News - Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection


Discover the work of Kawanabe Kyōsai – some of which has never been seen before – in a new exhibition coming to the Royal Academy of Arts in London in this Spring...


Press Release

Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889) was the most exciting and popular Japanese painter of the late 19th century. A child prodigy and draughtsman of the highest ability, his art is humorous, provocative, energetic, and outrageous. The exhibition will focus largely on the art of sekiga, ‘spontaneous paintings’, produced at ‘calligraphy and painting parties’ (shogakai) which were often fuelled by prodigious amounts of saké. 


Overlooked for decades, many of these works reveal a comical twist which plays on conventions or reflects the artist’s take on society. Alongside these spontaneous works, highly detailed studio paintings will reveal the wide subject range Kyōsai referenced as well as his revolutionary style which challenged the rigid artistic conventions of the day. 


The historical context of his work will be explored, revealing the great political, social, and cultural changes taking place across Japan which he captured in his art. The exhibition will include around 80 works, many of which have never been exhibited or published, and these will all be drawn from the unparalleled collection of Israel Goldman. This will be the first monographic exhibition of Kyōsai’s work in the UK since 1993.


Kyōsai was initially a pupil of the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) before receiving academic training at the celebrated Kano school. He had a keen engagement with the world around him and an inexhaustible curiosity; he did not hesitate to incorporate new elements into his traditional studies. More recently he has been an important source for modern manga, tattoo artists and contemporary painters. 


As one of the most famous artists of his day, written records regarding Kyōsai are also abundant. There are contemporary accounts of his interactions with the first generation of Western artists, writers and diplomats to visit Japan after the country opened its ports to the West in 1854. They include the British architect, Josiah Conder, and the founder of the musée Guimet, French industrialist Émile Guimet. Kyōsai also published a self-illustrated, semi-autobiography, Kyōsai gadan, in 1887.


The exhibition will explore three themes. The first section, From Tradition to Innovation, will highlight Kyōsai’s representative works which demonstrate the variety of genres and styles in which he painted. These works, which include finely finished examples in full colour, reveal Kyōsai’s firm foundation as a trained academic painter and provide a distinct contrast to the spontaneous paintings. Thanks to his extensive mastery of the traditional practices, these works are painted with considerable freedom and invention. A highlight here will be one the most important works in the exhibition, a unique pair of 3-metre folding screens, Night procession of one hundred demons, 1871 – 1889.


The second section Laughing at Modernity will introduce Kyōsai within the historical setting of mid to late 19th century Japan. Prints and paintings depict the introduction of Western culture to Japan, encounters with Europeans and Americans, domestic political events and civil wars. In these pieces, contemporary topics are treated with humour, with human figures or ‘humanised’ animals often created in order to overcome strict political censorship.


The final section, The Artist meets his Public, will focus on spontaneous paintings and collaborative works. Collaboration often occurred at gatherings and it was a vital part of art making in 19th century Japan. Some of the spontaneously painted compositions are ‘drunken paintings’, which reveal the essence of Kyōsai’s virtuosity as a painter with their wilder and freer brush strokes. Kyōsai also painted comical shunga (sexually explicit images), often impromptu in front of an audience. Additional, related works will be exhibited in the genre of ‘paintings within paintings,’ one of Kyōsai’s recurring themes.


The exhibition is organised by the Royal Academy of Arts and curated by Dr Sadamura Koto, Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures and Visiting Researcher in the Asia Department at the British Museum, and Israel Goldman, in conjunction with Dr Adrian Locke, Chief Curator, Royal Academy of Arts. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated publication written by Dr Sadamura Koto as well as a book on Kyōsai’s animal images, Kyōsai’s Animal Circus.


Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection exhibition runs from Saturday 19th March – Sunday 19th June 2022

Find out more and how to book tickets on the Royal Academy of Arts website.

Images - 
Kawanabe Kyōsai, Two Crows with ‘Crow Gourd’ (karasu–uri), c.1884–9. Hanging scroll: ink and light colour on silk, 125 × 50 cm. Israel Goldman Collection, London. Photo: Ken Adlard
Kawanabe Kyōsai and 54 others, Calligraphy and Painting Party (Shogakai), c. May 1876 – spring 1878. Hanging scroll: ink and light colour on paper, 131.5 × 65.5 cm. Israel Goldman Collection, London. Photo: Ken Adlard
Kawanabe Kyōsai, 'Famous from India: Elephants at Play' (Tenjiku torai dai-hyōban: zō no tawamure), fourth month, 1863. Colour woodblock print, 36.2 × 24.6 cm. Israel Goldman Collection, London. Photo: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University
Kawanabe Kyōsai, Tiger Looking at Its Reflection in Moonlight, 1871-89. Hanging scroll: ink and gold on silk, 128.6 x 54.2 cm. Israel Goldman Collection, London. Photo: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University
Kawanabe Kyōsai, Shōki and Two Demons, 1882. Hanging scroll: ink, colour and gold on paper, 107.2 × 47 cm. Israel Goldman Collection, London. Photo: Ken Adlard
Kawanabe Kyōsai, Hell Courtesan (Jigoku–dayū), Dancing Ikkyū and Skeletons, 1871–89. Hanging scroll: ink, colour and gold on silk, 137.1 × 69.3 cm. Israel Goldman Collection, London. Photo: Ken Adlard
Kawanabe Kyōsai, A Beauty in Front of King Enma's Mirror, 1871–89 (1887?). Hanging scroll: ink, colour and gold on silk, 35.3 × 52 cm. Israel Goldman Collection, London. Photo: Ken Adlard
Kawanabe Kyōsai, Frog School, early 1870s. Album leaf: ink and light colour on paper, 19.4 × 29.8 cm. Israel Goldman Collection, London. Photo: Ken Adlard
Kawanabe Kyōsai, Ghost, c. 1868–70. Hanging scroll: ink, light colour and gold on silk. 105.6 × 32 cm. Israel Goldman Collection, London. Photo: Ken Adlard
Kawanabe Kyōsai, Skeleton Shamisen Player in Top Hat with Dancing Monster, 1871–8. Unmounted painting: ink and light colour on paper, 29.7 × 39.1 cm. Israel Goldman Collection, London. Photo: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University