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Kawanabe Kyosai (1831–89) delighted in the depiction of animals―crows with strong personalities, frogs in the schoolroom, rats on trapezes, cats in procession, elephants performing tricks―and frequently used them to satirize contemporary society.
Having been trained as an academic painter, Kyosai would have been aware of traditions in which artists depicted creatures according to the laws of nature―the weak falling prey to the strong―as a commentary on actual society. He delighted in reversing such power relationships, frequently doing so to give an unexpected twist to the conventions of traditional imagery, and he seems particularly to have enjoyed giving smaller animals a chance to get their own back on their predators.
Animal imagery has long occupied a significant place in Japanese art and literature. Each animal possesses a different symbolism for its special abilities or characteristics, and some are associated with deities, religious narratives, particular events or seasons of the year. Agile rabbits are sometimes featured in armor. Puppies were depicted not only for their cute appearance but also because they symbolize fertility and safe birth, and thus the prosperity of the family. “Humanized” creatures often appear in illustrated tales and in social satires.
This enchanting book reveals a cavalcade of Kyosai’s creatures from the renowned Israel Goldman Collection, with an introduction to the artist and his menagerie by Koto Sadamura, a leading authority on Kyosai.