Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889 CE) is one of Japan’s most celebrated artists of the 19th century. Known for his witty and imaginative work as well as his eccentric personality, Kyōsai has inspired many myths throughout the ages and has defied genre norms and expectations.
Born as Shūzaburō and raised in Edo (present-day Tokyo), Kyōsai started drawing as early as six years old, attending lessons with Utagawa Kuniyoshi, one of the most prominent ukiyo-e (colourful woodblock prints) artists of the time.
After some years spent at the ukiyo-e school, Kyōsai’s parents decided that a classical, academic training would be more appropriate for their son and therefore moved him to the influential Kanō school, the government’s official painting school that served the Tokugawa shogunate and ruling samurai class.
As part of his formal training, which he completed at the age of 19, Kyōsai learned techniques to paint traditional subjects such as historic Japanese and Chinese figures, legends and myths as well as auspicious and religious themes. He also acquired a rich repertoire of powerful brush strokes, in particular skills in ink painting, which the Kanō school was renowned for.
During the 1850s, amidst the decline of the Tokugawa shogunate and rising economic uncertainty, Kyōsai re-discovered the world of ukiyo-e and started producing popular, topical works and social satire, known as kyōga. Just a decade earlier it would have been unthinkable for an official Kanō school artist to produce this kind of art. However, due to the declining power of the ruling shogun, social rules were becoming less strictly observed.
Around 1857 the artist began using the name Kyōsai, which consists of the character kyō (狂, meaning ‘comic’ or ‘parodic’) and sai (斎, meaning ‘studio’), fully embracing the shift to kyōga.
From the mid to late 1860s, Kyōsai produced numerous satirical prints dealing with the political conflicts and battles which led to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, often using animals to depict humans of all social ranks. In the years that followed, he gained increasing popularity as more and more people discovered his humorous ukiyo-e works.
Despite his popular success, Kyōsai continued to be criticised by conservative art authorities for his eclecticism and unorthodox approach to blending genres and styles. For many decades after his death, he continued to be considered a controversial figure, until his works once again gained popularity around the end of the 20th century.
Today, Kyōsai’s pioneering and genre-defying blend of social caricature and his technically brilliant painting skills are celebrated around the world. Moreover, his art is thought to have had a key influence in the fields of anime and manga.