Last week the Print Club of NY invited me to their members reception at the Ronin Gallery. In addition to seeing the wonderful exhibit One Hundred Views of the Moon, we were also treated to a lively and informative talk about the show by the gallery President, David Libertson, son of the owners who founded Ronin forty-two years ago.
On exhibit are about half of the 100 prints which comprise One Hundred Views of the Moon, one of the masterpieces by Japanese artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.
Born in 1839, Yoshitoshi was one of the last great masters of the ukiyo-e genre of wood block printing. Bridging the Edo period, the Meiji Restoration, and modern Japan, he was noted for his imaginative and innovative style. His prints are imbued with emotion and elegance, portraying people realistically. While his art focused on traditional scenes from history and kabuki theatre, as well as images of foreigners, Yoshitoshi used the new, aniline dyes that were being introduced into Japan from the West.
Not only did he live though the political and economic upheavals of 19th century Japan, his own life was incredibly tumultuous, punctuated by periods of precarious finances, personal instability, fragile physical and mental health. From the age of three, he was raised by an uncle; at age eleven, he apprenticed with Kuniyoshi, one of the grand masters of the Utagawa School of woodblock printing. In his early twenties, he lost both his father and his teacher, and thereafter knew several years of bitter poverty, living – at different times – with two mistresses, both of whom hired themselves out to brothels to support him.
Yoshitoshi made his first print in 1853, the year that Admiral Perry arrived and forced Japan to open to the West. The 1860’s were a period of political upheaval, and many bloody battles, which Yoshitoshi reflected in his work (his “grotesque period”) – nonetheless, his prints were quite popular. But tastes change with the times. In the early 1870’s his work was no longer in demand, and the artist was severely depressed. However, in the mid to late 1870’s he began working steadily, as newspapers commissioned him to design woodblocks with scenes of graphic violence and death to accompany their “true crime” stories (I guess gore always sells).
The 1880’s were a period of financial stability, personal stability (he got married) and artistic output: in 1883, Yoshitoshi created the Flute Player Triptych, and between 1885 and 1891, the images for three series: One Hundred Views of the Moon; 32 Aspects of Women; and 36 Ghosts, while also creating prints of historical subjects.
In 1892 he entered an asylum, and in 1892, he died at age 53 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
During his lifetime, woodblocks prints, whose production is very labor intensive, were facing increasing competition from photography and lithography. Yoshitoshi’s work is concerned with what was being lost – in subject matter and artistic process – as Japan modernized.
One Hundred Views of the Moon is a series of one hundred single sheets, depicting a wide variety of subjects – Japanese and Chinese history and myth, Noh and Kabuki theatre, contemporary Japanese life – linked only by the presence of the moon in each print. While its imagery hearkens back to a softer time, invoking Old Japan, the series employs the more intense colors made possible by the new dyes. The moon was very important in 19th century Japan – in the Meiji period, moon viewing parties were raucous affairs, so it’s no surprise that this was one of Yoshitoshi’s most popular series. People would line up before dawn to buy each new design, only to find that the edition sold out (and you thought only today’s teenage sneaker buyers do things like that!)
Even though we think of the artist when we think of wood block images, in the 1800’s it was the publisher who was the driving force – he hired the artist to create a sketch or painting, which was then handed to block carvers, who, using cherry wood, carved a block for each color; the printer then printed the images on paper made from the bark of the mulberry tree. After 200 – 250 prints, the block is degraded; after 500 are made, the prints are no longer considered to be in excellent condition. In 19th century Japan, prints were not framed and hung on the wall; rather, collectors would put them in a chest, and take them out to view.
The Print Club of New York is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It brings together a group of avid print collectors – membership is limited to 200 – offering an educational program that includes lectures by artists, curators and conservators, as well as visits to galleries, auction houses, print shops and artists’ studios. Every year the club commissions a print for it’s membership. Check out their website for more information.