Yoshitoshi Mori (1898-1992)

David Libertson
Jan 29, 2016 4:51PM

While the floating world of Edo had long disappeared by Yoshitoshi Mori’s birth in 1898, his family roots intertwine deep within its culture of artisans, instilling his energetic work with an inherent understanding of a time past. His subjects range from the daily life of the working class in the lowlands of Edo (shitamachi), sensual beauties of the night, and dramatic kabuki portraits, to Buddhist imagery and intimate imaginings of classic tales and legendary heroes. Ronin Gallery is pleased to represent the private collection of Eiko Mori, along with other major works, in the exhibition Yoshitoshi Mori (1898–1992). Avidly collected by museums and private collectors alike, Mori’s work is renowned for its spirited expression of traditional subject matter in a distinctly modern visual dialect. Many of the works in this collection are number one of their edition or one of a kind. Boldly graphic, vibrantly colored, and unfalteringly dynamic, Mori’s works astonish the viewer with their tangible vitality. Each piece stops its beholder in his or her tracks, for each work has a story to tell. From flowing kappazuri and the artist’s private sketchbook, to large-scale sumptuous screen paintings, this exhibition explores the powerful oeuvre of this pivotal member of the Japanese sosaku hanga, or “creative print,” movement.

Mori created the majority of his prints through kappazuri, a form of stencil printing, layering color and form with self-cut stencils. Through this technique, Mori translated his 30 years of dyeing experience to printmaking, applying the same stencil method used for textiles to paper. Mori’s printing process began with a sheet of shibugami; a stencil paper made from several sheets of smoke-cured, handmade paper adhered together with persimmon tannin. He pasted his design onto this flexible, strong, and water-resistant stencil paper before using a sharp knife to remove all spaces destined for color. He was left with the skeleton of his design, or the key impression (omogata), and several color stencils. Mori removed the original design from the stencil paper, wet the stencil to increase flexibility, and, in certain cases, reinforced thin lines with silk gauze. He brushed on each color, progressing from light to dark. With each layer of ink, he protected white space and existing color with a color-resistant paste (noribuse). Through the use of the paste, Mori combined standard stencil printing technique with stencil dyeing (katazome). After all colors had been applied, he imparted the rich india ink outlines of the composition using the key impression. When this final ink layer dried, he washed away the paste and allowed the completed print to dry. It is through this innovative technique that Mori blurs delineations of craft and art, past and present.     

Yoshitoshi Mori was born in Tokyo in 1898, the first of Yonejiro and Yone Mori’s three sons. The artist was four years old when his father left, forcing him and his mother to move into his grandfather’s home in the heart of the shitamachi. Mori’s grandfather owned Nishigen, a wholesale fish market operating since 1615. Though the family business had thrived for centuries, it went bankrupt shortly after the family resettled, and they were uprooted once again. Moving into the home of his aunt, Kin Harada, Mori’s world was filled with music. Harada taught nagauta, a specific form of kabuki chanting and musical accompaniment. Mori’s mother began to study and teach this traditional art as well, but this period of peace was fleeting.

 At the age of eight, Yoshitoshi Mori’s life fell into upheaval. His mother remarried and moved to different area of Tokyo. Though she took her second son to her new home, she left the young artist in the care of his aunt and grandfather. Within months of his mother’s departure, Mori’s grandfather succumbed to a darkness that had been building inside him since the bankruptcy. Distraught, Mori’s grandfather committed ritual suicide (harakiri). Following graduation from elementary school, Mori began to spend more time at his mother’s home, pouring over his stepfather’s collection of ukiyo-e prints, from actor portraits to illustrated books. Mori soon entered an apprenticeship at a machine-made paper shop. Mori’s daughter, Eiko Mori, describes his experience:     

“For a while, he worked for a wholesale paper store at Atagoshita in Tokyo. His work was to bring 20 piles of paper, which weighed more than 600 kilograms, from Atagoshita to Shinagawa using a large cart. Of course, it was heavy labor for little boy around 13 years old; especially since there was a long slope between two places. He had to unload 15 of those 20 piles of paper at the bottom of the slope, brought five piles of paper on the cart first, and then carried up 15 piles of paper one by one on his shoulder. He was so tired that he took a break at Shiba-Koen on his way. Looking up the sky, he came upon the five-storied pagoda of Zojo temple and gazed at its roofing tiles with demon faces (similar to the Western gargoyle). The faces were all different: smiling, angry, funny, optimistic, crying, etc. Looking at those faces, he felt horribly wretched and thought, ‘How wonderful it would be if I could do such creative work!’”

In 1914, Mori fled the paper business, took up residence with his mother, and heeded his creative calling. Under the tutelage of Shuho Yamakawa, Mori gained a formal education in drawing, illustration and painting. He was a quick learner and diligent student and soon became the pupil of Shuho’s father, the esteemed kimono pattern artist Seiho Yamakawa. As Mori learned to dye and draw, he simultaneously studied brush drawing with Koho Goto. During this period, Mori became deeply rooted in Tokyo’s artistic community, moving amidst luminaries of early 20th-century printmaking.     

Mori’s explorations in illustration and textile arts were suddenly put on hold in 1918. Drafted into the Akasaka First Infantry Regiment, Mori served in Korea. This sojourn from his work only amplified his desire to be an artist. Following his honorable discharge in 1920, he resumed his studies with Shuho. Mori began exploring different artistic mediums, working half days at an oil paint plant to support himself. He entered Kawabata Art School, graduating in 1923 with a major in Japanese-style painting. His career appeared to be on the rise: several of his drawings of had been submitted to and accepted by a rakugo performing group, but this deal was never realized. On September 1, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo. Once again, Mori came face to face with personal tragedy as his aunt’s home burned down. Mori put his artistic career on hold and became a salesman in an effort to support his aunt. Seimu Sakka, the kimono artisan that Mori had apprenticed with during art school, took notice of Mori’s situation and refused to let such talent go to waste. Sakka offered the young artist housing and a job as a kimono dyer.

By 1925, Mori had established himself as an independent artisan, designing and dyeing fabric for kimono. As his business prospered, he quickly became well known in his field. He married and had three daughters: Eiko, Kozue, and Ayako. When the Japan Folk Crafts Museum opened in 1936, Mori became a frequent visitor. The traditional works in this collection inspired Mori and wielded a strong influence on his work. During one of his many visits to the museum, he met Shiko Munakata and Kihei Sasajima, two of the most influential sosaku hanga, or “creative print,” artists. Drawing influence from contemporary Western art movements such as expressionism, this movement emphasized the artist’s involvement in every step of printmaking, as well as the creative process itself.     

Mori joined the newly organized group of dyeing craftsman known as the Society of Young Leaves (Moegikai) in 1939. The group flourished in the years before the war, but struggled during World War II. Mori lost his apprentices to army service and wartime provisions crashed upon the perceived luxury of kimono fabric dyeing. During this difficult time, Mori helped fellow kimono artisans evade restrictions, find materials, and smooth over sumptuary infractions. The Great Tokyo Air Raid of 1945 dissipated the shadows and structures of Edo-period culture that Mori held dear. The artist had no choice but leave his historical home. Following the end of the war in 1945, the Japanese government launched an effort to preserve Japanese art and traditional crafts. Mori was one of many artists and artisans across the country to receive materials necessary to practice his craft. Using the cloth and dye supplied by this government initiative, Mori maintained his success following the war.     While Mori had experimented with printmaking throughout his artistic career, he began producing monostencil prints on wood and glass sheets in 1951. Upon the urging of Soetsu, a leader of the sosaku hanga movement, Mori began exhibiting his work. His focus had begun to shift from the realm of craft to the freedom of art when he entered two prints in the 1957 inaugural Tokyo International Biennial of Prints, a massive event composed of 800 prints by 250 artists spanning 31 countries. Though the Japanese judges tended towards Western-style prints, foreign judges favored the striking creativity and unrestrained expression of sosaku hanga. As one of Mori’s entries vied for first prize in the Japanese Printmaking category, the print sparked a debate that revealed the inherent conflict between tradition and internationalism in contemporary Japanese art. This discussion set the stage for sosaku hanga to become a dominant graphic establishment in Japan and remain an important influence on printmaking today. 

Though Mori ultimately did not win, his experience at the Biennial gave him a new confidence in his printed work and he began to exhibit around the world. He formally declared himself a printmaker in 1960, completing some woodblock prints, but primarily producing stencil prints (kappazuri). In May of 1962, a leader of the mingei movement criticized Mori, insisting that he was becoming more of an artist than an artisan, leading to a heated debate about the differ- ence between craft and art. This argument convinced Mori to leave the crafts division of Kokugakai.     

Yoshitoshi Mori’s eldest daughter, Eiko Mori states, “I believe that the hard days of his young life made him strong, and that his dream to be an artist instilled an unconventional taste and Edo-wise humor into his original paintings.” Mori is often referred to as a modern “Child of Edo” (edokko) due to his outstanding ability to revive this time long past. His works recreate the 17th century lowlands of Edo, resurrecting the artisans, actors, and beauties of the floating world. Mori’s many hours spent in the Japan Folk Crafts Museum are revealed in the deeply mingei, or folk art, style coursing through his work, informing Mori’s pictorial language and subject matter. Even when he delved into thoroughly canonical tales, such as Genpei, in the 1970’s, Mori’s lines bleed mingei texture and the resilient spirit of Edo. Within its wealth of tradition, Mori’s work is distinctly contemporary. His figures and structures break down into geometric units, hinting to the influence of abstraction and expressionism. He makes full use of white space, accentuating his infinite, winding outlines and emphatic color blocks. Dynamic and emotional, the art of Yoshitoshi Mori does not quietly wait for its viewer; it shouts out and strikes with awe.


  • Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • Baltimore Museum of Art
  • Barcelona Art Museum
  • Berlin National Museum
  • British Museum
  • Brooklyn Museum
  • Cincinnati Art Museum
  • Cleveland Museum of Art
  • De Young Museum, San Francisco
  • Harvard University Art Museums
  • Honolulu Academy of Art
  • Japan Folk Crafts Museum, Tokyo
  • Library of Congress
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Minnesota Museum of Art, St. Paul
  • Muscarelle Museum of Art, Williamsburg
  • Museum of Fine Arts Boston
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • Portland Art Museum
  • Yale University Art Gallery
David Libertson