Interview with Israel Goldman

Art collector and dealer, Israel Goldman is in a jovial mood. He is delighted by the way his current exhibition at London’s Royal Academy: Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection has been received by critics and audience alike. On display are some 80 works by the maverick artist Kawanabe Kyōsai, providing a rare opportunity to see works from Goldman’s collection, on long-term loan to The British Museum, displayed together:

 “It’s rather special for me”, he says. Interest in the exhibition has been increasing, with visitor numbers starting to outstrip those of the Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan, running concurrently.

“I’m sure you noticed in the exhibition that there are so many different styles, Kyōsai was really able to master them, and with his firm grounding in the classics it made him a little harder to classify.” Moreover, he adds, the artist having been imprisoned, has the added appeal of “slight notoriety.”

There have been several invitations for this exhibition to travel, but the fragility of the works, combined with the demands of organising and moving delicate art on an international scale has culminated in a one venue show. Goldman considers it a “a very pleasant and wonderful distraction” from his fulltime career as an art dealer.

While there are no immediate plans for the exhibition to travel, he does envisage future exhibitions in other parts of Europe, and in the U.S. where Kyōsai would be on view for the first time.

In Japan two exhibitions  were instrumental in reviving Kyōsai’s reputation in 2009 and 2017. At both, Goldman was the leading lender from outside Japan. It is surprising then that with the increasing international appeal for Japanese art generally and the cult of Hokusai in particular, Kyōsai is still relatively unknown in the West.

“That’s why we’ve put on the exhibition, so the people can see him – I’m promoting Kyōsai as much as I can.”

It is also the reason why Goldman has lent other of Kyōsai’s works in his collection to the British Museum, so that they are available to view privately.

“The museum has a million works of art on paper, if not more, including tens of thousands of Japanese prints, and probably a few thousand scroll paintings. They can, maybe, show a hundred at a time.”

Goldman explains why the artist deserves to be made more publicly accessible:

 “Kyōsai is the equivalent in Japan of Cézanne, Degas and Van Gogh. How many undiscovered works of art by Cézanne do you come across? Even if you had unlimited funds, you’d have only a handful. And of course I don’t have unlimited funds. There’s a Michelangelo drawing coming up in Paris this month, which is a new discovery, but with Kyōsai, we’re seeing such works being uncovered all the time.”

Indeed, Goldman has just acquired a large format demon print, signed in the artist’s hand from a rare publication. “I was excited because I’d never seen it before.”

Kyōsai was immensely popular in his day, his admirers travelling from around the world to meet him, and his death was marked by “forty or fifty obituaries in Western papers.”

In the immediate aftermath he was considered a successor to Hokusai. But according to Goldman this gave way to a dryer, more academic aesthetic hierarchy:

“The same thing happened in France, the official salon artists versus the impressionist and post-impressionists. The artists who were doing the most exciting things were controversial. It would be like Puvis de Chavannes v Cézanne. You could draw a parallel there.”

Goldman has been doubly fortunate in finding an artist who made such an impression on him from an early age and being able to develop a collection to match his enthusiasm. At the age of 11, Goldman started collecting, when he acquired his first Japanese print for no more than a couple of pounds, bought with his pocket money.

Since acquiring a Kyōsai Daruma scroll at an auction in the early eighties and “an endearing  little elephant painting” that he loves, Goldman’s taste for the artist has continued to develop. He is a major exhibition lender and has established himself as a leading authority on the artist.

About eight per cent of his collection is on display at the Royal Academy. When assessing the size of his collection, Goldman says, “it’s hard to count”, and when one album contains tens of paintings it becomes increasingly difficult to gauge – is it one object or thirty separate paintings? However, he estimates his collection comprises about one thousand objects which include paintings, prints, drawings and illustrated books.

While he is pleased with the collection as it stands, his will to collect remains. He recalls how he had long sought a shogakai, a picture of painting party, and eventually he found one. It is currently hanging  in the final room of the RA exhibition:

“There are only four or five of them by Kyōsai of that type, and that’s the best one, so that was a really key thing’.

Have  Goldman’s feelings towards the artist changed over time, and have the discoveries he makes retained their excitement?  He replied that the experience of learning in general was complemented by his appreciation of the artist that grew as new material was discovered. Through the process of acquisition he attained greater knowledge:

 “I have a shunga collection by him, and most of those works were completely unrecorded and unknown until I started to buy. That has been published in a separate book which is written by my colleague Koto. I had to buy it to find out about it! So buying is incredibly educational, as is buying intelligently.

“What amazes me is that Kyōsai is a fantastic draughtsman. In a way it’s like Picasso who could take a leap into new territory because he had this incredible classical foundation, and was one of the greatest draughtsman in the history of Western art. And Kyōsai, I think, is the equivalent in Japanese art. What’s more he is really very funny. Humour is generally seen as less important but I think that’s a judgement very much open to question.

“I think right from the beginning, I completely got it. My feelings and my passion for it haven’t changed, but I guess my awareness has. I’ve been able to put it in context.”

Goldman is continually finding new works by the artist who was very prolific, producing 30 or 40 paintings at a single painting party in contrast to his highly finished commissions, which could take at least several weeks to complete.

“Kyōsai has two styles: there are the very finished paintings that take a lot of intellectual thought and have plenty of detail; these would be worked up in the studio. Then there were those he produced at these shogakai, where the price of admission would ensure you came away with something. He’d get increasingly drunk, and paint and paint – virtually everyone would come away with something. So the works were uneven because of their very nature. He just painted all day long.”

However, Goldman maintains that Kyōsai’s prodigious sake consumption was not detrimental to his work. Clearly, he did not suffer the painter’s equivalent of writer’s block during the painting parties:

“He didn’t have problems with drunken painting, he just let rip. It freed him up and you see his instinctive, innate qualities as a draughtsman come through and inherent memory.”

Neither does Goldman believe that Kyōsai drank to fuel his inspiration. Even though the artist may have been slow in delivering his commissions, Goldman says this was more to do with the sheer amount of work he took on:

 “Like most great artists, he was in demand. There were always more commissions than he had time to do.”

Counterfeit Kyōsai works are widespread, with many in circulation. Following the artist’s death, demand for his work remained and the market was flooded with fakes of both the ‘drunken’ and highly finished variety. Goldman, who works closely with colleague Koto Sadamura, says:

“Authenticating works is part of the fun for me, I have a lot of experience. It’s difficult though when people ask me what I think because I have to be discreet and that puts one in a difficult position. But at least with my own work we’re as confident as possible that it’s by the hand of the artist.”

In the fever of an auction, often invitation only and reserved for dealers, there can be only seconds to decide whether a work is genuine or not.

“It really trains the eye and everyone makes mistakes on occasion”, he says. “It’s the nature of the process. Unfortunately there isn’t a group of recognised Kyōsai scholars to whom one can show things. But, on the other hand, the more people involved, the more dissenting opinions you have.”

An unforeseen audience for Kyōsai’s work is a growing and devoted following among tattooists. It is doubtful that there will ever be so many inked people at a Royal Academy exhibition again. Goldman, who checks out the exhibition two or three times a week, enthused:

 “It’s wonderful, I loved it. I have so much fun at the exhibition just watching people. They’re really getting into it, they’re taking photographs, interacting and laughing. Kyōsai’s time has come.”

Discussing the glowing view of Kyōsai by Whistler’s pupil, Mortimer Menpes, Goldman says:

“When he compared Kyōsai to Botticelli and Michelangelo, I was initially a little sceptical. Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo – that’s a another conversation. But I’ve spent pretty much  a lifetime buying and selling and dealing and looking at art, and I think Kyōsai’s right up there.

“All the great classic stuff from Western artists have been well covered. Every five or ten years there’s a little cache of drawings that turn up in an auction in Paris from a private collection. But with Kyōsai, we’re seeing his works come up all the time.”

And Goldman assures me that there will be more to see in the next exhibition.

As he prepares for a clients’ lunch, I am struck by his ability to shift between serious collector, with a lifelong persistence and desire to form a comprehensive collection, and dealer, with its professional obligations and economic demands.

While oil paintings and Renaissance drawings remain among the most desirable art works in the twenty first century, Kyōsai has penetrated our Western aesthetic consciousness – and there are many more oriental artists waiting to be discovered.

Goldman hints that more exhibitions are planned despite the vulnerability of the works:

“One has to be careful. But this is not the last Kyōsai exhibition I’ll be involved with by any means. My collection will become more accessible because I’m not trying to hoard this material. I’m trying to safeguard it but I want to share it with the world if I can.”

Goldman admits that Kyōsai’s increasing international popularity is a double edged sword. More exhibitions and media coverage result in rising prices, good for the dealer, and greater competition for the artist’s works, bad for the collector.

Now in the position of having amassed the collection he wants, he reconciles the two roles, saying:   

“I’m primarily a print and book dealer, Kyōsai is mainly a painter, little known when I began collecting, so I felt it was reasonably safe to do so without competing with my clients whom it is my duty to serve. But it’s a double edged sword: as a collector, watching rising prices and increased interest I’m delighted and thrilled that Kyōsai is now better known; and then I’m sorry about the increased prices because, while I don’t have to collect anymore, what you really want to do is get more stuff – Anyway, it’s a happy pain.”

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