“New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts” - The Japanese ukiyo-e artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

9 June 1892 , the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi died in Tokyo.

holding back the night
with its increasing brilliance
the summer moon
– Yoshitoshi's death poem

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: "Enlightenment"
from his series "
New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts"

The “pictures of the floating world”, the ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings depicting a wide range of images that dominated the mindscape of the rich merchant class of the Edo period (1603 – 1867), from kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers to famous landscapes and erotica and historical and mythological scenes, formed the Western perception of traditional Japanese art as well. As soon as they became available, by accident, actually, the prints caused a downright boom in Europe during the late 19th century. However, creating ukiyo-e prints was already dying craft in Japan during the Meiji Restoration and their quality suffered a sharp decline. But a few artists upheld the 200 years old tradition and created late masterpieces. Both Kiyochika and Chikanobu chose ukiyo-e to show how Western influence transformed Japan while Yoshitoshi reached deeply into the treasure chest of Japanese mythology and folklore and created prints of singular, disturbing beauty, a series of moon motives and highly graphic scenes of gruesome bloodshed.

Yoshitoshi: "Akashi Gidayu writing his death poem before committing Seppuku"
from "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon"

With an artist’s biography that certainly bears comparison with that of his European fin de siècle contemporaries, Yoshitoshi, after a fall from grace of his audience and buyers when his initially highly successful first series of “bloody prints” went out of style during the late 1860s, living on the edge of Japanese society, suffering from severe depressions and delusions, but influencing his various female companions to sell their possessions and finally their bodies to support him until they were supplanted with the next one while the artist heated their joint living space with the floor-boards and staggered between falling from one sort of limbo into the next and peaking with an occasional assignments from newspapers to create full-page prints and creating further highly controversial series of prints until he finally got a grip again. Yoshitoshi accomplished his most mature and artistically innovative series “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon“ and “New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts” during the last seven years of his life. After suffering from another bout of delusions, he was hospitalised and, after his release, chose not to return to the family he had started in the meanwhile, but died alone in some rented room from a cerebral haemorrhage  at the age of 53, leaving a rich legacy of one of the last ukiyo-e masters who managed to preserve the old style in a high quality as well as incorporating new ideas, local as well as western, and adding his own innovations – today, Yoshitoshi is often perceived as the greatest Japanese artist of his time.

Yoshitoshi: Sagi-musume, the Heron Maiden

Depicted above is Yoshitoshi’s imagination of Sagi-musume, the Heron Maiden from his “New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts” (between 1889 – 1892) , inspired by a central kabuki dance piece showing the spirit of a heron wandering through the snow who had been a beautiful maiden in a previous life. She had found love, was betrayed and in her grief came back as a white heron, dying again in the dance to be reborn afresh.

And more about Yoshitoshi on: