese history and folklore, literature, and theater. Twenty-four highlights from the museum’s entire set are featured in the final gallery. In these mature works, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi achieved his distinctive aesthetic – combining flat design with a more realistic approach to perspectival space that conveys suspended moments of action. These dynamic prints made him the most popular artist in Edo (present-day Tokyo) at the time of his death. His passing signaled the end of an era for the genre in Japan.

The exhibition is organized by Shelley Langdale, the Park Family Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings. Langdale noted: “Over the last ten or so years, there has been a new appreciation, a sort of revisionist history, of Yoshitoshi’s life and work. While he remains best-known for his unforgettable scenes of gruesome violence, this exhibition demonstrates the range of his achievement as an innovative image-maker. Yoshitoshi’s challenges were not so different from our own– he was a traditionalist who sought ways to advance the cultural heritage and distinctiveness of his native country within an increasingly transnational world. As his work contains many elements that offer a rich dialogue with manga and anime today, we’ll be hosting a variety of programs that address these striking visual and literary connections.”

Select loans supplementing this presentation of works from the collection have been generously provided by Dr. Robert and Mrs. Linda Rudolph and by the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania.

This exhibition has been made possible by The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Exhibition Fund.

2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130