Kawanabe Kyosai's recently-rediscovered Yamato bijin no zu [Japanese Beauties] is not only a masterpiece by one of the greatest artists of Meiji-era Japan but also a testament to his friendship with one of the two most influential foreign architects practising in Japan in the last 120 years (the other is of course Frank Lloyd Wright). The entire screen was painted and assembled in 1884-6 as a gift from Kyosai to the British architect Josiah Conder, who came to Japan in 1877, was Kyosai's painting student and close friend from 1881 to 1884 and held the artist's hand as he died five years later on 26 April 1889.1 On 9 March 1886 the Nichinichi Shinbun newspaper reported the painting's presentation to Conder a few days earlier, explaining that it was intended by Kyosai as a commemorative gift to mark his appreciation of Conder's diligence in the study of Japanese painting (see lot 214). The screen stood at one end of the hall at Conder's home in Azabu, was displayed at the wedding of Conder's daughter Helen Aiko (who had also studied painting with Kyosai, using the art-name Kyozui) to the Swedish businessman William Lennart Grut in 1906,2 and a meticulously produced woodblock print of the right-hand panel formed the frontispiece to Conder's magisterial volume on Kyosai, published in 1911 (see lot 213). The painting's importance both to Kyosai's descendants and to the Conder-Grut family was underlined again in 1921 when it was exhibited at a ceremony held to mark the important thirty-third anniversary of Kyosai's death, an event which took place shortly after the death in 1920 of both Conder and his Japanese wife Maenami Kume.3
As noted above, Conder first came to Japan in 1877 at the age of twenty-five. A student of William Burges, in 1876 he was selected as a Soane medallist by the Royal Institute of British Architects and in the same year, during a peak period for the hiring of oyatoi-gaijin [foreign experts], he signed a contract with the Japanese government. In the ensuing forty-three years he returned to Britain only twice, dying in Japan in 1920. Conder designed some of the most celebrated Western-style structures of the early Meiji period, above all the Rokumeikan Pavilion (1883), a kind of elite international club that symbolised the official government policy of bunmei kaika [civilisation and enlightenment] to the extent that the Westernising years around its opening are sometimes referred to in Japan as the Rokumeikan jidai [Rokumeikan Era]. Other well-known public edifices by Conder, like the Rokumeikan no longer extant, were Tokyo Imperial Museum (1881), the College of Law and Letters (1884) and the Navy Ministry Building (1894), but during the 1880s he fell somewhat from official favour and began to concentrate on private commissions, some of which have survived to the present day either in their original form or as reconstructions. These include St. Nikolai Cathedral (Tokyo's Russian Orthodox church, 1891), the Iwasaki House (1896) and the Mitsui Club (1913). Despite his importance as an architect, Conder was far more influential as a teacher, numbering among his students Tatsuno Kingo (Tokyo Station, 1914), Katayama Tokuma (Kyoto National Museum, 1895; Akasaka Detached Palace, 1909) and Sone Tatsuzo (who ran the largest architectural practice in early 20th-century Japan), and serving from 1886 as Honorary President of the Architectural Institute of Japan.4 As the founder of a profession in which Japan has become internationally preeminent, and perhaps especially for his readiness to let leadership in the field pass rapidly into Japanese hands, Conder remains a revered figure in Japan to this day. He is also important for his work in promoting awareness of Japanese culture, and especially Japanese gardening and flower-arrangement, in Britain through publications such as The Flowers of Japan and the Art of Floral Arrangement (1891), Floral Art of Japan (1899) and Landscape Gardening in Japan (1893).
This painting's especial significance for the study of traditional Japanese painting techniques is due to the fact that Conder was no mere passive owner but actually witnessed the entire process of the creation of the right-hand panel, a process that 'demanded about six months of concentrated labour', and recorded it in writing in minute detail as an example of Kyosai's work in gokusaishiki [extremely colourful] style, so very different from the more immediate and rapid demonstrations of brushwork for which the artist is perhaps best known in the West following the groundbreaking exhibition held at the British Museum in 1993-4. Conder's written account starts with Kyosai sketching out a nude figure of the central figure in charcoal, replacing the charcoal sketch with an increasingly detailed ink drawing, gradually building up the flesh tint and the first layers of the costume and so on over more than twenty pages until the finishing touches were put to the picture-within-a-picture that forms the background to the composition. (The full text of Conder's description is available from the Japanese Department.)
It is likely that the mounting of the screen was carried out with Conder, or at any rate Western taste and interior decoration in general, specifically in mind. The format is somewhat non-traditional, with an antique textile border within a lacquered framework combined with two pierced panels of cedar. Variations on the conventional Japanese paper screen are a feature of much export art of the period; the Victoria and Albert Museum, for example, possesses a slightly larger appliqué metalwork and cedar two-fold screen, like the Kyosai screen with two separate lower panels, that was first exhibited in Boston in 1883, and there are numerous later examples with ceramic, Shibayama work (one of them from a design by Kyosai) or enamel panels.5 In addition, Matsubara Shigeru of Tokyo National Museum has pointed out that Kyosai took special care over the choice of kosode used for the textile mount. Like many late 17th-century garments, its decoration includes scattered kana and kanji characters, in this case taken from a poem (Hitofushi ni/chiyo o kometaru/tsue nareba/tsukutomo tsukiji/kimi ga yowai wa) by Onakatomi no Yoritomo from Book 5 of the Shuiwakashu anthology, compiled around the year 1000.6 The poem, inspired by the cutting of a new bamboo staff, is auspicious in meaning and draws a parallel between the plant's inexhaustible vigour and the hoped-for long life of the person to whom it is addressed.
Conder records that this painting was originally entitled (whether by Kyosai himself or by others is not certain) Yamato bijin Shoho jidai [Japanese beauties of the Shoho era), but all recent Japanese publications list it as simply Yamato bijin no zu [Pictures of Japanese beauties].7 Probably because there is an era from 1074 to 1077 whose name can be pronounced Shoho (although it is today more usually given as Joho), Conder seems to have made the assumption that these were beauties of the 11th century and consistently refers to them as such in his book. The only other historical period whose name can be transliterated as Shoho ran from 1644 until 1648 and it must have been this that Kyosai had in mind if the title was of his own making, since the hairstyles and clothes of the figures are unquestionably in 17th-century style. Nevertheless, it remains to be explained why the artist should have chosen such a relatively short and insignificant era in preference to the longer Kan'ei (1624- 44) or Kanbun (1661-73) eras, both of them still referred to by contemporary historians as a kind of shorthand for, respectively the first and second halves of the 17th century. Judging by the hairstyles of the principal figures, Kyosai may have been, wittingly or unwittingly, attempting to straddle two eras, the Karawa or Hyogo-mage seen in the left panel being more characteristic of the early decades of the 17th century, while the Katsuyama was introduced in the middle of the century and became widely popular during the Genroku era (1688-1704).8 In any event, it would be a mistake to assume that Kyosai would have been more accurately informed than we are today about the changing fashions of the early Edo period, nor would he necessarily have had access to famous paintings such as the Nawa-noren zu byobu [Screen with a rope curtain] or the Hikone byobu [Hikone screens],9 although the fact that bronze figures based on the latter were sent to the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 may suggest an awareness on the part of some Japanese artists that such antique images had become popular in the West.10 What is not in doubt, however, is Kyosai's interest in the history of costume, an interest he shared with contemporary painters such as Kawasaki Senko (Chitora, 1835-1902). Kyosai collected a large number of Ukiyo-e paintings and prints, especially of courtesans, and made extensive copies, some of them reproduced in the pages of Kyosai gadan, an illustrated book published in 1887. The Kawanabe Kyosai Memorial Museum owns, among many other studies of costume and hairstyle, a series of detailed, partly coloured, instructional sketches of women of the Eisho (1046-58), Jisho (1177-85), Manji (1658-61), Kanbun (1661-73), Enpo (1673-84) and Genroku (1688-1704) eras as well as a heavily reworked ink sketch combining more than fifteen women of different eras and social classes.11
It seems certain that this remarkable painting incorporates a programme or indeed a series of superimposed programmes. These have yet to be analysed in full, but it can be suggested that the composition embodies at least three creative tensions in Kyosai's life and art, the first a characteristic mid-Meiji opposition between conservatism and rejection of tradition; the second the contrast between closely observed detail and anatomical discipline (whose importance had been instilled in Kyosai by his first teacher, the Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi, in 1837-40) and academic technique (acquired by Kyosai during his long training (1840-9) under two Kano painters, Maemura Towa and Kano Tohaku); and the third the juxtaposition of sacred and profane. This third source of tension is suggested by the fact that the figure on the left holds a hossu, an object associated with Buddhist ritual, while her attendant arranges a lotus, the quintessential Buddhist symbol, in a vase of bronze, a material inextricably linked with Buddhist liturgy. Other paintings by Kyosai from this period (also incorporating folding screens in the background) depict the Jigoku Dayu [Hell Courtesan] in the company of the eccentric 15th-century Zen Buddhist priest Ikkyu and he seems to have been fascinated by the incongruous relationship between these two historical figures, producing no fewer than seven different versions.12 In a similar vein, he depicted courtesans attending Enma-O, the King of Hell, and Datsue-Ba, the Old Hag of Hell.13 Kyosai very probably intended a contrast between the worldly courtesan of the right-hand panel and the figure in the left-hand panel wielding a hossu which symbolically flicks away the profane distractions of everyday life (even though she too is a courtesan), but there is also perhaps a hint of another, imported, significance in the right-hand figure. While it is almost impossible to determine the extent of Kyosai's knowledge of the Western painting canon, the screen may hint at the medieval and Renaissance practice of including agricultural scenes in the background of religious compositions, exemplified by Giovanni Bellini's Madonna del Prato in the National Gallery, London, which depicts labourers, cattle and a well behind the Virgin Mary. Timothy Clark notes that Kyosai was probably aware of his contemporary Kano Hogai's attempts (one of them exhibited in 1884) to do a Far Eastern version of the Madonna and Child,14 while the use of the Western compositional device of a door-frame that allows the principal figure to, as it were, 'escape' from her traditional setting suggests that the right-hand panel is in part intended to embody elements not only of Western belief but also of Western artistic practice.
Apart from suggesting a link with the Hell Courtesan series, the background screen is a feature copied from a number of famous 17th-century pictures of courtesans, such as the Hikone screens cited earlier. Sato Tsuneo of Tsukuba University proposes that by depicting the whole laborious process of rice cultivation from planting to harvesting in only three panels of a sixfold screen, Kyosai was hinting at the immense concentration of effort that he devoted to the whole painting.15 There is little doubt that the screen-within-a-screen also symbolises not only the traditional mode of painting (Kyosai evidently told Conder that it was in the style of the Tosa school)16 but also the unvarying rhythms of everyday rural life, a world from which the principal figure is about to depart with some reluctance, as her pensive face suggests. Kyosai devoted much loving detail to the screen (Sato counts forty-three figures in all), depicting such everyday moments as a woman turning from her work to point to a butterfly, a man carrying home a dead pheasant on the end of a pole, a family group with a father smoking his pipe, a woman breast-feeding a baby and a child eating noodles, and a group carrying an offering of rice-cakes to a local shrine.
By comparison with the somewhat androgyne (bijin can, after all, mean 'beautiful man' as well as 'beautiful woman') beauties depicted in 17th-century fuzoku-ga [pictures of fashionable people], Kyosai's figures are unmistakably female, a tribute to his powers of observation and drawing summarised in the expression shasei [drawing from life, drawing from nature], combined here with one of the artist's most accomplished exercises in hitsui [skill with the brush]. Even within Kyosai's huge and varied oeuvre which ranges from scatological cartoons to religious icons, this screen with its multiple layers of signification and celebration of traditional techniques, is a dazzling demonstration of his ability to bring order and meaning to the bewildering visual world of the mid-Meiji artist. Both for its intrinsic qualities and for its distinguished provenance, this is one of the most important Japanese paintings to come onto the market in recent decades.
1 Tokyo Station Gallery, pp. 61-42
2 Private information; Tokyo Station Gallery, pp. 229, 233
3 Private information
4 Tokyo Station Gallery, passim; Muramatsu, pp. 45-50
5 Faulkner & Jackson, fig. 10; private information; Earle, cat. no. 173 6 Koga City, p. 29; Kokka Taikan, p. 70 (no. 276); for a complete kimono in the same techniques but with true kanoko shibori and with scattered characters, see Stinchecum, cat. no. 24
7 Conder, p. 115
8 Kyoto, cat. nos. 215, 219
9 Takeda, plates 21, 91; Kyoto, cat. no. 49
10 Earle, cat. no. 331; another example is in the Walters Art Gallery Baltimore; compare also a lacquer box with a 17th-century courtesan, sold in these rooms on 17 November 1999, lot 21
11 Koga City, cat. nos. 122-8
12 Clark, cat. no. 60
13 Clark, cat. no. 47
14 Clark, cat. no. 39
15 Koga City, p. 31
16 Conder, p. 72
Timothy Clark, Demon of Painting: The Art of Kawanabe Kyosai (Exhibition catalogue, British Museum, London, 1 December 1993-13 February 1994)
Josiah Conder F.R.I.B.A., Paintings and Studies by Kawanabe Kyosai: An Illustrated and Descriptive Catalogue of a Collection of Paintings, Studies and Sketches, by the Above Artist, with Explanatory Notes on the Principles, Materials, and Technique, of Japanese Painting (Tokyo, 1911; reduced facsimile reprint, Warabi, Saitama Pref., 1993)
Joe Earle [ed.], Splendors of Meiji (Wilmington, De., 1999)
Faulkner & Jackson
Rupert Faulkner and Anna Jackson, 'The Meiji Period in South Kensington', in Oliver Impey and Malcolm Fairley [eds.], The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Japanese Art (London, 1995), vol. 1, Selected Essays, pp. 152-195
Koga Kyoiku Iinkai [Koga City Educational Committee], Botsugo hyakujunen kinen Koga ga unda Bakumatsu Meiji no tensai eshi: Kawanabe Kyosai - utsukushiki hitobito - ten [Beautiful people - 110th anniversary exhibition of Kawanabe Kyosai, a painting genius of the the late Edo and Meiji periods born in Koga] (Koga, Ibaraki Pref., 1999)
Shinpen kokka taikan henshu iinkai [Committee for the new edition of Kokka taikan], Kokka taikan [A compendium of Japanese verse] (Tokyo, 1983), vol. 1.
Kyoto Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan [Kyoto National Museum], Hana: Miyako no modo [English title: Kyoto Style: Trends in 17th-19th Century Kimono] (Exhibition catalogue, Kyoto National Museum, 19 October - 23 November 1999)
Mainichi Shinbunsha [Mainichi Newspaper Company], Bakumatsu Meiji no tensai eshi: Kawanabe Kyosai ten [Kawanabe Kyosai: Painting genius of the late Edo and Meiji periods] (Exhibition catalogue, Shiga Prefectural Gallery of Modern Art, Akita Museum of Modern Art and Okazaki City Art Museum, April- July 1998; Tokyo, 1998)
Teijiro Muramatsu, Westerners in the Modernization of Japan (Tokyo, 1995), pp. 45-50
Amanda Mayer Stinchecum, Kosode: 16th 19th Century Textiles from the Nomura Collection (New York and Tokyo, 1984)
Takeda Tsuneo et. al. (ed.), Nihon byobu-e shusei 14: Fuzokuga - Yuraku, Tagasode [Survey of Japanese screens 14: Genre - Entertainments, Kimono screens] (Tokyo 1977), cat. nos. 21, 91
Tokyo Station Gallery
Higashi Nihon Tetsudo Bunka Zaidan [East Japan Railway Culture Foundation], Rokumeikan no kenchikuka Josaia Kondoru ten [Exhibition of Josiah Conder, architect of the Rokumeikan] (Exhibition catalogue, Tokyo Station Gallery, 30 May - 21 July 1997)