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Kawanabe Kyosai: The Last Virtuoso of Early Japanese Art

When we speak of Japanese art, among the very first that comes to our minds are the traditional paintings unique to these Oriental artists. Let's take a look at the works of Kawanabe Kyosai, hailed as one of the virtuosos of traditional Japanese paintings.

Namazu-e (catfish print) by Kyosai Kawanabe and Robun Kanagaki, considered as the very first catfish print, made just two days after the Great Ansei Earthquake in November 1855. Image via Pink Tentacle.

Kawanabe Kyosai (May 18, 1831 – April 26, 1889) was a Japanese artist who was born to a samurai at Koga in 1831. Since he lived during the Edo Period through the Meiji Period, he was able to witness Japan’s transformation from a feudal country to a modern state. This is largely evident in his political caricatures, for which he became known and highly regarded. Many of his caricatures were composed in the form of satires and social commentaries that somewhat criticized the government’s decrees. Because of this, he was often the subject of controversy for his work, and was arrested and imprisoned several times by the members of the shogunate.

Bake-Bake Gakkō (School for Spooks), made by Kyosai in response to the Meiji Government’s system of compulsory education. Image via Wikipedia.

According to art critics and biographers who documented Kyosai’s work, he was an eccentric but highly creative and original artist. He was said to have lived a “somewhat wild and undisciplined” life, and often went on sake drinking sprees with fellow artists Kobayashi Kiyochika and Toyohara Kunichika. However, what he lacked in order, he made up for with voluminous ingenious artworks.

Aside from his caricatures, Kyosai also made sketches and paintings that drew inspiration from Japan’s folklore and mythology, incorporating well-known characters such as the kappa (a river imp) and the namazu (a giant catfish who is said to cause earthquakes). His works range from the comic, humorous, and satiric to the strange, eerie, and frightening.

Let’s take a look at some more of the works that earned Kawanabe Kyosai his reputation as the last virtuoso of early Japanese art:

His depictions of hell are particularly interesting and haunting:

Information for this article were taken from Kawanabe Kyosai on Wikipedia, Artelino, and Pink Tentacle.

written by plasticpopsicle

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