Thursday, January 6, 2011

Yoshitoshi Tonight

If you are in Seattle tonight, Cullom Gallery is open late for the First Thursday Gallery Walk.  The exhibit Yoshitoshi Monogatari: Tales of a Grand Past & Uncertain Future is up through January 15th. 

The word and concept of monogatari in Japanese literature is fairly commonplace, though it's not a word tossed around much in the West.  Some may be familiar with it as part of the title of the famous and original novel, Genji Monogatari, or The Tales of Genji, written by the great Heian Period poet and novelist, Lady Murasaki (c. 973–c. 1014 or 1025)A monogatari is basically a literary form for fictionalized versions of epic Japanese stories.  My use in the title for this show, I hope, serves to frame the historical and mythical woodblock prints of Japan's last great ukiyo-e artist, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), as the artist's own artistic spin on the legends and tales of Japan's grand past, which as a body of work produced at it's particular time, also served as a cultural tether for a nation embroiled in the upheaval of the rapidly changing and culturally unsettling Meiji Period (1868-1912).

Lunacy, from One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, 1889
Yoshitoshi's short life of fifty-three years coincided with five decades of the most dramatic and raid cultural change theretofore experienced by Japan and its people.  A young man in the waning years of the Edo Period (1615-1868) Yoshitoshi witnessed the fall of his government's self-enforced period of isolation, and by all accounts, anxiously considered the flood of Western invention, ideas, and institutions that made quick inroads into Japanese society with the transfer of power from the dynastic Tokugawa Shogunate to the pro-west Emperor Meiji.  For Yoshitoshi this official drive to modernize and westernize threatened the very fiber of his nation's identity.  He responded with ukiyo-e designs that on the surface recount ancient folktales, heroic legends, and epic battles, but on a deeper level, are a cultural touchstone for a nation, he felt, in danger of forgetting its past. 

Ushiwaka (Yoshitsune) and Benkei duelling on Gojo Bridge, 1881
Okubo Tadanori rescuing Tokugawa Ieyasu on the battlefield, from Twenty-four accomplishments in Imperial Japan, 1881
Chang Fei on Chohan Bridge glares back at the multitude of soldiers, from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 1885

I also wonder, though I have not teased out proof it it, if the  historic themes in the prints of the later part of his life also contain Yoshitoshi's own veiled commentary on the political events of the Meiji Period, rife with its own power struggles and insurrections.  For me, considered en masse, Yoshitoshi's historic ukiyo-e read like a visual monogatari, telling a Meiji-era rendition of Japan's ancient beginnings.  This exhibit includes 19 single sheet prints, diptychs, and triptychs from some of the artist's best-known series, including Yoshitoshi's Courageous Warriors, New Selections of Eastern Brocade Pictures, Mirror of Famous Commanders of Great Japan, Twenty-Four Accomplishments in Imperial Japan, New Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts.  I hope to see many of you here.

No comments:

Post a Comment