Kawanabe Kyosai (1831–1889) lived and worked the tumultuous years when the Edo shogunate fell and Japan opened itself up to the modern West. His art straddled not only different ages but also different genres: a painter of the shogunate-sponsored Kano school, he was also known for the many irreverent woodblock prints he produced for popular audiences. His freewheeling style has earned him renewed popularity in recent years, but unlike his paintings and prints, one body of output has so far been largely neglected in exhibitions and books related to him—the ehon picture book.
“Picture book,” in this case, refers not to illustrated stories for children, but to woodblock-printed treasuries of drawings and sketches. Kyosai’s ehon brought together a glorious array of witty, vivacious images, from skeletons and anatomical drawings to frogs, cats, and even yokai monsters. One after another of these volumes appeared in response to popular demand toward the end of his life; indeed, it seems that publishers couldn’t put them together quickly enough, judging from the motleyness of their content in many cases.
Picture Books of Kawanabe Kyosai presents 224 images selected from copies of Kyosai’s major ehon in the collection of the Ota Memorial Museum of Art. To better highlight Kyosai’s gaze, the works are organized into three categories (human figures and skeletons, animals and nature, yokai and deities); captions to each work illuminate Kyosai’s singular humor and offer insight into the magic of these ukiyo-e that mix and match old Edo with the modern age. Altogether the collection fully reveals the appeal of Kyosai, who was dubbed “the demon of painting” for his matchless talent.
The book is the latest in Seigensha’s line of compact-sized ukiyo-e collections that began with the enduringly popular three-volume Hokusai Manga series. Specialized printing by the Yamada Photo Process Company brings Kyosai’s 150-year-old artworks back to vibrant life.
Captions to every work explaining Kyosai’s humor and parodic references
An essay by Toko Sawada, the author of a 2021 novel about Kyosai’s daughter, Kawanabe Kyosui, who became an artist in her own right