Kawanabe Kyosai and his Work10/04/2019
Kawanabe Kyosai, also known as Gyosai Kawanabe or Gyosai Chikamaro, is a 19th century Japanese artist. He is considered as one of the very last (maybe even the ultimate) representative of Traditional Japanese painting and Ukiyo-e. He is also known as the first Japanese cartoonist.
Who was Kanawabe Kyosai?
Birth of Kawanabe Kyosai
Born in May 1831 in the city of Koga in Japan (district of Ibaraki), Kawanabe Kyosai (original name: Shisaburo) is quickly destined to follow an artistic career. In 1832 his family moves to Edo where his father purchases the samurai family name Kai, and joins the official firefighters to the Shogunate.
Kyosai starts his formal artistic training five years later in 1837, after showing an impressive ability for sketching. He begins as assistant for Utagawa Kuniyoshi (one of the last great masters of woodblock printing and considered unique because of the multitude of genres he has tackled). Then student at Kano school (school of professional and secular artists and painters created by Kano Masanobu), the young man quickly abandons all this for the popular school. Leaving a lot more freedom than the traditional school, the popular school allows him to find his fanciful and exuberant style. This style is close to his own life with lots of sakes and brothels with his friends and colleagues.
Kyosai discovers throughout his life, societal upheavals operating in Japan. Indeed, it is at this moment that the Edo period ends and that the Meiji era begins. Japan abandons its feudal state, in exchange of an era of industrial modernity. It is also a time of diplomacy. Japanese shogunate is forced to sign a diplomatic treaty with american Commodore Matthew Perry. This opens a diplomatic relationship between Japan and the outside world, while it is under threat from eight US warships in Edo Bay. The Meiji Restoration and the establishment of the Shogunate generates significant political unrest (revolution of 1867). It is at this same period that Kyosai becomes famous for his talents as a caricaturist. Some of his works, such as “The battle of the farts”, owe him several imprisonments. Whether it was the Shogunate authorities or the Emperor’s followers, they were not particularly excited about his work.
In addition to his caricatures, kyosai will remain famous for his many sketches, most of the time depicting the folklore of his country.
Death of Kawanabe Kyosai
He died in April 1889 in Tokyo, leaving behind him an amazing legacy, full of fantasy. Kawanabe Kyosai was a real eccentric man with exuberance in both drinking and painting style. His creativity was limitless. So much that at the end of his days, he had produced thousands of paintings, prints and illustrated books. Kyosai’s paintings and prints range from traditional to bizarre and fantastic. His drawing style was unique, he was also able to paint in the most refined traditional style of an 18th century painter. Many of his creations are comical, satirical, humorous and sketchy. Others can be found strange and scary.
His style and his work
In addition to his caricatures, Kyosai painted a large number of images and sketches, often choosing his subjects within the folklore of his country: Noh drama, nature and religion. A fine collection of his works is preserved in the British Museum (UK). There are also fine examples in the National Art Library in Kensington and the Guimet Museum in Paris. The Kawanabe Kyosai Memorial Museum, established in 1977, is located in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, Japan.
Kyosai created what is considered to be the first manga magazine in 1874: “E-shinbun Nipponchi”, with Kanagaki Robun. The magazine was heavily influenced by “Japan Punch”, founded in 1862 by Charles Wirgman, a British cartoonist. Eshinbun Nipponchi had a very simple style of drawings and did not become popular with many people: it ended after just three issues.
Kawanabe Kyosai and the Western world
Many Westerners have visited Kyosai, and their memoirs about the artist are precious. Among the most important can be found:
- Emile Guimet, Promenades Japonaises, Paris, 1880: account of his trip to Japan, illustrated by Félix Régamey;
- Josiah Conder, Kawanabe Kyosai Paintings and Studies, Tokyo, 1911. Conder was a serious student of Japanese art. After an initial period of rejection, he is accepted as a student of Kyosai and accompanied him until his death.
The most important work on Kyosai’s art and life is his own autobiography: Kyosai Gadan, or “Kyosai’s Treatise on Painting”, between autobiographical story and painting manual.
An important contemporary study about the artist is Kawanabe Kyosai-o den, or “Biography of the old man Kawanabe Kyosai” by Iijima Kyoshin. Completed in 1899, the text is only published in 1984.
Some of Kawanabe Kyosai most famous works
Kanawabe earned many nicknames. One of the most famous was “demon painter” because of his talent. He developed a heightened curiosity for death and the occult at an early age, perhaps as the consequence from an episode in which he discovered a corpse by the Kanda River and picked up its head. Kawanabe’s artwork went through several interesting phases, from whimsical animals to erotic images.
Kanawabe Kyosai was a great triptych lover:
Adaptation Of His Work
He was also a man who scribbled a lot and many notebooks were found. Here are two of his drawings on our t-shirts. The designs are fully reproduced by hand. Click on the picture if you want to discover those t-shirts.