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Fri, May 27, 2022

Japanese art according to Sophie Richard: Kyosai at the Royal Academy in London

The Royal Academy in London is presenting this spring (2022) an exciting exhibition on Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889), an innovative, versatile and engaging painter whose career deserves to be better known and celebrated.

This recognition is now happily well under way, thanks to the exhibition and accompanying catalogue by Koto Sadamura, the leading authority on the artist. For this show, Sadamura was able to draw from the collection of Israel Goldman, a dealer in Japanese art (see previous essay) and the proud owner of the world’s richest collection of Kyosai’s works. Around 80 of these are on display at the Royal Academy, which remarkably represents less than 10 percent of the Goldman collection (an ensemble that is still growing according to its enthusiastic holder).

The works on view, many of which had never been published or exhibited before, are presented according to three broad themes, each occupying one gallery: ‘From Tradition to Innovation,’ ‘Laughing at Modernity’ and ‘The Artist meets his Public.’

The first of these galleries encompasses a variety of subjects and styles spanning the whole of the artist’s career, an astute way to introduce the multifaceted Kyosai. Born in Edo (today’s Tokyo), he studied as a child under Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), a master of ukiyo-e, before training in the art of the Kano school, where he learned the traditional canon of Chinese and Japanese painting. This double formation is notable and indeed throughout his career Kyosai could demonstrate wit and dynamism as well as a remarkable mastery of the brush and a knowledge of classic subjects. This gives way to an eclectic display, from folding screens with a riot of demons as on Night Procession of One Hundred Demons (1871-89), to silk scrolls with exquisite details and colouring depicting the Hell Courtesan (1871-89) and hanging scrolls with delicately applied monochrome ink evoking rays of light piercing through the mist in Egret over Lotus Pond in the Rain (1871-89).

Hell Courtesan (Jigoku-dayū), Dancing Ikkyū and Skeletons, 1871/89
Hanging scroll; ink, colour and gold on silk
137.1 x 69.3 cm
Israel Goldman Collection, London
Photo: Ken Adlard

In each of the galleries, visitors encounter frogs in a variety of scenarios: as acrobats balancing on a lotus stem or playing the shamisen, as pupils at school observing a teacher pointing to a lotus-leaf wallchart, as a postman walking by a lotus telegraph pole or engaged in a gigantic battle involving opposing armies of frogs wielding bulrush spears.

‘Fashionable Picture of the Great Frog Battle’ (Fūryū kawazu dai-gassen no zu), third and seventh months, 1864
Colour woodblock print triptych: 35.7 x 25.2 cm (right), 35.7 x 25.5 cm (middle), 35.7 x 25 cm (left)
Israel Goldman Collection, London
Photo: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Kyosai had a particular affinity with frogs, but he was gifted at representing many animals and imparting them with arresting lifelike demeanour. As illustrated in the second gallery, often these subjects allowed the artist to tackle sensitive subjects, such as contemporary conflicts or political satire, while avoiding censorship.

Kyosai’s wit and social commentaries, as well as the more classical subjects he takes from folklore, traditional canon and Chinese history, need to be elucidated for the public to fully enjoy his work. Satire and humour in art are notably difficult to present; context and explanations are required. This is effectively provided by labels in the galleries and the beautifully illustrated catalogue that illuminate the times in which Kyosai lived. The period was particularly turbulent, as the waning Tokugawa shogunate clashed with the new imperial regime and reforms to modernise the country were implemented. Kyosai’s imagination reeled at events unfolding around him, from the promotion of Westernisation to competing religious beliefs, encounters with foreign visitors and fashion mores.

Skeleton Shamisen Player in Top–Hat with Dancing Monster, 1871/78
Unmounted painting; ink and light colour on paper
29.7 x 39.1 cm
Israel Goldman Collection, London
Photo: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Fascinating, too, is the opportunity to see preparatory sketches by the artist and how he used first red ink followed by black to create an image, as in the delicate Two Young Women Playing with Cats (1878). It is also moving to discover one of Kyosai’s picture diaries and a series of colour books that offer marvellous insight into his life and character.

The third and final gallery in the exhibition explores Kyosai’s participation in shogakai, calligraphy and painting parties attended by a paying audience. This early form of performance art was clearly boisterous, as visible on a hanging scroll showing numerous visitors talking and gathering around artists at work among an array of works hung up to dry and lying on the floor. Artists would collaborate on these occasions (multiple hands could contribute to the same work) as well as eat and drink sake. Kyosai was famous for being particularly fond of the beverage and painted whilst tipsy, letting his brush run loose as he became more inebriated.

Shōki, the Demon-queller, c. 1883/89
Hanging scroll; ink and light colour on paper
177.6 x 92.1 cm
Israel Goldman Collection, London
Photo: Ken Adlard

Visitors to the exhibition leave deeply impressed by this endearing and eclectic artist whose mastery is obvious; the well-preserved works allow for a full appreciation of Kyosai’s technical range. His brushstroke in particular is to be relished, from assured, expressive lines to segments displaying an almost abstract quality and apparently loose but perfectly controlled passages.

Asked about how Kyosai’s art is perceived in Japan, exhibition curator Koto Sadamura replies: “Humour, playfulness and contemporaneity are the characteristics that make Kyosai’s art approachable and appealing to us today, however, these qualities were considered ‘vulgar’ and ‘unrefined’ by modern art critics in Japan and the artist’s reputation suffered, particularly after his death. Kyosai had been almost forgotten until the 1980-90s, and even in 2007 when I started my graduate studies, he was not an artist people immediately recognised upon hearing his name. It is only the past decade or so that Kyosai became very popular in Japan, and in recent years, there has been at least one exhibition of his works per year.”

Thrilled by how well the exhibition has been received, Israel Goldman reflects on what’s next: “I am still collecting very seriously, which is extremely satisfying. Because I have so much already, I am buying very selectively, looking for works that illuminate both Kyosai’s life and art and that complement my own collection. Recently I bought one of the most exciting prints by him, which was completely unknown and which I plan to show in my next exhibition. That’s a wonderful thing; there are still new and exciting discoveries to be made.” We can therefore look forward to more exhibitions and publications on Kyosai in due course.



Art Historian


Born in Provence and educated at the Ecole du Louvre and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophie worked in the art world in New York before moving to London where she now resides. She has been a regular visitor to Japan for the last 15 years. Passionate about Japanese arts and culture, she set out to explore the country’s many museums. In the course of her research she has visited close to 200 venues across the country. Her articles on Japanese museums have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Her first book on the subject was published in 2014 and then translated into Japanese. Her new book “The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums” was published in July 2019. In 2015, Sophie received the Commissioner’s Award from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Tokyo, in recognition for her work in bringing Japanese culture to a wider audience. (Photo©Frederic Aranda)



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