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.