Samurai, Ghosts, And Lovers At The Dayton Art Institute
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi is widely considered to be the last master of traditional Japanese wood carving. His colorful prints were made in the 19th century, but his imagery is everywhere today. You’ll find it in books and on calendars. Posters hang in sushi shops and college dorm rooms. But when Dayton Art Institute reopens on July 10th, they’ll have 100 rare, original Yoshitoshi prints on display.
Asian Art Curator Peter Doebler is standing next to a samurai helmet that has gigantic deer antlers branching out on both sides.
He says it’s there to “enhance how you’re enjoying the prints.”
There are also Samurai swords, kimonos, and a Japanese screen, but the real focus of the exhibit are the Yoshitoshi prints, which have been popular for centuries.
In the late 1800s, photography and Western printmaking methods were starting to have an impact on Japanese art, but Yoshitoshi stuck to traditional wood carving and became one of the best known artists of his era.
His work was in demand, and Doebler says Yoshitoshi worked with a team of talented wood carvers and printers to meet that demand whenever he released a print.
“As a design was done, the publisher would release it as an individual print. People would line up outside to get it. So, this was something you could collect,” Doebler says.
Between 1885 and 1892, Yoshitoshi made a series of prints called “100 Aspects of the Moon.” The prints drew from over a thousand years of Japanese history and literature: there are samurais in battle, women in detailed kimonos, parades and parties, ghosts and folklore.
Basically, everything under the sun, though the moon and its phases are a unifying theme in this collection.
Then, Yoshitoshi died.
“So, the publisher decided to do an album set of all one hundred prints,” Doeblers says. It served as a memorial album and came with some extras, like a portrait of the artist and commentary by one of his colleagues.
Fast forward 125 years, and the Dayton Art Institute was able to acquire one of those sets with all 100 handmade prints, something that’s become quite rare.
Doebler says each print is of a powerful moment. One of his favorites is of a samurai about to commit harakiri after failing his master in battle.
“He has his small sword. He’s about ready to disembowel himself, and he’s just written his final death poem that is sitting in front of him. And behind is this screen painting of a tiger that glares out at you. You feel this kind of moment of introspection, thinking about what conflict must this person be feeling inside,” Doebler says. “So, Yoshitoshi takes something very specific to Japanese culture and blows it out to something that really speaks to every human.”
In the art studios on the second floor of DAI, local print maker Andrea Starkey is producing one of her own works. She specializes in Japanese woodcarving and says the scope and scale of the exhibit is inspirational.
“The second I walked in, I felt like a kid in a candy store,” Starkey says. “Just to see all these amazing prints in one place at one time. It just--[gasps]--it took my breath away for a moment. His color just pops. It’s so bright, vibrant.”
Here, she says it’s important to remember the work that went into each print. The images have to be drawn and carved backwards, as paper is pressed onto the wood to make the lines and images. And, for each different color in a print, a different block has to be carved.
Starkey says many Yoshitoshi prints required 14, 15, even 20 blocks to produce. And, in addition to colors, he would have blocks made just to add textures and patterns to things like clothing.
“It’s a block that’s carved, but there’s no ink used,” Starkey explains. “When you use damp paper on top of that, you pick up the impression. So, it just adds a level of subtle details that just makes me go ‘ah-ha!’ It’s amazing.”
That level of detail and depth is one of the many reasons that seeing these handmade 19th century prints is different than seeing the images online or in a book.
Perhaps most importantly, Curator Peter Doebler says this is likely the last chance Daytonians will have to see all 100 Aspects of the Moon close to home.
“Not many museums in the country have all 100 prints, and also they’re very light sensitive, so we can only show them for a few months at a time every few years. So, we’ll probably never show it all together again,” he says.
The show runs through September 13, 2020.
DAI will re-open to members on July 10 and to the public on July 17. Hours will be limited because of the coronavirus. For more information, visit www.daytonartinstitute.org