The Meiji Era artist Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-89) is said to have had his first memorable encounter with an animal as a little boy. One day, walking along the road, he came upon a frog, which a servant picked up and gave to him.
Once home, as the legend has it, he was so entranced with the frog that he began to draw it. Thus an artist was born.
Spending almost his whole life in Tokyo (as Edo was renamed in 1868), the painter Kyosai was well placed to observe the dramatic changes going on around him, including the Westernization of art. Having been attracted early to the kyoga (“crazy picture”) genre of painting, he became a notably lighthearted artist.
At the peak of his fame, he was renowned for the speed and accuracy of his painting, often winning contests in which work had to be produced at once.
The levity that permeates the pictures here also got the artist into trouble, and he was once imprisoned for being disrespectful of authority. The three introductory essays to this handsome illustrated book fill in the historical background and tease out different aspects of the artist’s work. Besides being a gifted sketch-artist and illustrator, Kyosai trained with, and later led, a branch of the deeply conservative Kano school of painting.
This volume reveals just one, but perhaps the liveliest and most appealing, part of Kyosai’s work. His pictures of elephants and insects, cats and crows show keen naturalistic observation, as well as a good deal of humor. Thus we can find a puppy playing with a praying mantis, or a cat with a rat, realistically drawn, and elsewhere a circus or a battle “peopled” entirely by frogs. Paintings of frogs, evidently, make up the largest number of any creatures in his work.
While the idea of depicting human beings in the guise of animals goes back to the 13th-century scroll “Choju-jinbutsu-giga (Comic Paintings of Animals and Humans),” attributed to a medieval monk, Kyosai added fish to this lighthearted bestiary.
This long tradition might be better seen in terms of Aesop than of Beatrix Potter or Walt Disney. Spanning the age of Japan’s opening to the West, Kyosai’s work shows some influence from that, but more in terms of content than of style.
Much admired by Western visitors to Japan, Kyosai received commissions from foreigners (one of the reasons the British Museum has such a rich collection), and even took one or two of them on as students.
There is, however, one rather puzzling picture here, done to illustrate a Japanese version of the tales of Aesop. For the Japanese edition, translated it seems from English, Kyosai “improved” on the original drawings by John Tenniel, the Victorian illustrator of “Alice in Wonderland” and many other books. Since Kyosai did not read the text of the original, he misunderstood the story and the intentions behind the drawing.
The mystery is explained in “Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan,” reviewed on this page by Donald Richie. The picture by Kyosai is shown with the borders of the book it illustrated. The different context gives another angle on this dazzling artist.
This volume, “A Japanese Menagerie,” is quite delightful, but may also lead the reader onto other things.
That glimpse of the medieval scroll makes one want to see a little more of it. And why, one wonders, are the Japanese so very fond of frogs?