At about 11 o'clock in the morning on 30 June 1880, the renowned Japanese painter Kawanabe Kyosai started work on his great curtain for the Shintomi theatre. It was to be a version of the classic subject the One Hundred Demons, and as Kyosai wielded his huge painting broom, their faces began to take shape. But there was something different about them. These were not the elegant forms of the Ukiyo-e painters. They were wild-eyed, manic creatures who moved across the picture in a frenzy of diabolical abomination. The writer Kanagaki Robun, who happened to be watching, remarked pithily that this was Kyoga, 'crazy painting'. And he wasn't wrong. His old friend Kyosai was quite drunk. Since 10 o'clock that morning he had downed three bottles of sake. That wasn't bad going, even for a man whose personal daily intake of 1.8 litres of the powerful rice wine was delivered to his house every morning. Sake was vital to Kyosai's art and under its spell he produced the most extraordinary works of his 35-year career, many of which are currently on view at the British Museum. According to his pupil, the English architect and traveller Josiah Conder, while 'under the influence of Bacchus some of his strangest fancies, freshest conceptions and boldest touches were inspired'.
Kyosai was the wild-man of 19th-century Japanese art and fully deserved his sobriquet Shuchu gaki (demon of painting). He is recorded as having assaulted fellow artists and in 1870 was imprisoned for his scurrilous depictions of western visitors. While his contemporaries of the Meiji period chose to depict the elegant society of Ukiyo-e, the 'floating world', Kyosai plumbed the depths of his own drink-addled mind to create a fantastic menagerie of animals, ghosts and demons which rivals the most excessive grotesqueries of Disney's Fantasia or Marvel comics.
Born in 1831, the son of a rice-merchant turned Samurai, Kyosai was always able to appreciate the funnier side of life. From the age of six he was trained as a painter in the Ukiyo-e tradition and his earliest works are accomplished examples of that genre. From 1857, however, when he dropped his given name of Shuzaburo in favour of the agnomen Seisei Kyosai, meaning literally 'enlightenment crazy studio', his true calling was revealed. Setting the 'tone' for the Kyoga so relished by his friend Robun, one of Kyosai's earliest mature works depicts an old man whose testicles have become entangled in the strings of a young boy's toy. The old man contorts himself in agony, the little boy grins and the level of Kyosai's humour is immediately apparent. By the time of his outrageous Fart Battle of 1867 and its companion piece the self-explanatory Phallic Contest, his wit had ripened to an all-time low. In the former, two teams spray each other with vividly-depicted noxious fumes as the courtesans, for whose entertainment the spectacle has been devised, swoon under the dreadful stench. But there is more to Kyosai than mere bawdiness.
The 'demon paintings' of the 1870s, with which the painter made his name, are inspired fantasies of impish excess whose Tolkein-esque monsters cavort in the fantastic landscapes of the artist's psyche. Often they ape human activity. In Shojo Drinking Sake, little, hairy mythical creatures mirror the artist's favourite pastime, while in the Bosch- like School for Spooks of 1874 the demons are instructed in ways of tormenting their human prey.
In this latter work, which also parodies the Japanese adoption of Western teaching methods, Kyosai hints at the more serious, satirical aspect of his art. However, it is as the painter of such comic tours de force as Cat on a Flying Fish, Frolicking Animals and the Battle of the Badgers and the Rabbits that Kyosai enters western popular consciousness alongside such icon-makers as Disney, Arthur Rackham and E H Shepherd. Although, as far as we know, they did it without the sake.
British Museum, London WC1 to 13 Feb
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