What wasn’t to like about an artist who painted the scroll “Hard Times in Hell,” in which the king of Hell and his coterie of demons ascend to paradise in search of more suitable employment?
Laughter from official quarters was decidedly muted when the same acute satirical eye focused on contemporary society and its fondness for all things Western. Whether Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889) really did depict an act of sodomy between foreigners and Japanese at a shogakai (a drinking and painting party) in 1870 is unsubstantiated. The jail time Kyosai spent in the event’s aftermath, however, is historical record.
Kyosai’s distinct sarcasm, playful virtuosity and extraordinary inventiveness are the themes of Kyoto National Museum’s spring exhibition, “Bridge to Modernity: Kyosai’s Adventures in Painting,” showing till May 11. The artist lived in a time of extraordinary national and cultural tumult as Japan transformed itself from a feudalist society into a modern nation state. While his contemporaries were searching for methods to modernize Japanese-style painting — later given the name nihonga — or adopting more vanguard expressions in oil paint and imported Western styles, Kyosai was a bastion of tradition.
Precious little about Kyosai, however, is conventional. His apprenticeship as an artist began at the age of 7 in the studio of ukiyo-e (genre painting) artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Kyosai had penchant for sketching from “life” that is illustrated by a macabre, apocryphal tale of the precocious student fishing a severed head out of a river — when he was 8 years old — to use as a subject for sketching practice.
From his 11th year through to his late teens, he was enrolled in the Surugadai branch of the revered Kano School. The surplus of skill he exhibited earned him the nickname the “Demon of Painting” from Maemura Towa, his first Kano teacher, which the artist later amended to “Intoxicated Demon of Painting” to convey his fondness for alcohol.
Kyosai graduated from his Kano training when still a teen, and the exhibition starts with a work from that time, “Bishomonten” (1848). While he revered the Kano school, his allegiance to its principals slackened as he later took on other styles. The most significant deviation was a comic, vulgar style, often satirical and certainly eccentric.
An early precedent for the genre is seen in the “Scrolls of Frolicking Animals,” attributed to Toba Sojo (1053-1140), a Buddhist priest. Kyosai updated the style to notable effect, particularly in his “Fart Battle” (1867). Also shown in the the Mori Art Museum’s “Smile” exhibition last year, the scroll depicts participants being fed from a caldron of root vegetables to provoke a battle of gas as entertainment for palace courtiers. As the amusements progress, the passing of wind intensifies to the wind-powered launching of hay bales as missiles between the opposing teams. Spectators will note the essential qualities of manga here, which a concurrent event at the Kyoto International Manga Museum also showing till May 11, “Kyosai Manga Festa,” makes even more explicit.
In larger paintings, Kyosai depicted ferocious creatures of lore and legend. In “Ghost” (1883) he uses kaki-byoso (painted borders) in place of the conventional silk borders of the picture mounting, making it appear as if the ghost were rising free from the painted surface by appearing to extend beyond the customary painting space. In an even larger, 17-meter work, a curtain made for the Shintomi Theater called “Actors as the One Hundred Demons” (1880), Kyosai combined portraits of actors working at the theater with another of his favored themes, the “Night Procession of the Demons.” Fortified with a few bottles of rice wine, Kyosai completed the work in four hours. The result was a sensation.
With all this, it is remarkable to note — as Kano Hiroyuki, the exhibition’s supervisory curator, does in his catalog essay — that Kyosai is generally unknown in Japan. Despite a memorial museum dedicated to the artist in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, the present exhibition is the first large scale retrospective in this country of the his work.
A more persistent interest in Kyosai has been taken up in the West, and the reason for this in part was Kyosai’s interactions with foreigners in the early years of the Meiji Period (1868-1912). In particular, Englishman Josaiah Condor was a student and intimate of the artist, and the one who held Kyosai’s hand on his deathbed. Early publications in English, such as Condor’s “Paintings and Studies by Kawanabe Kyosai” (1911), which concentrated on the author’s personal collection, spurred the affection.
Hopefully, the Kyosai’s slippage into oblivion will be halted by this exhibition, and the free-spirited artist will be remembered as the “Intoxicated Demon” rather than another, late signature he used: “Nyoku (Like Emptiness).”
“Commemorating the 120th Memorial of Kawanabe Kyosai, Bridge to Modernity: Kyosai’s Adventures in Painting” is at Kyoto National Museum till May 11; open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.; Mon. closed); entrance ¥1,200. For more information call (075) 541-1151 or visit www.kyohaku.go.jp