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Scholten Japanese Art exhibits works by one of the last great ukiyo-e artists of the 19th century
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), Picture of the Battle of Odai Castle in Shinano Province, 1868, woodblock printed triptych, 14 1/4 by 28 1/4 in., 36.2 by 71.8 cm

NEW YORK, NY.- Scholten Japanese Art is presenting during the September 2017 Asia Week Darkening Skies: The Tumultuous Times of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, a continuation of their March 2017 landmark single-artist exhibition on Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), one of the last great ukiyo-e artists of the 19th century. 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 focuses 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.

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 Japan’s first modern naval battle with steam-powered warships, Battle at Hakodate Harbor, shows Imperial forces standing on the shore facing a sinking ship engulfed in flames, with black smoke from the ship and grey smoke from the cannon blasts mingling in the evening sky.

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.

Yoshitoshi became well-known for these bloody prints, variously called chimidoro-e (‘blood-stained pictures’), muzan-e (‘atrocious pictures’), or zankoku-e (‘cruel-pictures’), some of which were issued following a period when he was known to have suffered an unidentified illness around the end of 1872. Scholars have often theorized that along with his witnessing the Battle of Ueno, the illness (sometimes described as a depression or mental illness although there is scant evidence to confirm the nature of his ailments) may have led to a break-down and an apparent fascination with disturbing imagery. However, he began designing bloody prints years before both the war and his illness and as such, a direct correlation is tenuous at best.

In the years that followed, as the rollicking uncertainty of the early Meiji period settled and Japan continued to rapidly Westernize, Yoshitoshi’s work reflected the forward-facing optimism of the nation focused on the future, while simultaneously glancing backward at a culture at risk of being lost in this new modern era. As described by Gallery Director Katherine Martin, “His legacy came to be defined by his extremes: on the one end are disturbing images; at the other are lyrical works for which he is equally famous, such as the series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon and New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts, both exploring Japan’s rich history and culture by reveling in legends, myths, and ghost stories. In the end, Yoshitoshi’s oeuvre—his early embrace of dark and violent subjects, and his later association with the moon itself— is a manifestation of the supposition that without the darkness, there can be no light.”

The gallery exhibition displays approximately 40 prints and is on view through Friday, September 15th from 11am to 5pm; and otherwise by appointment through October 20th. The entire exhibition of 40 prints is available on their website at

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