Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839 - June 9, 1892) Also signed: Taiso Yoshitoshi, widely recognized as the last great master of Ukiyo-e, is regarded as one of the form's greatest innovators. His career spanned two eras - the last years of the old feudal Japan, and the first years of the new modern Japan. Like many Japanese, while interested in the new things from the rest of the world, over time he became increasingly concerned with the loss of many outstanding things from the traditional Japan, among them the traditional woodblock print. He was born in old Edo, in 1839. His father was a wealthy merchant who had bought his way into samurai status. At three years old, Yoshitoshi left home to live with his uncle, a pharmacist with no son, who was very fond of his nephew.
In in 1850 when he was 11 years old, Yoshitoshi was apprenticed to Kuniyoshi, one of great masters of the Japanese woodblock print. Kuniyoshi gave his apprentice a new name (he was originally named Owariya Yonejiro). Although he was not seen as Kuniyoshi's successor in his lifetime, he is now recognized as the chief pupil of Kuniyoshi. During his training, Yoshitoshi concentrated on refining his draftsmanship skills and copying his mentor’s sketches. Kuniyoshi emphasized drawing from real life, which was unusual in Japanese training because the artist’s goal was to capture the subject matter rather than making a literal interpretation of it. Yoshitoshi also learned the elements of western drawing techniques and perspective through studying Kuniyoshi’s collection of foreign prints and engravings.
Yoshitoshi's first print appeared in 1853, but nothing else appeared for many years, perhaps as a result of the illness of his master Kuniyoshi during his last years. Although his life was hard after Kuniyoshi's death in 1861, he did manage to produce some work, 44 prints of his being known from 1862.
His early work is full of extremely graphic violence and death. These themes were at least partly inspired by the deaths of Kuniyoshi and of Yoshitoshi's father in 1863 and by the lawlessness and violence of the Japan around him, which was simultaneously going through the breakdown of the feudal system imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate, as well as the impact of contact with Westerners. Between the years of 1862-1863 he had sixty-three of his designs, mostly kabuki prints, published.
In late 1863, Yoshitoshi began sketching severed heads and corpses. He would eventually incorporate these violent sketches into battle prints designed in a bloody and extravagant style. The public enjoyed these prints and Yoshitoshi began to move up in the ranks of ukiyo-e artist of this time in Edo. While he gained notoriety through his violent pieces in 1863, he was able to have ninety-five more of his designs published in 1865, most of which were military or historical in subject matter. Of the ninety-five prints published, two series' would bring Yoshitoshi’s creativity, originality, and imagination to light. The first series, Tsûzoku saiyûki, (A Modern Journey to the West), is about a Chinese folk-hero, which is depicted by a monkey. The second is a series known as Wakan hyaku monogatari, (One Hundred Stories of China and Japan), in which he illustrates traditional ghost stories. His imaginative prints set him apart from any other artist at this time. In 1866, Yoshitoshi designed the strange figures of Kinsei kyôgiden, (Biographies of Modern Men), which depicted the power struggle between two gambling rings.
Between 1866 and 1868 Yositoshi created several extremely disturbing prints. One of his most violent designs can be found in a series called Eimei nijûhasshûku, (Twenty-eight famous murders with verse). These prints show killings in very graphic detail. Some show stabbings and decapitations of women with bloody handprints on their robes. Some other examples of Yoshitoshi’s violent and bloody designs, similar to that in Eimei nijûhasshûku, can be found in a series from 1867 called Azuma no nishiki ukiyo kôdan, Tales of the floating world on the eastern brocade. In 1868, following the Battle of Ueno, Yoshitoshi created a series of prints called Kaidai hyaku sensô in which he portrays contemporary military soldiers as historical figures in a semi-western style, using close-up and unusual angles. Most of these figures are shown in the heat of battle with desperate expressions. By 1869 he was regarded as one of the best woodblock artists in Japan.
Shortly thereafter, he ceased to receive commissions, perhaps because the public were tired of scenes of violence. By 1871, Yoshitoshi became severely depressed, and his personal life became one of great turmoil, which was to continue sporadically until his death. He lived in appalling conditions with his devoted mistress, Okoto, who sold off her clothes and possessions to support him. At one point they were reduced to burning the floor-boards from the house for warmth.
His fortunes started to turn by 1873, when his mood improved, and he started to produce more prints. In recognition of his improved circumstances, at this point he changed his family name to Taiso (meaning "great resurrection"). Newspapers sprung up in the modernization drive, and Yoshitoshi was hired to produced prints for one. His financial condition was still precarious, though, and in 1876, his mistress Okoto, in a traditionally Japanese gesture of devotion, sold herself to a brothel to help him.
With the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, in which the old feudal order made one last attempt to stop the new Japan, newspaper circulation soared, and woodblock artists were in demand, with Yoshitoshi earning much attention. The prints he did gave him public recognition, and the money was a help, but it was not until 1882 that he was secure.
In late 1877, he took up with a new mistress, the geisha Oraku; like Okotu, she sold her clothes and possessions to support him, and when they separated after a year, she too hired herself out to a brothel.
By this point, the woodblock industry was in severe straits. All the great woodblock artists of the early part of the century, Hiroshige, Kunisada, and Kuniyoshi, had all died, and the wooblock print as an art form was dying in the confusion of modernizing Japan. Yoshitoshi insisted on high standards of production, and helped save it temporarily from degeneracy.
In 1880, he met another woman, a former Geisha with two children, Sakamaki Taiko. They were married in 1884, and while he continued to philander, her gentle and patient manner seems to have helped stabilize him.
His last years were among his most productive, with his great series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (1885 - 1892), and New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts (1889 - 1892), as well as some masterful triptychs of kabuki theatre actors and scenes.
During this period he also cooperated with his friend, the actor Danjuro, and others, in an attempt to perserve some of the traditional Japanese arts.
In his last years, his mental problems started to recur. In early 1891 he invited friends to a gathering of artists that did not actually exist, but rather turned out to be a delusion. After more symptoms, he was admitted to a mental hospital. He eventually left, in May 1892, but did not return home, but rented rooms instead. He died three weeks later in a rented room, on June 9, 1892, from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 53 years old.
Source: Excerpted from Wikipedia
Stevenson, John (1992). Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. San Francisco Graphic Society, 49. ISBN 0963221809.
Excerpted from Laurance P. Roberts, A Dictionary of Japanese Artists: (After 1873 changed his family name to Taiso.)11 Biog.; Ukiyo-e printmaker. Lived in Tokyo. Pupil of Utagawa Kuniyoshi; also studied with Kikuchi Yosai and was adopted by Tsukioka Sessai. In the 1870s worked as a newspaper illustrator. Author of many series of prints depicting biji'n, aspects of the moon, historical heroes. In 1887 illustrated Ukigumo (The Drifting Cloud) by Futabatei Shimei, regarded as Japan's first modern novel. Died mentally deranged. Very popular; one of last of true ukiyo-e artists working in the mainstream of the late ukiyo-e tradition. Made prints of historical and heroic subjects as well as scenes of contemporary life and its increasing Westernization. Best work from 1873 until his death; general work uneven and sometimes even bad; a mixture of ukiyo-e, yamato-e, and an ever increasing Western influence. An artist of considerable imagination; his drawings particularly fine. His tremendous popularity could explain the posthumous dates on some of his prints.