When it comes to 19th century Japanese printmaking, Hiroshige and Hokusai have tended to dominate the conversation. But a third figure, Kawanabe Kyōsai, has begun to enter public opinion outside of Japan, thanks in part to a recently closed inquiry at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Famous during his lifetime for both his art and his eccentric personality, Kyōsai only lived to be 58, but in his short career he managed to pioneer the art of manga. Prolific and profound, he left a lasting legacy of paintings, caricatures, sketches, illustrated books and prints, many of which are in the Israel Goldman Collection which formed the basis of the Royal Academy exhibition.
“I bought my first Kyōsai piece in the 80s at auction,” Goldman said in an interview. “That started the collection.”
Curated by Kyōsai scholar Sadamura Koto, Royal Academy Chief Curator Adrian Locke and Goldman himself, the Royal Academy exhibition was the first exhibition of Kyōsai’s work in the UK since the British Museum organized one in 1993. Many exhibits had never been published or viewed publicly. The exhibition traced Kyōsai’s interactions with modernity, Japan’s impending westernization, and the Meiji period while providing insight into his painting and printmaking processes.
Among the finest works on display was the 1874 woodcut triptych Famous Mirrors: The Spirit of Japan, recently released. Featuring a burst of color, the print features two Japanese mirror makers on the center and right panels fighting against Western encroachment; the Westerners, on the left panel, retreating with demons and ghouls. In the lower left corner, a turkey frantically runs away wearing a hat, with an umbrella and luggage.
Kyōsai was born as Shūzaburō in 1831 into a low-ranking samurai-class family during the final decades of the shogunate era, as the Edo period gave way to the Meiji period, the era associated with the early of modern Japan. His artistic talents were noticed from an early age, as was his love of the macabre. When he was eight years old, he found a severed head in a river and brought it home as a specimen. Later in life he would draw the corpse of his second wife, an image that formed the basis of his painting. Phantom (1868-1870).
In 1857, he coined the name for which he would eventually be known: Kyōsai; combine characters kyō with knowwhich translates from Japanese as “parody studio” or “crazy studio”.
Well known for his love of sake, he also enjoyed participating in shogakai, an impromptu calligraphy and a painting evening. It was in 1870 that, during a , he was arrested for an obscene image. Although little is known of the obscenity that prompted his arrest – Kyōsai was too drunk to remember – it is believed that he painted insulting pictures of high Meiji officials. He was imprisoned and received 50 lashes.
Kyōsai’s incarceration took a toll on his health, but he emerged determined. A few years later, with Kanagaki Robun, Kyōsai founded Eshinbun Nipponchi, the very first manga magazine. Although the release was short-lived, the timing was fortuitous.
Manga historians attribute two different eras to modern manga: the first focuses on the pre-Meiji restoration and pre-Meiji culture, the second deals with the overlap of old Japan with new Japan and ultimately the occupation of the country. The high point of Kyōsai’s career falls neatly in the middle, linking the various periods of manga with his reverence for pre-Meiji Japan and his mockery of Meiji powers and their acceptance of Western culture.
“At the time, Kyōsai was very underrated,” Goldman said. “He was also prolific and, as the most famous painter of his day, widely faked. This made him the perfect collectible artist – I could make frequent discoveries using the connoisseur skills I had learned in [I was] studying art history at Harvard, and I could afford to buy the many items available on the market.
In Battle of the frogs (1877), Kyōsai uses frogs to depict the struggle between the old samurai class and the Meiji government. Kyōsai often used animal caricature in his work to portray real circumstances: this is a depiction of the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, a samurai revolt, nine years after the start of the Meiji era. In the top center text, Kyōsai states that the conflict is signaled by a lotus thread telegraph.
his painting, Skeleton Shamisen Player in Top Hat with Dancing Monster (1871-1878), shows a skeleton playing the shamisen, a Japanese three-stringed instrument, wearing a top hat and a suit; a little monster dances while listening. This is clearly a punch to Western intrusion that boldly reminds the viewer that the West’s economic prosperity and supreme materialism won’t save you from death.
In recent years, Kyōsai has found new popularity among connoisseurs, tattoo artists, and manga fans. After all, as Goldman pointed out, Kyōsai’s work now functions as a sourcebook for modern tattoo artists. Indeed, there are dozens and dozens of Kyōsai irezumi (tattoo) reference booklets available, including those solely devoted to Kyōsai’s depictions of demons. One can only imagine that Kyōsai himself would greatly appreciate the irony.