Top Exhibition Tour: 19th Century Japanese Painter Kawanabe Kyōsai, London

The Japanese painter Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889) was one of the most innovative artists of his day. He lived during a turbulent time, experiencing the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate (the hereditary military government) and the new imperial regime’s reforms to modernise and Westernise the country. Kyōsai’s drive to capture the world with his brush earned him the nickname ‘demon of painting’ – which he lived by.

00:00 Room 1: From Tradition to Innovation

Kyōsai, as a highly trained painter, was proficient in traditional methods and subjects. He broke with convention by blurring the established boundary between ‘serious’ and comic pictures. Traditionally, complex painting techniques were reserved for literary classics, historical and legendary figures, auspicious themes and religious images. Comic pictures were typically produced in a lighter, more fluid style.

Kyōsai often saw humour in ‘serious’ subjects and introduced comic and everyday content in highly finished, detailed paintings. The selection in this room demonstrates Kyōsai’s range and skill across diverse genres. Subjects include animals, monsters, ghosts, protective deities and Buddhist icons. Some paintings display powerful Kano-style ink techniques, others depict humorous creatures – recalling works by his first teacher, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and referencing medieval picture scrolls. He can be seen exploring Western techniques such as perspective, shading and the study of anatomy, which attests to his insatiable curiosity and desire to push beyond tradition.

04:17 Room 2: Laughing at Modernity

Kyōsai had a keen interest in society, and captured contemporary events in his pictures with humour and piquancy. His satirical prints from the 1860s, the period leading up to the collapse of the shogunate regime, reflect widespread anxiety about the political turmoil, economic instability and foreign presence. He channelled the febrile atmosphere into dynamic images of frog battles, monster parties and wildly dancing tengu (mischievous, semi-human creatures). Under the new Meiji government, the sudden influx of Western-style culture greatly shocked many Japanese, after over 260 years of relative isolation.

Kyōsai’s comic pictures express both the excitement of the new era, with modern technologies such as the telegraph and trains, and a certain scepticism towards those who blindly followed the new trends. The government’s policy of hiring European and American specialists to teach at new institutions in Japan brought the painter a personal benefit. The British architect Josiah Conder (1852–1920) became his pupil around 1881, and remained a student, patron and friend until Kyōsai’s death in 1889.

05:54 Room 3: The Artist Meets His Public

In nineteenth-century Japan, artists often produced works impromptu in front of an audience. The creative process was appreciated as a performance. At commercially organised calligraphy and painting parties called shogakai, attendees would pay for admission, and once inside, could ask the artists to create works for them at no extra charge. These gatherings were frequently a platform for collaboration. Multiple painters would complete a picture together or a calligrapher would inscribe a poem by the painter’s work. Kyōsai often depicted a scene of art viewing, and the artworks within the image would be painted by other artists.

Collaboration has always been an important part of the creative process in Japan, among artist friends or between teacher and pupils, sharing and marking the occasion. Event flyers, newspaper articles and anecdotes attest that Kyōsai was famous for his speedy, skilful and witty performances. The parties involved copious alcohol. Kyōsai loved saké and his brush became even more playful and expressive when intoxicated. Josiah Conder wrote in his master’s obituary: ‘under the influence of BACCHUS some of his strangest fancies, freshest conceptions and boldest touches were inspired.’

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