Why be polite when you can be Kyōsai?: Report on the talk “Spontaneous and Playful: Kawanabe Kyōsai as a Performer”

Kawanabe Kyōsai and 54 other artists, Calligraphy and Painting Party (Shogakai) (detail), c. May 1876–spring 1878. Hanging scroll; ink and light colour on paper, 131.5 x 65.5 cm. Israel Goldman Collection, London. Photo: Ken Adlard

Listening to Dr Koto Sadamura’s rich visual lecture on a 19th century Japanese painter (a must watch for those who missed it), it occurred to me that being an artist is, perhaps, like being a translator. To a large extent, artists translate their interpretation of reality into some form of creative expression in a language that others can relate to. It requires certain skills, experience, and a distinct voice that defines who you are as the expert. One man with a voice like no other is Kawanabe Kyōsai, an academically trained artist who turned commercial and rocked the 19th century Japanese art world.  

Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831-1889) demonstrated his exceptional artistic skill from a young age and trained first under the tutelage of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), a prominent ukiyo-e artist, at the tender age of seven. Kyōsai proved to be an exceptional talent. According to Koto, a leading specialist on Kyōsai and the speaker of the April Third Thursday lecture, his parents felt that the young boy, then aged ten, was prepared for more formal academic training and moved him to study under the Kano-school painter Maemura Tōwa (d. 1853). Kyōsai excelled there too. His mastery of classical Chinese and Japanese themes, knowledge of his materials and adeptness with the brush were undeniable, as shown by Koto. But, as explained by the lecturer, sticking to the script was of no interest to the forever curious, charismatic, and prolific artist. As Japan shed Tokugawa rule to make way for a new era under the Meiji government, so did Kyōsai, who traded his career as an official Kano school painter to become a sought-after commercial artist with a wide network of friends that included the likes of Josiah Conder and Félix Régamey. (Watch Koto’s lecture video here as she dives into the detail of Kyōsai’s life)

Kyōsai, to me, from listening to the lecture, was one of those artists who was too big, too bold and too daring to rest on his laurels (or rather a comfy gold embroidered zabuton cushion). He was industrious. He liked to paint a lot, and he liked to drink a lot. And he found a way of combining his two passions in the commercial world, where he availed himself as a painter at shogakai calligraphy and painting parties. His career truly blossomed through such interactions with the townspeople. He churned out image after image of his sharp, witty and finely executed satirical paintings called kyōga (‘comic pictures’). With fluidity and abundant confidence, his hand captured the liveliness of events in an admirably effortless manner using what Koto describes as an ‘uninhibited brush’. His images are often narrative and lyrical, and transport the viewer right into the bustle of the portrayed scene. The expressions of his figures are always inviting. The depictions exude humour and warmth and convey a real sense of humanness, even in his ‘humanised’ animal images where Kyōsai replaced people with animals who busy themselves performing human life.

In the lecture’s Q&A session, one listener asked whether Kyōsai’s creative legacy lives on. Koto discussed how the French artist Félix Régamey adopted Kyōsai’s sekiga or spontaneous painting style when Régamey gave a lecture in France by illustrating his talk on a board in front of his audience as he spoke. This style of visual image-making is certainly still practiced today as ‘sketchnoting’, although the lecturer and illustrator are often separate individuals. For me, Kyōsai’s humanised animal paintings stood out. Although swapping humans with animals in images for adult audiences is a familiar feature of Japanese art, I couldn’t resist thinking of the work by the street artist Banksy. Armed with a spray can and papercut stencils, the latter makes his social statement often through animals, such as monkeys and rats. With the stealthy Banksy having recently visited Norfolk for his ‘spraycation’, Koto’s lecture on Kyōsai drew an interesting parallel even though the link is perhaps rather coincidental. What unites the two artists separated by land and time is their attitude to art making: ‘Go big or go home’.

I hope you’ll have a chance to catch up on Koto’s informative lecture for three reasons:

  • To discover the unique imaginative world and work of Kawanabe Kyōsai
  • To whet your appetite before visiting her exhibition on the artist at the Royal Academy 
  • To ponder how art of the past finds ways of influencing the art of today

In case you missed it (really?) you can watch Dr Koto Sadamura’s lecture below (again).

Kazz Morohashi

Illustrator and Interaction Designer   

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