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.
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.