Yoshida Tôshi (吉田遠志) was the eldest son of Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950) with whom he studied beginning at the age of fourteen. From 1932 to 1935, he also enrolled at the Taiheiyo-Gakai (Pacific Painting Association) which had been co-founded by his father. Before the Pacific War, Tôshi traveled widely with his father in Asia, Europe, Egypt, and the United States. In subsequent years, he continued to travel on his own, especially in Mexico, the United States, Canada, and Africa. He remained in his father's studio (established in 1925) until Hiroshi's death in 1950 and ran the family operations thereafter.
With the death of his father, Tôshi became the head of the family, initially focusing on restoring their finances, which had suffered after the war. He took on the leadership of the Yoshida studio, promoting his father's work while encouraging expansion of the idiom that his father had established. He also supported experimentation in a more modern, international style, as could be found in his brother Hodaka's more adventurous oeuvre. In fact, years before, Tôshi had protected his brother from their father's condemnation of abstraction by maintaining Hodaka's "secret" — that he was designing abstract prints in the mid-1940s. Tôshi once said that it was Hodaka's modernist works that inspired his own abstract oils starting around 1949 and prints beginning at least by 1952.
Tôshi, working in the shadow of his demanding father, adopted Hiroshi's naturalistic drawing and compositional style. However, he sometimes selected subjects that his father did not embrace, such as views of the sea and wildlife. Soon after his Hiroshi's death, Tôshi's rebellion fully emerged when he began making abstract prints in the sôsaku hanga manner without the collaboration of the Yoshida workshop. Even so, he continued to make representational art throughout his career.
One of Tôshi's early prints (his fourth known print design) is titled Raichô ("Thunderbird" or grouse: 雷鳥), a woodcut from 1930. He cut some of the blocks, but was not yet skilled enough to carve the most detailed parts. There was a long tradition of animal studies in Japanese painting and prints, classified as kachôga (flower and bird pictures: 花鳥画). The young Tôshi thereby associated himself with generations of those who came before while intentionally selecting a thematic realm that his father did not pursue. Thus, a measure of independence was gained while avoiding conflict with Hiroshi over subject matter. The grouse is called a "rock ptarmigan," a game bird of medium size. It is also known as a "snow grouse." Tôshi, still not yet twenty years of age (by Western count), demonstrates here a perceptive and detailed observation of nature.
Tôshi's oeuvre may be divided into five phases: (1) Early animal prints from 1925-1930 (see immediately above); (2) landscapes and genre scenes in keeping with his father's subject matter from 1939 (see immediately below); (3) Landscapes and genre scenes produced during the Pacific War; (4) post-war works including oil paintings, drawings, and prints both in naturalistic and abstract styles and landscapes; and (5) oil paintings, drawings, and prints on African themes. The chronicler of the Yoshida family, Eugene Skibbe, once wrote that, "At the center of Tôshi's aesthetic is a vision into the heart of things in which he sees, not fragmentation and conflict, but unity, order, and harmony. His works often contain both rational clarity (immediacy) and mystical repose. This vision guided him throughout his career, finding expression in surprising new ways in the African period (see Skibbe, Andon ref. below).
The view shown above was published in 1938. Shinjuku (新宿) is a special ward in Tokyo that today serves as a major shopping, entertainment, and administrative center around Shinjuku Station, the world's busiest railway station. In the early Edo period (1603-1868), it was a temporary resting place for travelers, hence the meaning of its name, "New Inn." Shinjuku was developed after the Great Kantô earthquake of 1923. By the early 1930s, the ward was a busy area with department stores, movie theaters, and cafés. The area was destroyed during the Pacific War, but was gradually rebuilt. Tôshi's scene documents the atmosphere of the pre-war site, its many shops identified by lanterns whose warm yellow glow illuminates the street. All the pedestrians are in traditional Japanese dress except for the figure on the far right, who wears a Western hat and coat.
After the Pacific War,, Tôshi continued to design prints more or less following his father's aesthetic. The example shown below, from 1953, is titled Ushijima no fuji (Wisteria at Ushijima: 牛島の藤). The close focus upon the twining vines and intensely colored pendulous flowers make this one of Tôshi's more memorable nature studies. The gold-colored background evokes traditional Japanese screen paintings done on gold-leaf.
Starting around 1949, Tôshi began to explore abstraction, prompted in part by the work of his brother Hodaka, but also by his awareness of non-objective art in the West. At first he painted a few oils on canvas. These included, in 1949, "Three Women" and "Whirlpool," each measuring 640 x 530 mm (see second Skibbe ref. below). In 1952, two years after Hiroshi's death, Tôshi embarked upon a long period of producing abstract prints while also working on naturalistic landscapes, nature views, and scenes from his travels abroad. By one count. his abstract prints number 289 works from 1952 to 1975 (most were made from 1954 to 1965). Two examples are shown below.
The image on the left is titled "Polarization" from 1962, which was issued in an edition of 100. It is one of the more dramatic abstract designs from Tôshi, with anthropomorphic forms inscribed with hieroglyphs of his own invention, with possible influences from Mesoamerican glyphs, Chinese bronzes, and Native American patterns. They also recall some of the prints made by his brother Hodaka, which were inspired by the Mayan art that the two of them saw while visiting Mexico in 1955.
The woodcut below right is titled "Creation" from 1968. Here, five variants of multi-color forms float against a quietly textured background. The shapes — crescents with extended, complex stems or tails — vaguely suggest, whether intentional or not, letters in the Arabic alphabet. Perhaps, instead, there is a connection to astral imagery, a sort of personal cosmology expressed in forms and colors. Regardless, the delicacy and refinement of the shapes and chromatic gradations represented another realm of exploration for Tôshi in his abstract oeuvre.
Several of Tôshi's finest naturalistic works can be found among his 29 woodcuts depicting African scenes, as well as about fifteen oil paintings and a large number of sketches. He had traveled to Africa in 1972, and the experience inspired him to capture in visual media the forces of nature. In addition to the nearly 30 woodcuts, he also painted more than a dozen oils.
Moreover, Tôshi devoted twelve years (1982 to 1993) to writing and illustrating a series of children's books about animal life in Africa called Dôbutsu ehon shiriizu ― Afurika (Picture-book of animal life in Africa: 動物絵本シリーズ―アフリカ). The first volume, a set of five books, is titled Hajimete no kari (The First Time [First Hunt]: はじめてのかり); see book cover at right. Skibbe offered the following description: "The stories Tôshi tells are based on careful observation as well as scientific data.... The first set of five books ... tells the story of three immature lions ... tired of playing within sight of the pride, venture out on their own to 'really' hunt. From that premise the reader is taken on a walking tour of the various animals ... rhino, water buffalo, cattle, egrets, zebra, impalas, cheetahs, gnu, vultures, hyenas, a leopard, and a porcupine. At each encounter the young lions are either rebuffed or prove too timid to give chase." (See second Skibbe ref. below.) The book series was intended to number twenty volumes, but it ended three shy at seventeen volumes. These illustrated storybooks were critically acclaimed both in Japan and Europe, winning a prize at the Children's Book Fair, Bologna, in 1984; the Nippon prize from the Yomiuri newspaper in 1985; an art prize from the Sankei newspaper, also in 1985; and a culture prize in Evian, France.
An example from Tôshi's excellent series of ten woodcuts titled Aru hi no Higashi Afurika ("One day in East Africa": ある日の東アフリカ) is shown below. Wildebeest are in full stride as they race across the African savanna. The design is one of several in which Tôshi captured swift animal movement using brilliant carving and printing techniques. Some of the lines create a moiré effect on either side of the wildebeest in the right foreground, achieved by printing two separate blocks carved with parallel curving lines that overlap. The warm tan-yellow hue dominating the print suggests the heat on the savanna.
Tôshi's final work is shown at the top of this page, a view of two red-crowned cranes engaged in a mating dance. Carved and printed in 1994, the woodcut measures 330 x 445 mm. Tôshi's depiction of the elegant birds amidst falling snow captures an elemental moment in nature, evoking the cycles of life and regeneration.
In 1991-1992, Tôshi supervised the construction of a small family museum in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, which became a showcase for the diverse talent among the many artists in the Yoshida family. Tôshi's works are in numerous private and public collections, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia; Art Institute of Chicago; Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; British Museum, London; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Cincinnati Art Museum; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Harvard Art Museums; Honolulu Museum of Art, Hawai'i; Krakow National Museum, Poland; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Art, Atami, Japan; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian, Washington, DC; National Museum of Australia, Canberra; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; National Museums of Scotland; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Paris National Library; Seattle Museum of Art; and Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.
Note about editions: Nearly always, lifetime signatures are pencil signed in English by Tôshi, whereas posthumous signatures are stamped facsimiles. However, very late in his career, when illness and weakness in his writing hand prevented Tôshi from signing, Tôshi supervised the studio printing and, on impressions he approved, used a printed signature accompanied by an embossed seal. The same applies for both numbered and unlimited editions. © 2020 by John Fiorillo