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  • Yoshitoshi's Masterpiece: The Flute Player|Ronin Gallery

Yoshitoshi's Masterpiece: The Flute Player

Written by
Madison Folks
Published on
June 7, 2019 at 5:28:07 AM PDT June 7, 2019 at 5:28:07 AM PDTth, June 7, 2019 at 5:28:07 AM PDT

Fujiwara no Yasumasa (958-1036) was a renowned musician and poet in the Heian court. He is best known for the tale of a moonlit evening, banditry, and the power of beauty. One autumn night Yasumasa made his way home through the isolated Ichiharano moor. He played his flute as he sauntered along. While he believed that he was alone amidst the tall grass, a bandit lay in wait. The highwayman, Hakamadare Yasusuke (also known as Kidomaru) planned to attack the lonely traveler and steal his elegant winter robes. Yet, as the music reached Yasusuke's ears, he found himself unable to attack. He became enchanted by the beauty of the music and followed Yasumasa all the way home. Upon reaching the courtier's home, the flutist noticed his unintended audience and offered Yasusuke a fine gift of clothing so that he would not leave empty-handed.

Yoshitoshi, Fujiwara no Yasumasa Plays the Flute by Moonlight, 1883.

Yoshitoshi captures the moment of enchantment in his interpretation of this famous story. Yasumasa's sleeves ripple in the wind, his lips gently press to the flute, and his mind is entirely lost in his song. He is unaware of the impending attacker crouched behind him. As Yasusuke curls his fingers around the handle of the sword, an act of violence seems imminent. Though Yoshitoshi's contemporaries would have been familiar with this story and know that the sword would not leave its sheath, the design emphasizes the grim possibility.

Yoshitoshi's Fujiwara no Yasumasa Plays the Flute by Moonlight is considered to be one of Yoshitoshi's definitive masterpieces and has its own interesting history. The design was initially painted as an entry for the first government-sponsored exhibition of modern Japanese painting in the Autumn of 1882. On February 12th the following year the publisher Akiyama Buemon issues the print Fujiwara no Yasumasa Plays the Flute by Moonlight, based on the 1882 painting. That March, Ichikawa Danjuro IX bases a Kabuki performance on Yoshitoshi's image. By June, the popularity of the work continued to swell. At Hie Shrine's Sanno Festival, a float inspired by Yoshitoshi's print is paraded down the street, with Yoshitoshi seated on the prow! Considering the print's enormous success at the time, the "Flute Player Triptych," as it is colloquially known among collectors, has always been in high demand. Early states are evidenced by prominent woodgrain, pronounced shading, and elaborate embellishment, including gold accents on Yasumasa's cloak and the use of additional blocks to print the reeds.

Yoshitoshi. Fujiwara Yasumasa Plays the Flute by Moonlight. 1883. Variant State.

detail of publisher and engraver marks

A very rare variant state exists with the name of the engraver, Suri Tsune, faintly hand-stamped beside the publisher mark. This state is seen with replacement background blocks on the center and right sheets. These replacement blocks were used for all but the earliest impressions.

Yoshitoshi, Fujiwara no Yasumasa Plays the Flute by Moonlight, 1883.

While any state of this print is rare, the Flute Player design is largely encountered without embellishment and without the printer's stamp. In the impression above, the delineation of the horizon on the left sheet, as well as the pronounced shading on the foreground, has been left out. What sets this particular print apart is the woodgrain and spectacular mica applied to the entire composition.

Yoshitoshi, Autumn Moon at Toin: Flute Player Yasumasa, 1894.

While not the iconic depiction of Fujiwara no Yasumasa, Autumn Moon at Toin presents Yoshitoshi's exploration of the same tale. The work is similar in design, yet different in feel. This print preceded his masterpiece. Designed in 1868, the print resulted from a collaboration between Yoshitoshi, who designed the figures, and Katsukawa Shuntei, who designed the background landscape.

The image illustrated above is the second state, with new blocks for the background and a different color scheme. The names of Shuntei and the publisher Sanoya Tomigoro are removed. This indicates that the rights to the image were traded to the publisher Katada Chojiro, whose name appears in the left hand corner of the print. It is quite possible that this 1894 re-issue was triggered by the success of Yoshitoshi's masterpiece triptych Fujiwara no Yasumasa Plays the Flute by Moonlight.