Toshidama Gallery are celebrating the work of Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892) this month with a show of twenty-one of his woodblock prints. One of the best pieces in the exhibition is Ushiwaka Maru learns Martial Arts From Sojobo, King of the Tengu from 1880 (above). It seems to be a very fine, imaginative composition predicting his mature, more western style of drawing, but it has a heritage that ties him not only to his teacher Kuniyoshi but to the Utagawa School of printmakers as a whole.
Firstly – what are Tengu? Almost certainly derived from their Chinese antecedents, tian-gou, the tengu of Japan are mountain dwelling demons, part bird, part human. They appear in Japanese folk art and folk stories from earliest times until the present day. Their image is a feature of modern manga and of decorations in Japanese restaurants and gift shops. The tengu were said to be gifted with supernatural powers: shape shifting, telepathy and telekinesis. They dwelt in the mountain pine forests and were mischievous and righteous rather than evil; and crucially, unparalleled in martial arts and fighting skills. The Yoshitoshi print at the top of the page shows the Japanese hero Yoshitsune no minamoto (Ushiwaka maru in youth) fighting tengu under the gaze of an old man. Yoshitsune (1159 – 1189) is known from the literary legend, the medieval tales; Heike Monogatari. Yoshitsune has parallels with the English folk hero Robin Hood; and his is a tragic and very famous story in Japan. His father was persecuted by the Taira Clan and Yoshitsune was brought up in a monastery. Legend has it that he was then taught the secrets of fighting by the tengu before taking up rebellion against his father’s old enemies. The old man in the print is Sojobo – the mythical king of the tengu, a mountain hermit and minor deity who recognised the young Yoshitsune’s potential and turned him from novice monk to great national hero.
What’s interesting here is the great tradition that links Yoshitoshi’s apparently quite modern piece with traditional Utagawa renderings of the same subject. More surprising still is the familiar oversight that art historians make with the work of Utagawa Kunisada. Kuniyoshi is nearly always credited with the creation of the familiar musha-e – the warrior print – in Japanese art. Kunisada is less well regarded and looked upon as a theatre artist first and foremost. This is especially true of the single sheet warrior print, an innovation of Kunisada’s in the early 1820’s but which established the career of Kuniyoshi some years later following his popular reinterpretation – Kunisada’s single sheet warrior prints were undoubtedly the key source for the emerging Kuniyoshi.
I was surprised to find that the first print of the young Yoshitsune fighting with tengu, and one which establishes the small genre of prints of this famous subject, is actually by Kunisada from 1815. Again, Kuniyoshi is usually credited with establishing these genre pieces, and his version (illustrated above) which dates from 1851 is well known and frequently reproduced. Kuniyoshi places Sojobo in the centre of the composition but follows closely the layout and overall style of Kunisada. The next time the subject emerges is by the less well known Utagawa Kunitsana in 1859. Kunitsana was a pupil of Toyokuni the 1st, his version also follows the model of Kunisada. Yoshikazu (a pupil of Kuniyoshi) also produced an example in 1859 which is very like the piece that Yoshitoshi was to draw in 1880, Kunisada the 2nd made a print of the subject which is much less accomplished.
Yoshitoshi’s first version of the scene dates from 1865 and closely follows the style and design of Kuniyoshi, especially in the drawing of the figures. His second attempt, the triptych above, is from 1880. It’s a superb print – the handling of the pine forest is dense and naturalistic, the drawing of Sojobo is mature and sensitive as is the figure of Yoshitsune who has shed the static, formal pose and styling of the the Utagawa School and is drawn in a naturalistic manner that is not quite western nor really Japanese. Yoshitoshi returned to the subject in a fine diptych of 1886 – here Yoshitoshi’s casual, brushy naturalism is fully developed, as is the flowing, fluid drawing style which Meiji block carvers were able miraculously to interpret – as if they were slippery brush strokes and not the hard, resistant wood from which they were cut.
The tengu live on – entertainingly in manga cartoons like Tengu Buranchi – a supernatural chef in a mystical hotel; and as numerous gifts and signs all over Japan. Yoshitoshi – His debt to Kuniyoshi is at Toshidama Gallery until 10th October 2013. A longer article on his life and work appears at our sister blog, Toshidama Blogspot.