New to the Ackland: A Meiji-Era Japanese Print

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A musician entrances a pack of wolves with music

Compositionally cornered by two ferociously fanged wolves and the full moon, a man cowers in fear amid the underbrush of an empty moor. This is the scene depicted in Kitayama Moon, 1886, the thirty-second image in Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon series of polychrome woodblock prints, and one of many late nineteenth-century Japanese prints that the Ackland has recently acquired.

Yoshitoshi was a powerhouse within printmaking in Japan during a time when the country was experiencing rapid cultural change and technological innovation. His output is estimated at over ten thousand prints in many different series, but enthusiasts commonly cite One Hundred Aspects of the Moon as Yoshitoshi’s magnum opus. His expressive genius allowed him to thrive in a traditional form of printmaking even as newly introduced photomechanical processes transformed his industry.

His moon pictures are connected only by the presence (sometimes barely perceptible at that) of the moon while also illustrating scenes of mythology, literature, and history from both Japanese and Chinese cultures. This print presents a scene from the life of the sixteenth-century Japanese courtier and music teacher, Toyohara Sumiaki. While wandering outside the palace, he was surrounded by a wolfpack. Assuming he would not survive the encounter, Sumiaki played one final song on his instrument, only to find that the music entranced the animals. They went on to leave him unharmed.

Interestingly, Yoshitoshi does not illustrate the story’s most intriguing element, the musical taming of the beasts, but focuses on Sumiaki’s instinctual fear. He centers Sumiaki’s defensively raised arm. The geometric patterning of his voluminous robes stands in stark contrast to the curled treatment of both the plants’ structures and the animals’ fur. The resulting visual clash makes it seem less like an allusive episode in an individual story, and more like an encounter between two worlds not intended to coexist.

Image credit: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Japanese, 1839 – 1892, Kitayama Moon (Kitayama no tsuki), no. 32 from One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, 1886, polychrome woodblock print (Ōban tate-e format), frame: 20 1/8 × 16 in. (51.1 × 40.6 cm). Gift of Robert N. Capen, 2022.22.6.