The Painting Demon

Kawanabe Kyōsai may not be as famous as other Japanese artists, but the Royal Academy claims he was one of the most exciting painters from Japan in the 19th century. From 19th March until 19th June 2022, the RA exhibited a large number of Kyōsai’s works belonging to the London-based art collector Israel Goldman (b.1958). Goldman has amassed an impressive collection of over 1,000 pieces of art by Kyōsai, including prints, paintings and sketches, which reveal Kyōsai’s witty imagination and exceptional skill.

Kyōsai was born in Koga in 1831 during the Edo Period. As a child, he studied with the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), who specialised in woodblock printing. Later, he studied at the Kanō school of art, where he gained the nickname “The Painting Demon”. Rather than sticking to the traditional ukiyo-e art, Kyōsai broke away after the Meiji Restoration in 1867 to focus on political caricature, for which he was arrested on three occasions.

Kyōsai demonstrated a lighter, more fluid style of art than most of his contemporary Japanese artists. The traditional painting techniques were reserved for serious subjects, such as literature and religion, whereas Kyōsai’s skill with the paintbrush was more suited to comic pictures. Kyōsai often incorporated serious themes into his work, such as politics, but always managed to introduce humour into the scene. He also adopted Western techniques, including perspective and shading.

In 1881, Kyōsai became famous in Japan after winning a prize for his painting Winter Crow on a Withered Branch at the Domestic Industrial Exposition. Three years later, another painting, Crows on a Withered Branch, won him more prizes. From then on, crows symbolised success for Kyōsai and frequently appeared in his artwork.

A collector purchased Crows on a Withered Branch for 100 yen. To put this into perspective, this was enough money to buy 400 bottles of saké, an alcoholic beverage made of fermented rice. Several of Kyōsai’s crow paintings were sent to Europe, leading to commissions from people all over the world. His crows quickly took on new meaning and symbolised Kyōsai flying across the planet and spreading his reputation.

Ever since his first sketch as a child, Kyōsai’s favourite animal to paint was a frog. The creatures had plenty of comic potential, which Kyōsai used to produce satirical pictures of society. He used frogs to represent the lives of ordinary people, whether they be street performers, postal workers or children. Frog School, painted in the early 1870s, depicts frog students interacting with a frog teacher, who points at a lotus-leaf wallchart. Around the time Kyōsai produced this artwork, a national education system was established in Japan, resulting in the opening of the first public elementary school in 1872.

Kyōsai’s work documented the changes occurring in Japan during the 1860s and 70s. Political turmoil and economic instability led to the collapse of the shogunate and the rise of the Meiji government. Kyōsai depicted the events in his artwork as frog battles, monsters and semi-human characters called tengu. Under the new government, 260 years of isolation ended with the introduction of Western culture into Japan. Kyōsai’s excitement about the new era, which included modern technologies such as trains and the telegraph, is evident in his artwork.

The Meiji government introduced a policy of hiring European and American teachers and specialists to work in the new schools in Japan. Josiah Conder (1852-1920), a British architect, travelled to Japan to become a professor of architecture for the Imperial College of Engineering. Known today as the “father of Japanese modern architecture”, Conder taught many young architects and built several notable buildings, including the Rokumeikan (Banqueting House) and the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo.

Conder met Kyōsai in 1881 when he was accepted as Kyōsai’s pupil. Kyōsai gave him the name Conder Kyōei (ei meaning Britain) and taught him the art of Japanese painting. Whilst he did not excel at painting, Conder remained Kyōsai’s friend and patron. Kyōsai’s initial fame in Europe is largely thanks to Conder sending examples of art home to Britain.

An example of the Western influence on Kyōsai’s work is evident in Skeleton Shamisen Player in Top-Hat with Dancing Monster (1878). Western costumes were becoming all the rage in Japan, and Kyōsai wanted to emphasise that no matter how much people changed their appearance, they remained the same underneath. The skeleton in the painting wears a top hat and black jacket and plays the guitar, which was a relatively new instrument in Japan. Not only does the artwork poke fun at the people adopting the fads and fashions, but it also emphasises that the way people dress does not affect the transience of life. The samurai sword sticking out from behind the skeleton shows that it is impossible to completely escape native cultures.

With Western culture came Western religion, particularly Christianity. Kyōsai painted a picture called Five Holy Men to illustrate the influence the new religions had on traditional Japanese beliefs. Kyōsai included a verse written by the Confucian scholar Tachibana Kirō from the point of view of a Japanese deity, which reads: “While I protect myself, Christ seizes the moment to dance, Shakyamuni and Laozi tune in, and Confucius beats the drum in attack. The world is one great theatre.” At the time of painting, Confucianism was being challenged by modern thinking, and Buddhism was struggling to stop so-called Christian men from exploiting their country.

Despite the influx from the west, Kyōsai continued to satirise the traditions and government in Japan. During the summer, processions of decorated floats filled the city of Edo (now Tokyo). Kyōsai represented this in Cats Pulling a Catfish Float, in which the catfish with its moustache represented the government officials. The cats symbolised geishas and courtesans, who used stringed instruments made from catskin.

Kyōsai’s satirical paintings frequently got him into trouble with the government, as he recorded in his four-volume semi-autobiography Kyōsai gadan (Kyōsai’s Account of Painting). Transcribed by Uryū Masayasu and illustrated by Kyōsai, the book features an account of Kyōsai’s arrest in 1870 after being accused of painting insulting images of high-ranking people. The incident occurred at a shogakai, a commercially organised calligraphy and painting party. 

Shogakai attendees paid a fee to enter the party, after which they could ask any artist to produce work for them at no extra charge. At the gatherings, painters often worked with a calligrapher, who would inscribe a poem on the edge of the artwork. The parties usually involved a lot of alcohol, which in Kyōsai’s case, made him playful and more likely to produce insulting images of the commissioners. When writing about the shogakai, Joseph Conder noted, “Under the influence of Bacchus some of his (Kyōsai) strangest fancies, freshest conceptions and boldest touches were inspired.”

Between 1876 and 1878, Kyōsai collaborated with 54 artists to produce a painting of a shogakai. Kyōsai painted all the figures but left blank scroll papers for other artists to fill in with their artwork or calligraphy. Collaboration was an important component of Japanese art, particularly between teachers and pupils, yet until the 19th century, this was usually a private affair. During Kyōsai’s lifetime, the creative process became public, almost like a performance. Kyōsai became known for his speedy, skilful performances, which became more dramatic the more he drank.

Several of Kyōsai’s satirical artworks contained what is classed as “toilet humour” today. Fart Battle (1881) depicts men passing wind at each other and blowing people and objects away. Whilst Kyōsai painted scenes of this nature because they amused him, the tradition dates back much further. Dating back as far as the 12th century, art historians suspect these “fart battles” illustrated Japan’s xenophobia. For centuries, Japan remained isolated from the world and did not welcome foreigners. Artists satirised the government’s wish to oust Western cultures from the country through the strength of their resources, or in this instance, their bodies.

Kyōsai also included stories in his artwork. Some depicted real events, such as wars, although fought by frogs instead of humans. Others satirised scandals, often painting the government in a negative light. A handful of Kyōsai’s artworks illustrate stories and parables, for instance the ancient Indian story about three blind men describing an elephant. Having never come across an elephant before, the men attempt to describe it by feeling a different part of the animal’s body. Each man only touches one section, such as the side or the tusk, and attempts to describe the elephant’s physical appearance. Kyōsai likened this tale to a group of Blind Connoisseurs commenting on a painting. This theme also mocks critics and judges at official art competitions and exhibitions, whose comments suggest they did not pay much attention to the art they were judging.

Kyōsai also likened art critics and judges to tengu, semi-human supernatural beings with long noses. According to Japanese folklore, tengu were the reincarnated spirits of arrogant people. They had long noses that stuck up in the air. The expression “being a tengu” is the equivalent of being conceited or “sticking your nose up in the air”. Some interpret Kyōsai’s painting Tengu Viewing Art as critics at art competitions looking disdainfully down at the paintings they are supposed to be judging. An alternative interpretation is the tengu are connoisseurs who are proud of their art collection and believe they are more culturally sophisticated than others.

After looking at Kyōsai’s work, it is evident that the majority of his paintings had more than one meaning. Ink Battle, for instance, references a traditional New Year’s party given by the Sōma samurai clan during the Meiji period. Hosts applied ink to the faces of their guests to wish them a happy and healthy year. Rather than depicting the event as a joyous occasion, Kyōsai painted two groups dressed as medieval courtiers and warriors fighting with giant paint brushes and ink. This may allude to the battles between the supporters of the Edo empire and the Meiji government during the 1860s.

Despite satirising the Western world in some of his artworks, Kyōsai embraced European cultures and had many foreign friends. As well as Conder, Kyōsai taught the Anglo-Irish journalist, Francis Brinkley (1841-1912), who wrote several books about Japan, including an English-Japanese Dictionary. Kyōsai also befriended Mortimer Menpes (1855-1938), an Australian-born British painter, who enjoyed watching Kyōsai paint. Speaking of his time in Japan, Menpes recalled, “I never saw such facility in my life … in about seven minutes he had completed a picture, superbly drawn and full of character.”

In 1888, the Japanese art critic Okakura Kakuzō (1863-1913) and American art historian Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) asked Kyōsai to consider teaching at the Tokyo School of Arts. This prestigious offer indicated the school acknowledged Kyōsai as a legitimate successor of the Kanō tradition. Unfortunately, Kyōsai developed stomach cancer the same year and was unable to take up the offer.

Despite treatment from the German physician Erwin Bälz (1849-1913), Kyōsai passed away on 24th April 1889 at the age of 59. He died at home with Josiah Conder holding his hand. Little is known about his private life, but it is believed he was also surrounded by family and friends. Eighty-eight years after his death, Kyōsai’s granddaughter, Dr Kawanabe Kusumi, opened the Kawanabe Kyōsai Memorial Museum in Saitama, Tokyo, in 1977.

Kyōsai’s reputation quickly dwindled following his death. His artwork did not conform to traditional Japanese standards, nor was it westernised enough to appeal to art collectors in Europe and America. Kyōsai’s drinking habits and prison sentences also diminished his status now that he was no longer around to defend himself. Thanks to Israel Goldman, Kyōsai’s work is gaining recognition and popularity. Contemporary generations look at the paintings from a new perspective and appear amused rather than shocked at their satirical nature. Kyōsai’s style of art also appeals to manga and tattoo artists, who incorporate Japanese and Asian aspects into their designs.

Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection takes place in The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries at the Royal Academy of Arts until 19th June 2022. Tickets are £15 but concessions are available.


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The Man Who Drew Everything

For the very first time, 103 drawings by the Japanese artist Hokusai are on display. The illustrations, recently acquired by the British Museum, were produced for an illustrated encyclopedia called The Great Picture Book of Everything. Yet, the book was never published. Hokusai specialised in printmaking during the Edo Period (1603-1867), which involved drawing a design on paper to be pasted onto a woodblock and used as a stencil. As a result, the original drawings were destroyed. To see 103 original illustrations is a very rare honour and highlights Hokusai’s skill and style. 

Katsushika Hokusai lived between 1760 and 1849 in the Katsushika district of Edo (Tokyo). Not much is known about his childhood, except his father was an artisan who possibly taught his son to paint from a young age. Throughout his life, Hokusai went by over 30 names and pseudonyms. As a child, he was known as Tokitarō, but whether this was his birth name is uncertain.

At age 12, Hokusai started working in a library where he became familiar with illustrated books made from woodcut blocks. Two years later, he became an apprentice to a woodcarver until the age of 18, after which he joined the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-93). Renamed Shunrō by his master, he produced his first set of prints.

Between joining the studio and the end of the 18th century, Hokusai (or Shunrō) had two wives, both of whom died young. He fathered two sons and three daughters, the youngest of whom became his assistant. Known as Ōi (1800-66), she became an artist in her own right. Around the time of the birth of his children, Hokusai began exploring European styles, which ultimately resulted in his expulsion from the Katsukawa studio.

Away from the constraints of the Katsukawa studio, which primarily produced prints of courtesans and actors, Hokusai began focusing on landscapes and people of all levels of society. He joined the Tawaraya School of artists, changing his name to Tawaraya Sōri in the process. Hokusai mostly worked for private clients, producing prints for special occasions and book illustrations. He eventually broke away from Tawaraya School and set out as an independent artist under the name Hokusai Tomisa.

In the early 1800s, he changed his name to Katsushika Hokusai, by which he is known today. “Katsushika” refers to his district of birth in Edo, and “Hokusai”, literally meaning “north studio”, honours the North Star, a symbol of a deity in Nichiren Buddhism. As an independent artist, Hokusai took on over 50 pupils but continued focusing on his artwork and self-promotion. He also collaborated with the novelist Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848), producing illustrations for several novels, including Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki (Strange Tales of the Crescent Moon.

At the age of 51, Hokusai changed his name once again. Under the name Taito, he produced “Hokusai Manga” (Hokusai’s Sketches) about various subjects. This should not be confused with the story-telling manga of the 21st-century. Hokusai’s manga featured random drawings, such as his Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing manual (1812). This book was both an easy way to make money and to attract new students.

In 1820, Hokusai changed his name to Iitsu. Under this new name, he published his most famous work, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which included the picture Great Wave off Kanagawa. The British Museum owns three copies of the Great Wave, which date to around 1831. As the scientific researcher Capucine Korenberg points out, there is no “original” copy of the drawing because between 5,000 and 15,000 were printed in the 1800s. Despite the significant output, only 111 or so survive today.

By studying the copies of the Great Wave, Korenberg identified subtle differences between each print. To create the print, Hokusai drew one copy with pen and ink, which he sent to his publisher, Nishimuraya Yohachi. The original drawing was pasted onto a block of cherry wood and given to a block cutter (hori-shi), who carved out the “white space” between the lines with a chisel. This resulted in the “key-block”, which could be used numerous times to produce prints.

Through her study of the Great Wave prints, Korenberg noted that some were printed using different key-blocks. She assumes new blocks were produced after the old ones wore down. Korenberg also suggests changes were made to the blocks to “improve” the print or make it more appealing to specific customers. In some prints, the outlines are stronger than others, and the colours brighter. To emphasise the differences, a modern reproduction of the print was made in 2017 by the sixth-generation proprietor of Takahashi Studio. They used the same colours, or as close to, as the “original” prints, which have faded over time. Aside from the colours, there are several subtle differences, such as the shape of some of the lines.

Whilst the Great Wave off Kanagawa is Hokusai’s most famous work, it is not the main focus of the exhibition at the British Museum. The original drawing of the Great Wave was destroyed during the printmaking process, as were those of all Hokusai’s other prints. The only surviving sketches are those that never made it to publication. Although some may consider these works “unfinished”, they provide an insight into Hokusai’s drawing ability, which gets lost during the printing process. The small size of the illustrations is also surprising, especially considering the intricate lines and detail in each drawing.

In 1849, Hokusai famously exclaimed from his deathbed, “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.” Unfortunately, the 90-year-old passed away shortly afterwards, leaving over one hundred drawings intended for The Great Picture Book of Everything unprinted. The illustrations were placed in a purpose-made silk Japanese box and forgotten about for many years. In 1948, the drawings appeared in a Parisian auction, then disappeared from public once more. Finally, they resurfaced in 2019, and the British Museum used a grant from the Theresia Gerda Buch Bequest and Art Fund to purchase them. Nearly two hundred years since their creation, Hokusai’s hand-drawn illustrations are on display for the first time.

As well as demonstrating Hokusai’s illustration skills, the drawings explore ancient history and the natural world, as well as the desire to learn about unfamiliar countries and cultures. The Tokugawa government forbade the Japanese to travel abroad, which fueled their desire to learn about the world. Only those with special permits could leave the country, so Hokusai set out with the determination to sketch and document everything for those stuck back at home.

Despite the strict control over travel between different countries, trade between Japan and China flourished. Silk, ceramics and daily goods often came from China, and along with them, ancient Chinese lores and traditions. Several of Hokusai’s illustrations represent Chinese legends about the creation of the world and the beliefs of Chinese scholars, poets and Daoist philosophers. Hokusai explored the origins of the universe and human beings, including prehistoric deities, such as Kang Hui, who allegedly flooded the world in a rage.

In one illustration, Hokusai drew the mythological general Hou Yi, the greatest Chinese archer of all time. According to legend, he married the moon goddess, Chang’e, and shot down nine of the ten suns. The ten suns were making the temperature on Earth unbearably hot and causing widespread famine and drought. To save the planet, Hou Yi attempted to shoot all ten out of the sky. He hit all but one, which hid in a cave, plunging the Earth into unbearable darkness and cold. After much begging, the sun reemerged and remained the only sun in the sky.

Chinese myths explain the beginning of nearly all aspects of society and culture, including music, medicine, carpentry, and art. Most of these discoveries are associated with mythical emperors who were revered as gods, such as Fuxi, who the myths credit with the invention of music in the form of a transverse harp, hunting, fishing, domestication, and cooking with fire. Confucian scholars believe the origins of Chinese society derived from the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors in around 2,000 BC. Fuxi was the first of the Three Sovereigns, and the first of the Five Emperors was the Yellow Emperor, who reigned for 100 years.

As well as Chinese mythology, Hokusai illustrated other East Asian legends, in particular Buddhist India. Buddha came from India and passed his teachings on to his disciples, who gradually spread Buddhism to neighbouring countries. Travelling storytellers wove sacred Buddhist texts into their tales and took them to China, from whence the myths made their way to Japan. Some narratives became part of popular culture, featuring in stage dramatizations and such-like. Hokusai looked at these well-known stories and explored the original myths.

One illustration depicts the moment the boatman Monk Decheng knocked Jiashan into the sea. According to the story, Decheng left monastic life to become a ferryman. While sailing his passengers across the river, he taught them about self-realisation. On one occasion, a man called Jiashan boarded the boat, and Decheng began his usual spiel. In the middle of the journey, Decheng knocked Jiashan overboard and hit him three times with his oar, upon which Jiashan reached enlightenment. Several versions of the myth exist, and according to one conclusion, Decheng named Jiashan as his successor, then jumped into the river and drowned.

Another illustration shows the fate of Virūdhaka, the king of Kosala who lived during the time of Buddha. Despite his mother coming from the Shaka clan, the same family as Buddha, Virūdhaka did not receive a warm welcome. As it turned out, the king was the son of a slave girl, which he took as a grave insult. Virūdhaka planned to annihilate the Shaka clan, despite warnings from Buddha that he would die in the process. Virūdhaka succeeded in destroying most of the Shaka clan, but during the victory banquet was struck by a bolt of lightning and killed.

Hokusai’s depiction of the lightning bolt striking Virūdhaka is an early version of modern manga, which developed a century later. Contemporary manga artists use lines of varying thickness and length to indicate speed, sound and physical impact. Hokusai surrounded Virūdhaka with a sunburst of lines to demonstrate the strength and direct hit of the lightning bolt.

Not all Hokusai’s illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything focused on mythical beings and stories. He demonstrated the typical clothing and costumes of men from different cultures and countries to fuel the Japanese people’s interest in other lands. He focused on East, Southeast and Central Asian countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Ryūkyū (a chain of Japanese islands that once belonged to China), India, China and Korea. He also drew a Portuguese man who lived in Asia during the Edo period. At this time, the Japanese called Europeans “Southern barbarians”.

The majority of Hokusai’s illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything cover geographical features and nature. Several depict Japanese landscapes, mountains, seas and rivers, home to many animals and plant life. Rather than simply drawing each animal, Hokusai detailed the movement of fur, limbs and tails to create a sense of individual characterization and energy. His sketch of two street cats, for instance, demonstrates a standoff as one reprimands the other for stepping on his territory near the overgrown hibiscus plant.

Other animals Hokusai drew include otters, bears, tigers, leopards, deer, donkeys, porcupines, goats, camels, ostriches, and aquatic birds. As well as these, Hokusai sketched mythical beasts, for instance, kirin, a dragon-shaped like a deer with an ox’s tail, and baku, a nightmare-devouring beast created from the leftover pieces when the gods finished forming all other animals. Hokusai also drew a hairy rhinoceros with a tortoise-like shell on its back. This was probably not a mythical creature but based upon descriptions of the animal.

Hokusai occasionally drew natural animals alongside mythical beasts, for example, his sketch of a phoenix and peacock. In Chinese tradition, and subsequently Japanese, the peacock is a manifestation of the phoenix. The phoenix is one of the Twelve Symbols of Sovereignty, the others being the sun, moon, stars, mountain, dragon, goblets, seaweed, grains, fire, an axe head, and the “fu” symbol (representing the power of the emperor to distinguish evil from good and right from wrong.) According to the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 AD), a peacock represented divinity, rank, power, and beauty. The eyes on its tail are associated with the goddess Guan Yin, whose name means “The One Who Perceives the Sounds of the World.” Buddhists believe when they die, Guan Yin places them in the heart of a lotus and sends them to the Pure Land of Sukhāvatī.

When Tim Clark, the former Head of the Japanese Section and now an Honourary Fellow at the British Museum, recommended the purchase of Hokusai’s drawings for The Great Picture Book of Everything, little did the museum know how popular they would prove with the public. Tickets sell out daily as people flock to see Hokusai’s preliminary drawings up close for the first time. The purchase has allowed the museum to collaborate with scholars across the globe to deepen their understanding of printmaking and Japanese culture and history. Just as the prohibitions on travel made the Japanese people of the late Edo period hungry for knowledge about history, foreign lands and the natural world, people of the 21st-century can discover the same things by studying Hokusai’s drawings. Displaying the drawings now, as the world comes out of lockdown, helps visitors relate to the desire to travel during the Edo period. Whereas the contemporary world resorted to digital technology to survive the pandemic restrictions, the Japanese used books, stories and drawings to learn about the world beyond their shores.

Hokusai’s achievements as an artist have influenced people for over 200 years. During his lifetime, his work inspired up-and-coming printmakers and book illustrators, and before his death, his prints had made their way to Europe. Impressionist artists, such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, replicated themes of Hokusai’s prints in their paintings, and several European painters developed large collections of Japanese prints, in particular, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Klimt and Édouard Manet.

In the 1985 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Hokusai is recorded as having “impressed Western artists, critics and art lovers alike, more, possibly, than any other single Asian artist.” This entry proves true today as Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything entices thousands of people to the British Museum. The exhibition runs until 30th January 2022 and tickets, priced at £9, are selling fast. So, book now to avoid disappointment!


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