Artillery Row On Art

The bacchanalia of Kawanabe Kyōsai

This exhibition at the Royal Academy revels in the artist’s versatility

When Kawanabe Kyōsai was nine years old he was playing beside a river when he spotted something odd floating in the water. Curious, as young boys are, he found a stick and dragged this strange object into the shallows, where he discovered, to his surprise, that it was a severed human head.

Most children — and most adults, for that matter — would have been horrified by this grotesque discovery, but Kyōsai reacted rather differently. Instead of fainting, screaming or vomiting, as the rest of us would surely do, he sat down and drew a picture of it. Even at the age of nine, he was already an artist. During the next 50 years, until his death, aged 59, he produced a vast array of artworks, everything from satire to portraiture. This engrossing exhibition — Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection at the Royal Academy — reveals what a brilliant and versatile artist he became.

He managed to get drunk and make great art, often at the same time

Kyōsai recounted this story of the severed head himself, in a book called Account of Painting. Ostensibly, this was a primer for art students, featuring examples of paintings by past masters, meticulously copied by Kyōsai, but by far the most interesting section was a pictorial account of his own life as an artist. In one of the illustrations for this book, Kyōsai depicts himself as a young boy, fishing the severed head out of the river, and then sketching it, surrounded by enthralled and delighted passers-by.

Kawanabe Kyōsai was born in Koga, Japan in 1831, and made his first drawing, of a frog — a favourite motif throughout his life — when he was three. His parents recognised his nascent talent and apprenticed him to an Ukiyo-e artist when he was seven, and then to a Kano artist when he was ten (the contrast between these two schools, the first more populist, the second more formal, may account for the extraordinary range of his art). He completed his training when he was 19 and for 40 years thereafter he earned his living as an artist.

Kawanabe Kyōsai was a prolific painter, but he was also a prolific drinker. Accounts of boozy artists in Western Art are invariably cautionary tales, a battle between the easel and the bottle which can only have one winner. Conversely, Kyōsai did what all drunken artists dream of doing. He managed to get drunk and make great art, quite often at the same time.

The reason this feat was possible was because of a popular pastime in 19th Century Japanese society called Shogakai, or painting parties, in which large numbers of artists and art-lovers (often as many as several hundred) would congregate in a large restaurant, or some similar public venue, to either drink and watch people painting (if you were a connoisseur) or drink and paint (if you were an artist). We have a pretty good idea what these events looked like because Kyōsai painted them. They look like terrific fun: artists collaborating on group paintings, often comical or satirical, while art enthusiasts cheer them on.

Kyōsai wasn’t remotely shamefaced or secretive about his drinking. On the contrary he revelled in it, signing off his pictures as “drunken ink,” “thunder drunk” or “intoxicated demon of painting.” Of course he might very well have painted even better pictures if he’d been sober — who knows? — but even the pictures he painted when he’d been drinking were very good indeed. The brushwork is a lot looser, but it’s often no worse for it, and unlike a lot of drunken artists, the booze never prevented him from painting. “Never sit down without painting, never lie down without drinking,” was his mantra. A portrait photograph, taken in early middle age, reveals him to be a handsome man with a friendly face, crooked teeth and a wicked grin.

Kyōsai was a master of Sekiga, a kind of performance art in which watching the rapid execution of these action paintings was a large part of the appeal. Adverts for his appearances at Shogakai promised he’d paint a thousand pictures in an evening, and even though this was a gross exaggeration he sometimes produced over a hundred in a single sitting. Yet he was also a master of more meticulous Honga paintings, and it’s his mastery of both these styles which makes him so impressive. His simple paintings of crows are masterpieces of economy, conveying a wealth of expression in a few brushstrokes. 

The boy who painted the severed head remained a painter to the very end

The Anglo-Australian painter Mortimer Menpes saw Kyōsai painting one of these pictures, in Tokyo, in 1887. “I never saw such facility in my life,” he said. Japanese critics also admired these paintings, but they scolded him for spending too much time on Sekiga, urging him to abandon such frivolous entertainments, and return to the “correct path.” In Japan, Kyōsai was always more highly praised by the hoi-polloi than the cognoscenti.

However as Kyōsai reached maturity, Japan was no longer the only market for his work. The country was opening up to Europe and America, and his pictures were exhibited in Paris and Philadelphia. Kyōsai chronicled the invigorating yet disruptive effects of this cultural invasion in his paintings. This rapid influx of westerners also had a profound effect on his own life. In 1881 he met the British architect Josiah Conder, a teacher at Tokyo’s Imperial College of Engineering. Conder became Kyōsai’s pupil, and even though he was 20 years Kyōsai’s junior, the two men became good friends.

When Kyōsai died of stomach cancer, in 1889, Conder was at his bedside. He held his hand as he died. “His last hours were full of regrets at parting from the art that he loved,” revealed Conder. The boy who painted the severed head remained a painter to the very end. In the obituary that he wrote for the Japan Weekly Mail, Conder praised Kyōsai’s tipsy Sekiga paintings, as well as his Honga masterworks. “He recognised that under the influence of Bacchus, some of his strangest fancies, fresh conceptions and boldest touches were inspired.”

Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection is at the Royal Academy until 19 June 2022

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