From Mad to Dawn

Revolutionary Art of Kyosai Kawanabe and Josiah Conder

16 AUGUST 2015,
“In Front of the Paris Opera” in “The Strange Tale of the Castaways: A Western Kabuki” by Mokuami Kawatake,1879 © Kyôsai Kawanabe
“In Front of the Paris Opera” in “The Strange Tale of the Castaways: A Western Kabuki” by Mokuami Kawatake,1879 © Kyôsai Kawanabe

The drawing made direct from nature was too natural to be artistic”.
- Quote of Kyosai Kawanabe by Josiah Conder, “Painting and Studies”.

When we speak of Japanese art reflections on Western artistry, we regard Hokusai, Hiroshige or Utagawa Kuniyoshi as absolute inspirations for Western artists, especially during the 19th century. The tranquil waves of the sea, refined linear silhouettes of Mt. Fuji, flowing silk kimono of the Japanese woman, and the natural settings of daily village life in Japan intrigued the curious eyes of Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, and other great world masters. Who would ever imagine that a fearless picture of haunting skeletons and demonic figures surrounding a fiery red-robed woman (Hell Courtesan no.9 of the Kyôsai Rakuga series, 1874) would stir a multitude of onlookers?

Perhaps, 19th century Japan was an era quite reserved for local Japanese to accept an artist’s wild eccentricities, overpowering spirit, and ultra-exuberance radically diverted towards the unreal and the unimaginary. One such artist was Kyosai Kawanabe (1831-1889). And, one British architect who so admired his free passion that he spent his adult years learning Japanese painting under his wings was Josiah Conder (1852-1920).

The special bond between these two artists produced an infinitude of masterful creations from sketches, woodblock prints, prints on silk, paintings, screen dividers, fans, scrolls and other media that have been wonderfully assembled by Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo in the exhibition Kyosai Master Painter and His Student Josiah Conder running in two phases throughout September 6th, 2015.

In the first phase of the exhibition, we understand how Kyosai (whose original name in written Japanese meant “crazy”) began to articulate his drawing skills at age 7 under the famous print artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi, then proceeded to train in the studio of Kano Tohaku from age 10. He gradually shied away from the Kano painting tradition and explored his own independent style, which was often bold, daring, and marked a somewhat undisciplined nature. As a young boy, he was mischievous and sometimes overtly adventurous that he would bring home crushed human heads from the river to study and play with. On another occasion, while witnessing a horrendous fire when he was 14 years old, Kyosai concentrated on drawing the raging flames and birds in the air that he overlooked his own home burning to ashes. Once, he offended a lady that he clandestinely followed only to draw the beautiful obi belt around her waist. Many of Kyosai’s sketches depicting political satire were highly reputable, and were said to bear significant influence on contemporary Japanese manga. The political humor and cynicism in his art coincided with a carefree lifestyle of painting under intoxication in many painting parties (Calligraphy and Painting Party 1881), which inevitably caused him several arrests. It was, perhaps, because of such a rebellious spirit that Kyosai was extremely underrated for his remarkable talent during his era.

The exhibition covers Kyosai’s diverse works encompassing motifs from birds, frogs and other animal creatures, landscapes, ghosts and demons, religious deities, caricatures, theatre and performing arts, women to “shunga” erotic art.

When Josiah Conder arrived in Japan in 1877 as a foreign advisor to the Japanese Government, he taught architecture at the Imperial College of Engineering, and had since been widely known for his Westernization of Japanese architecture, such as the Ueno Museum (1881), the Iwasaki residence and villa (1896 and 1889, founder of Mitsubishi), the Mitsubishi Ichigokan (1894), and others. Conder always maintained an intimate relationship with Japanese art even before coming to Japan, and so it was not surprising for him to establish contact with Kyosai, especially during the highlight of the Second National Industrial Exhibition in Ueno Park in 1881, the building that Conder himself designed. From the same year, he began his studies of Japanese painting with Kyosai, and the two artists molded an intricate exchange of art and life experiences. Conder constantly admired Kyosai’s peculiar ability to draw from memory, and his delicate painting technique on silk. Conder’s impressive illustration of a female and old man in Ling Zhiao and Shide Folding Screen and numerous artworks of birds, fish and nature consequently gave Conder the pen name “Kyo-ei” and was fondly referred to as the Western Kyosai.

Likewise, after going through several periods of changes in his life, including imprisonment, Kyosai also eventually changed the Japanese character of his name from “mad” to “dawn”. The delicate collaboration between Kyosai and Conder can be considered utterly incomparable to that of any other Japanese and Western artist of the same era. Learning from each other’s cultures and using this knowledge to complement each other’s styles opened doors to divulge each other’s quest for artistic freedom, and this was made clearly evident in their superb masterpieces. There is, perhaps, so much “madness” in Kyosai’s works, but not enough for him to be labeled as the greatest revolutionary artist of Japan crossing the historical periods from Edo to the Meiji era.

With special gratitude to Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum