The Royal Academy
19 March – 19 June 2022
Interview with Israel Goldman below this review
Female genitals in exhibitions are not the most common sight; so, it was a surprise to see Kyōsai’s Vagina Daruma, painted a few years after Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, in the final room of this striking show. The works displayed alongside it succeed in showing just what range this artist had: the ethereal Ghost, a fine ink work of a gaunt and partly translucent figure hovering in lamplight, to the orgiastic indulgences of Monks and Acolytes, figures writhing, taking it in every orifice, through to the supremely vulgar Man Sending a Woman Flying with a Fart. He was just as comfortable in the natural world of animals, particularly well represented in the first room of this exhibition.
Renowned in his own time as a comic artist, often satirical, Kyōsai also harboured a colossal appetite for sake. Intoxication was a consistent state for him and this combined with the whoring during his late teens and early achieved artistic ability no doubt contributed to his lasting nickname: ‘Demon of Painting’. His drinking would bring troubles, not least imprisonment for a few months in 1870. It was during a shogakai, a party where artists would swiftly produce hundreds of small to medium sized paintings and calligraphy for clients, that he became inebriated and produced satirical paintings deemed unacceptable by the authorities. Nevertheless, he continued to revel in intoxication, embracing Bacchus until cancer forced him to curtail his sake intake in the final two years of his life. He went as far as to seal some of his most serious works as by the ‘Intoxicated Demon of Painting’.
Shogakai aside, Kyōsai tended to keep clients waiting years for specific commissions while he subjected these works to his own rigorous desire for originality. He need not have worried; today, the works made at speed (sekiga) and the more highly finished examples each has their individual appeal.
Detention did little to diminish Kyōsai’s satirical perspective on life that pervades his work. In 1871, He returned to Tokyo during a period of great modernisation: railways and telegraphs were established, old feudal domains abolished, whilst conscription and universal education were introduced. His working life partly coincided with the mid to late Meiji era when the tension between Japanese and Western styles became especially divisive. The works here are not so much brutal as they are playful, perhaps making the major transformation more bearable through comedy.
Foreigners and Samurai, presents the two groups conceited and ridiculous in their vanity; men, separated by a void, sit at odds with each other. In the ink sketch Western Man and Japanese Woman before Mt Fuji, the contact between east and west is given a more ambiguous, even peaceful air; below the mountain, hinted at with a single faint brushstroke, two figures regard each other, the man’s top hat contraposed with the woman’s fan, whilst a dog, wagging its tail observes from below.
The crow boded well for Kyōsai; during his life an ink on silk image of the bird became his best-known work. In 1881 he exhibited one of his crow paintings at the Second National Industrial Exhibition, allocating what would have been a huge price of 100 yen to the work. He claimed that this expression of the simple style had taken him decades to attain. The painting was bought by a prosperous confectioner, and the sale drew more attention both to the exhibition and Kyōsai’s work. The lone crow makes a few appearances in this show, perched on a branch and seemingly painted at speed, the artist making no pretensions to the more ‘literal’ appearance of oil painting.
Exhibitions of Japanese art of this scale and quality are a rarity in London, and for anyone with a desire to go, as well as finding it stimulating and humorous, will be in for a surprisingly pleasant experience, well-lit and, during this writer’s visits, away from the crowds. Running concurrently at the RA is the exhibition Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan in which some of the Japanese art Whistler owned is depicted, such as a fan produced by Kyōsai’s earlier counterpart Utagawa Hiroshige. This admiration extended to one of Whistler’s students, Mortimer Menpes. Menpes had met Kyōsai and seen him work whilst in Tokyo. The experience made such an impression that he told Whistler he was convinced he had met a Japanese master. It has been decades since Kyōsai had an exhibition in the UK and with a showing like this at the RA, the next time it may not be so quiet.