Kawanabe Kyōsai, the Japanese Printmaker Who Pioneered Manga, Finally Gets His Due

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When it comes to Japanese printmaking of the 19th century, Hiroshige and Hokusai have tended to dominate the conversation. But a third figure, Kawanabe Kyōsai, has begun to enter the public view outside Japan, thanks in part to a recently closed survey at London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

Notorious during his lifetime both for his art and for his eccentric personality, Kyōsai only lived to be 58, but during his short career, he managed to pioneer the art of manga. Prolific and profound, he left an enduring legacy of paintings, caricatures, sketches, illustrated books and prints, many of which can be found in the Israel Goldman collection that formed the basis of the Royal Academy show.

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“I purchased my first Kyōsai’s piece in the ’80s at auction,” Goldman said in an interview. “That started the collection.”

Curated by Kyōsai scholar Sadamura Koto, Royal Academy chief curator Adrian Locke, and Goldman himself, the Royal Academy exhibition was the first showing of Kyōsai’s work in the United Kingdom since the British Museum held one in 1993. Many of the pieces in the exhibit had never been published or viewed publicly. The show traced Kyōsai’s interactions with modernity, the approaching westernization of Japan, and the Meiji period while also offering a look at his painting and printmaking processes.

Among the finest works on view was the 1874 woodblock-print triptych Famous Mirrors: The Spirit of Japan, Newly Published. Featuring an explosion of color, the print depicts two Japanese mirror makers on the center and right panels that fight Western encroachment; the Westerners, on the left panel, retreating along with demons and ghouls. In the bottom left corner, a turkey frantically runs away while wearing a hat, with umbrella and luggage.

Kyōsai was born as Shūzaburō in 1831 to a low-ranking samurai-class family during the last few decades of the shogunate era, as the Edo period gave way to the Meiji period, the era associated with the beginnings of modern Japan. His artistic talents were noted from an early age, and so was his love of the macabre. At the age of eight, he found a severed head in a river and brought it home as a specimen. Later in his life, he would sketch his second wife’s dead body, an image which formed the basis of his painting Ghost (1868–70).

In 1857 he created the name he would ultimately be known for: Kyōsai; combining the characters kyō with sai, which translates from the Japanese to either “parodic studio” or “crazy studio.”

A vibrant print showing a mix of men and dragons.

Kawanabe Kyōsai, Famous Mirrors: The Spirit of Japan, Newly Published, 1874. Israel Goldman Collection

Well known for his love of sake, he also enjoyed participating in shogakai, an impromptu calligraphy and painting party. It was in 1870 that he was arrested for an obscene image. While little is known about the obscenity that caused his arrest—Kyōsai was too intoxicated to recall—it is believed that he painted insulting images of high-ranking Meiji officials. He was imprisoned and received 50 lashings.

Kyōsai’s incarceration damaged his health, but he emerged determined. A few years later, along with Kanagaki Robun, Kyōsai founded Eshinbun Nipponchi, the first-ever manga magazine. While the publication was short-lived, the timing was fortuitous.

Manga historians attribute two different eras in modern manga: the first focuses on pre-Meiji Restoration and pre-Meiji culture, the second deals with the overlapping of old Japan with new Japan and ultimately the occupation of the country. The high point of Kyōsai’s career falls cleanly in the middle, connecting the different manga periods with his reverence for pre-Meiji Japan and his mocking of the Meiji powers and their acceptance of western culture.

“At the time Kyōsai was very underrated,” Goldman said. “He was also prolific and, as the most famous painter of his day, widely faked. This made him the perfect artist for me to collect—I could make frequent discoveries employing the connoisseurship skills I had learned while [I was] an art history student at Harvard, and I could afford to buy the many items that were available on the market.”

In Battle of the Frogs (1877), Kyōsai uses frogs to portray the struggle between the former samurai class and the Meiji government. Kyōsai often used animal caricature in his work to depict real circumstances: this is a portrayal of the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, a revolt by the samurai, nine years into the Meiji Era. In the top center text Kyōsai states that the conflict is being reported by “lotus wire” telegraph.

His painting, Skeleton Shamisen Player in Top-Hat with Dancing Monster (1871–78), shows a skeleton playing the shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese instrument, in a top hat and a suit; a small monster dances as it listens. This is clearly a poke at Western intrusion that boldly reminds the viewer that economic prosperity and supreme materialism from the West will not save you from death.

In recent years, Kyōsai has found new popularity with connoisseurs, tattoo artists, and manga fans. After all, as Goldman pointed out, Kyōsai’s work now functions as a source book for modern tattoo artists. Indeed, there are scores and scores of Kyōsai irezumi (tattoo) reference booklets available, including ones solely devoted to Kyōsai’s depictions of demons. One can only imagine that Kyōsai himself would greatly appreciate the irony.

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