The above image fascinates me. It’s from an exhibition of the prints of Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), currently showing at the Asian Art Museum in the city’s civic center.
Yoshitoshi witnessed a period of great transition in Japan, during which the country essentially went from feudalism to modernism. He works out of the ukiyo-e or “floating world” woodblock tradition, but instead of beautiful pictures of actors and courtesans he prefers themes from folklore and history — as well as thinly veiled comments on contemporary events, despite a prohibition against such subjects. He is often associated with the macabre and unsettling (curiously, like his European and American literary contemporaries Baudelaire and Poe), but this dismissive characterization does him a disservice. Besides his sophisticated design skills, he is a master of psychology, often capturing telling moments when stories devolve on some poignant revelation — the moment of seeing in a mirror that a beautiful women is actually a demon, for example.
This work is called “A Woman Saves the Nation.” The figure in the middle is the shogun Tsunayoshi . He has been duped by a conniving minister, Yanagisawa, and is essentially in the grip of a magic spell. On the left is his wife. With a troubled expression she holds the knife with which she will kill the minister and then commit suicide.The large figure on the right is a woman in the emperor’s dream. The pattern of cherry blossoms and cracked ic on her robe has connotations of sex between a young woman and an older man.
The entire work has an extraordinary decorative quality that is almost Klimpt-like. The blockprint colors are unusually bright and saturated. The planes of the composition are staggeringly complex and assured. I think this is an absolutely brilliant work.