Art, Antiques & Museums Arts & Culture

Sex, frogs, & passing gas

  • April 22, 2022
  • 5 min read
Sex, frogs, & passing gas

by Sophie Pretorius

The Kawanabe Kyōsai show, which opened at the Royal Academy on 19 March – 19 June, is a raucous and overwhelming display of what one imagines the mind of a young man might look like: if that young man was bestowed with an outrageous painterly gift. The works on display, all from the collection of Israel Goldman, dealer and collector of Japanese prints, range from masterful, meditative scroll paintings of dignified animals, to beautiful courtesans in hell, to shunga (‘pillow pictures’, or erotica), to biting political caricatures and to literal fart battles.

There are a seeming unending number of frogs dancing through the exhibition, in every conceivable position and situation. The popular Japanese symbol of good luck and fertility (think of the shape of a tadpole) were something of a personal emblem for Kyōsai. The programme divulges that the first thing he ever drew, at age three, was a frog.

Dr Koto Sadamura, curator of the show and preeminent scholar on the work of Kyōsai, attempts to introduce a whole career in three rooms, while simultaneously making a case for Kyōsai’s work being deserving of serious study, both despite and because of its humour and lewdness. Though this results in an exhausting 35 minutes (give or take), especially for the uninitiated, it certainly provides value for money.

Any single picture chosen to illustrate this exhibition would give a very different impression of Kyōsai’s work. One image might imply a melancholic master draftsman (which, I notice, is the sort of image almost all the English reviewers of this show have chosen as to accompany their article), another would imply a children’s cartoonist, another, a political caricaturist, and another, a shameless pornographer. Suffice to say, the rest of the show is nothing like Fashionable Battle of Frogs: III, 1884 (illustrated), but every piece in it is as visually powerful. Each piece, print, painting or sketch, demonstrates virtuosic skill and huge sensitivity to the comic and lyrical capacity of line.

However, somehow this show ends up less than the sum of its parts. This is largely due to the limits of the gallery setting for displaying anything other than paintings on canvas or large sculpture, and not the fault of the work or the curation. Each item on its own is worth an hour’s close study: each was intended for intimate and social handling, and was therefore created with tactility in mind. The items’ three-dimensionality and material qualities are (necessarily) mediated by Perspex vitrines, and thus each piece must speak through its imagery alone: en masse the result is cacophonous.

Much of this collection is normally on long-term loan at the British Museum and is accessible to the public there, by appointment. While seeing this exhibition offers an excellent introduction to Kyōsai’s work, I recommend booking in to consult one or two individual objects yourself later in the year.

The inherent difficulties in displaying the exhibition, explains some of the poor critical response to this show, the rest can be accounted for by a mixture of lack of contextual knowledge on behalf of the viewer (the political caricatures, for example, require an intimate knowledge of the Edo and Meiji eras’ history, which few in the West possess) and the historical discomfort art criticism has always had in relation to satire. In Japanese art history this is also the case, Dr Sadamura, explains how Kyōsai’s kyōga works (depicting comic or satirical subjects), along with those of others, have often been glanced over historically, in favour of the more serious and serene honga works (depicting classical or religious subjects).

I detect in many of the reviews of this exhibition a sense of regret at squandered talent. However, the Royal Academy is an apt choice for an attempt at locating this artist as both an aesthetic master and a brilliant comic. One need only think of Joshua Reynolds (first president of the Royal Academy) and his accomplished oil works, shown at the first exhibition of paintings open to the public, in the gallery format, we now take as given when viewing art. His works incorporated political commentary and social jibes as part of the entertainment of attending an exhibition (albeit, in a much more restrained manner): see, for example, The Infant Academy, 1782.

Mocking is no foreigner in the realm of fine art, and certainly neither is titillation. This said, while this show will serve largely as an introduction to his work for many with an interest in fine art in the west, Kyōsai’s work is already popular and better appreciated by other audiences. He is widely credited as having co-authored the first manga, Eshinbun Nipponchi, in 1874 with Kanagaki Robunnow. The Manga industry is now a multi-billion dollar one, and a significant part of global culture. Kyōsai’s work is also popular with tattoo artists and anime creators. In these arenas, his skill for capturing the comic and the erotic is held in high esteem.

Though the Kyōsai show at the Royal Academy makes something of a rude entrance, it does an adequate and important job of introducing thousands of new eyes to his world of compulsive and riotous fun and skill.

Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection

Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House’

Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD 020 7300 8090


Image: Kawanabi Kyosai, Fashionable battle of frogs, 1864

About Author

Sophie Pretorius