|Yoshitaki print from c. 1857
Onoe Tamizô II as Iwanaga Saemon
in Dan no ura kabuto gunki
Ichiyôsai Yoshitaki (一養齋芳瀧 1841-1899) was a prolific artist who began designing woodblock prints while still a teenager. By the early 1860s, when barely into his twenties, he had already become a much sought-after print designer. Unfortunately, Yoshitaki and other late-period artists are often associated with the decline of the Osaka actor print. This assessment is still widely held today, and indeed, much of Yoshitaki's work appears rather conventional and mannered.
Critics have suggested that this depreciation in quality was caused, to some degree, by the pressure to produce large quantities of designs to satisfy the demands of publishers who were eager to cash in on the popularity of the kabuki theater. This was at a time when, arguably, there were relatively few highly skilled portraitists. (The same had been said, however, about the so-called "decadence" of early nineteenth century Edo ukiyo-e). There exists an informative article written by Yoshitaki's pupil Kawasaki Kyosen (川崎巨泉 1877–1942), who described in some detail the practices of late-period Osaka print production that sheds some light on the working habits of print designers and publishers, and the time constraints they they faced. Kyosen recounted how actor prints (yakusha-e: 役者絵) were sometimes made in Kamigata during the early years of the Meiji period (1868–1912). Publishers selected the most popular scenes from forthcoming productions and then visit the theaters on opening day, accompanied by the artists. They would set up in the middle of the floor section, where the artist sketched the actors and stage settings. Seeing this, customers attending the premieres understood that prints of the performances would soon be available, and excitement about purchasing the mementos would mount. It was more a promotional stunt than a necessity, as the artists were so familiar with the plays (except, of course, newly written works) that there was no need to view the scenes again. Still, the artist might incorporate new costumes or encounter a new face among the actors. In Yoshitaki’s case, he provided a detailed block copy (hanshita-e: 版下絵), removing the need for a block copyist (hikkô: 筆耕) to work up the sketches into final designs for carving into the woodblocks. All the subsequent work (block carving, pulling of proofs, and final color printing by artisans employed by the publisher) had to be completed in two or three days. Then multiple editions of around 200 each were printed as long as the demand lasted, with some designs selling in many thousands of impressions.
Thus, artists such as Yoshitaki often worked under severe time constraints, expected to supply the publishers with their sketches in a timely manner. Frequently, an artist would collaborate with several publishers wanting to produce and sell yakusha-e from the same kabuki production in time for the opening (or at least have the first edition ready by one of the first few performances), or for a rival play opening at around the same time.
In any case, Yoshitaki managed to produce some notable designs, many issued in deluxe editions, and a few of those in ôban (大判 approx. 370 x 280 mm) sizes. Primarily, he was a prolific artist when working in the dominant chûban (中判 approx. 250 x 180 mm) format. Frequently, especially by the early 1870s, he was not always well-served by the prevailing modes of actor portraiture and somewhat garish colorants that were so popular during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Many of his prints seem harsh and cluttered. But among his many hundreds (possibly more than a 1,000) designs, there were a large number of eye-catching designs. Such an example is the image shown at the upper left, a chûban ôkubi-e ("large-head picture": 大首絵) depicts Iwanaga Saemon in Dan no ura kabuto gunki; (The helmet chronicle of Dan no ura: 壇浦兜軍記) at the Kado Theater, Osaka circa 1857. The colors are still those of the late Edo period before the more stringent color palette took hold in Osaka printmaking circles. The design is indicative of Yoshitaki's early period style of print design.
Personal Name (jinmei):
Tsunejirô (恒次郎 also read Kôjirô)
Art Pseudonyms (gô):
Pupils of Yoshitaki
Yoshitaki seems to taught only a few students, among them:
Kawasaki Kyosen (川崎巨泉 1877–1942), esp. prints and paintings depicting "images of toys" (omocha-e: 玩具絵)
Yoshikage (芳景 act. c. 1872-96)
Yoshioka (芳陸 act. c. 1875-1880s)
Yoshimitsu (芳光 act. c. 1873-90)
Yoshitaka (芳鶴 act. c. 1873-74)
For more information about Yoshitaki, see John Fiorillo's web page: