Behold the Masterpiece by Japan’s Last Great Woodblock Artist: View Online Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (1885)

Uruguayan-French poet Jules Laforgue, one of the young T.S. Eliot’s favorites, pub­lished his major work, The Imi­ta­tion of Our Lady the Moon, in 1886, two years before his untime­ly death at 27 from tuber­cu­lo­sis. It is “a book of poems,” notes Wuther­ing Expec­ta­tions, “about clowns who live on the moon… wear black silk skull­caps and use dan­de­lions as bou­tonieres.” The Pier­rots in his poems, Laforgue once wrote in a let­ter, “seem to me to have arrived at true wis­dom” as they con­tem­plate them­selves and their con­flicts in the light of the moon’s many faces.

I can­not help but think of Laforgue when I think of anoth­er artist who, around the same time, began on the oth­er side of the world what is often con­sid­ered the great­est work of his career. The artist, Japan­ese print­mak­er Tsukio­ka Yoshi­toshi, also stood astride an old world and a rapid­ly mod­ern­iz­ing new one. And his visu­al rumi­na­tions, though lack­ing Laforgue’s arch com­e­dy, beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trate the same kind of dreamy con­tem­pla­tion, lone­li­ness, melan­choly, and weary res­ig­na­tion. The moon, as Laforgue wrote—a “Cat’s‑eye of bright / Redeem­ing light”—both com­forts and taunts us: “It comes with the force of a body blow / That the Moon is a place one can­not go.”

Yoshitoshi’s prints fea­ture a fix­a­tion on the moon’s mys­ter­ies, and a the­atri­cal device to aid in the con­tem­pla­tion of its mean­ings: char­ac­ters from Chi­nese and Japan­ese folk­lore and heroes from nov­els and plays, all of them staged just after key moments in their sto­ries, in sta­t­ic pos­tures and in silent dia­logue with the night. Heav­i­ly invest­ed with lit­er­ary allu­sions and deeply laden with sym­bol­ism, the 100 prints, writes the Fitzwilliam Muse­um, “con­jure a refined poet­ry to give a new twist to tra­di­tion­al sub­jects.”

The por­traits, most­ly soli­tary, wist­ful, and brood­ing, “pen­e­trat­ed deep­er into the psy­chol­o­gy of his sub­jects” than pre­vi­ous work in Yoshi­toshi’s Ukiyo‑e style, one soon to be altered per­ma­nent­ly by West­ern influ­ences flood­ing in between the Edo and Mei­ji peri­ods. Yoshi­toshi both incor­po­rat­ed and resist­ed this influ­ence, using fig­ures from Kabu­ki and Noh the­ater to rep­re­sent tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese arts, yet intro­duc­ing tech­niques “nev­er seen before in Japan­ese wood­block prints,” writes J. Noel Chi­ap­pa, break­ing con­ven­tion by “show[ing] peo­ple freely, from all angles,” rather than only in three-quar­ter view, and by using increased real­ism and West­ern per­spec­tives.

Yoshi­toshi began pub­lish­ing these prints in 1885, and they proved huge­ly pop­u­lar. Peo­ple lined up for new addi­tions to the series, which ran until 1892, when the artist died after a long strug­gle with men­tal ill­ness. In these last years, he pro­duced his great­est work, which also includes a kabu­ki-style series based on Japan­ese and Chi­nese ghost sto­ries, New Forms of 36 Ghost Sto­ries. “In a Japan that was turn­ing away from its own past,” Chi­ap­pa writes, Yoshi­toshi, “almost sin­gle-hand­ed­ly man­aged to push the tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese wood­block print to a new lev­el, before it effec­tive­ly died with him.

His tumul­tuous career, after very suc­cess­ful begin­nings, had fall­en into dis­re­pair and he had been pub­lish­ing illus­tra­tions for sen­sa­tion­al­ist news­pa­pers, an erot­ic por­trait series of famous cour­te­sans, and macabre prints of vio­lence and cru­el­ty. These pre­oc­cu­pa­tions become com­plete­ly styl­ized and psy­chol­o­gized in his final works, espe­cial­ly in One Hun­dred Aspects of the Moon, an extra­or­di­nary series of prints. View them all, with short descrip­tions of each sub­ject, here, or at the Ronin Gallery, who pro­vide infor­ma­tion on the size and con­di­tion of each of its prints and allow view­ers to zoom in on every detail. The images have also been pub­lishished in a 2003 book, One Hun­dred Aspects of the Moon: Japan­ese Wood­block Prints by Yoshi­toshi.

While it cer­tain­ly helps to under­stand the lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al con­text of each print in the series, it is not nec­es­sary for an appre­ci­a­tion of their exquis­ite visu­al poet­ry. Per­haps the artist’s memo­r­i­al poem after his death at age 53 pro­vides us with a mas­ter key for view­ing his One Hun­dred Aspects of the Moon.

hold­ing back the night
with increas­ing bril­liance
the sum­mer moon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Hap­pens When a Japan­ese Wood­block Artist Depicts Life in Lon­don in 1866, Despite Nev­er Hav­ing Set Foot There

Down­load Hun­dreds of 19th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Wood­block Prints by Mas­ters of the Tra­di­tion

The Art of Col­lo­type: See a Near Extinct Print­ing Tech­nique, as Lov­ing­ly Prac­ticed by a Japan­ese Mas­ter Crafts­man

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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