Legacy of genius: Kyosai and Kyosui

by Alice Gordenker

Contributing Writer

The time seems to be ripe to bring Japanese women artists out of the shadow of famous fathers. The first was Katsushika Hokusai’s daughter Oi, whose life in the 19th century has been dramatized in novels, manga and even a new television series. Now, through an exhibition devoted to another parent-child pair in Japanese art, we meet Kyosui (1868-1935), the daughter of genius painter Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889).

The two don’t share equal billing and papa clearly steals this show. Nevertheless, “Kyosai and Kyosui: The Soul of the Artist as Pioneered by Father and Daughter,” at the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum is a welcome opportunity to learn about another Japanese female artist from an earlier time.

Kawanabe Kyosai needs little introduction. Even during his lifetime, he had a following in the West, thanks to contact with foreign visitors to Japan, including British architect Josiah Conder and the French industrialist Emile Etienne Guimet, founder of the Guimet Museum in Paris. There have been three major retrospectives of his work in the last two decades, including most recently in 2015 at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo.

Although Kyosai is best-known to modern audiences for his woodblock prints, he also painted prolifically in a huge range of styles and genres, and the emphasis in this exhibition is on his painting. Most of the works were borrowed from his great-granddaughter, who maintains a small museum in his honor in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, and include his pigments, tools and numerous preparatory drawings that provide insight into his techniques and work style.

Kyosai’s daughter, Kyosui, on the other hand, is hardly known, despite the fact that she worked as a professional artist for many years and advocated effectively for increased opportunities for women in art. Kyosui learned to paint and draw largely from her father, and specialized in many of the same genres, including devotional Buddhist paintings, images of beautiful women, and scenes from noh and kyōgen plays. She taught Japanese painting at the first institution in Japan to offer formal art education to women, now the Joshibi University of Art and Design.

Although works by both father and daughter can be found in major museums in Japan and overseas, the Kawanabe family holds the world’s largest collection of materials related to the two, including some 3,000 of Kyosai’s studies. Many of these treasures are being shown here publicly for the first time, including a truly scary ghost painting by Kyosai and an advertisement for soap, painted by Kyosui, showing the Seven Gods of Good Fortune washing up together in a public bathhouse. Don’t miss Kyosai’s two takes on the “fart battle,” a humorous genre in Japanese painting since the Heian Period (794-1185). One is a scroll painted in 1867 that is traditional in style and content. The second, painted one year later in 1868, the year of the Meiji Restoration, has the gas-passers dressed in top hats and coats, poking fun at Japanese who rushed to affect Western costume and mannerisms.

The main explanatory panels and all the captions in this exhibition are translated into English, and admission includes access to the museum’s New Wing galleries, where you can see a selection from the museum’s excellent collection of Western paintings.

“Kyosai and Kyosui: The Soul of the Artist as Pioneered by Father and Daughter” at the Tokyo Fuji Museum runs until June 24; ¥1,300. For more information, visit www.fujibi.or.jp/en/exhibitions/now-showing.