Japan in the 1860s was a country in transition. Financially stressed and with its independence threatened by Western military powers, the nation underwent a political revolution, eventually reinventing itself as the modern nation-state it is today. Witness to it all was Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), one of the last masters of the traditional Japanese woodblock print.

Trained in the popular ukiyo-e style of Japanese woodblock print and painting that developed during the Edo period (1603–1868), Yoshitoshi was known early in his career for portraying in disturbing detail the violence that took place surrounding the political overthrow of 1867–1868. This overthrow marked the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the new Meiji era (1868–1912), during which power from the feudal and isolationist shogunate [military dictatorship] was transferred to imperial rule.

From depictions of gore and conflict, Yoshitoshi’s prints shifted to images that conveyed greater psychological depth.

Throughout his life and career, Yoshitoshi saw how the modernization of Japan meant the transformation of its culture and the adoption of Western customs. In his later woodblock prints, he attempted to preserve his cultural heritage by drawing on subject matter from the past: geishas, notable samurai warriors, the poetic praise of nature, and stories, both haunting and heroic, from Japanese folklore. Common themes included characters from the Buddhist pantheon such as Amida Buddha, buddha of the Pure Land tradition; Bodhidharma, the 6th-century transmitter of Chan Buddhism to China; and Nichiren, the 13th-century Japanese Buddhist reformer.

Yoshitoshi’s style, considered by some to be the culmination of the ukiyo-e genre, eventually outgrew his Edo training. Reflecting both the turmoil of societal unrest and years of personal depression, Yoshitoshi’s prints shifted from depictions of gore and conflict to images that conveyed greater psychological depth. Today, his dynamic work is credited with ushering in the modern era of Japanese art.

Yoshitoshi: Spirit and Spec­tacle, an exhibition of Yoshitoshi’s woodblock prints, is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from April 16 to August 18.

Woodblock print of Iga no Tsubone and the Ghost of Kiyotaka with a Midnight Moon in the Yoshino Mountains by Yoshitoshi
Iga no Tsubone and the Ghost of Kiyotaka with a Midnight Moon in the Yoshino Mountains, from the series “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon,” 1886.
On display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Hotei Pointing His Finger at the Moon
in a Gesture of Enlightenment (Godo no tsuki), from the series “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon,” 1888.
Woodblock print of Lady Chiyo and the Broken Water Bucket by Yoshitoshi
Lady Chiyo and the Broken Water Bucket, from the series “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon” (Tsuki Hyakushi), 1889. Though commonly accepted as a depiction of the 18th-century poet Kaga no chiyo, others speculate whether this print refers to the Zen koan “No Water, No Moon,” in which the servant Chiyoni recites a poem of realization: “I tried hard to save the old bucket as the bamboo hoop was weakening, and about to break. Until at last the bottom fell out. No more moon on the water.”
Woodblock print of Honda Yoshimitsu Discovers the Buddha
Honda Yoshimitsu Discovers the
Buddha, from the series “Sketches by Yoshitoshi” (Yoshitoshi ryakuga), 1880s
Woodblock print of The Giant Twelfth- Century Warrior-Priest Benkei Attacking Young Yoshitsune for His Sword on the Gojo Bridge by Yoshitoshi
The Giant Twelfth- Century Warrior-Priest Benkei Attacking Young Yoshitsune for His Sword on the Gojo Bridge, 1881. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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