Christie’s auctioneers announce the rediscovery of an important Japanese hanging scroll-painting

. September 19, 2013

Christie’s is proud to announce the rediscovery of an important Japanese hanging scroll-painting, Jigoku dayu [Hell Courtesan] by the eccentric yet brilliant artist Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-89) (estimate: £300,000-500,000). Believed lost for over half a century and known only from two black and white images taken in 1911 and 1942, the painting has been found in remarkable condition in a drawer and is being offered from a private collection in the sale of Asobi: Ingenious Creativity & Ceramics from the Bernard Leach Collection at South Kensington on 15 October 2013, during Frieze week. The auction as a whole comprises approximately 250 lots spanning antiquity to contemporary works.

Kawanabe KyosaiHighlighting the visual appeal, accessibility and relevance of Japanese art to contemporary collecting tastes, this dynamic sale presents a rich and varied array of opportunities for established and new collectors. With estimates ranging from £500 to £500,000, the auction is expected to realise in excess of £2 million.

An exciting rediscovery, the whereabouts of the Hell Courtesan [Jigoku dayu] by Kawanabe Kyosai has been a mystery since it was last sold at auction in Copenhagen in 1942. It is now known to have passed by descent to the present vendor having been acquired at the sale by a private collector who then kept it in a drawer, resulting in the absolutely pristine condition of this work.

This painting is one of a group of six works sold in the 1942 auction – including Two crows on a branch above Asakusa at dawn (estimate: £ 50,000-70,000) – which were formerly owned by the British architect Josiah Conder (1852-1920), who went to Japan in 1877 as part of the Meiji modernisation program. He taught architecture and urbanism at what would become Tokyo University and worked for the Ministry of Engineering. The architect had a special relationship with Kyosai, the artist who executed the present painting, giving him a Western anatomical book from which Kyosai copied skeletons. Not only did Conder socialise and study painting with the artist, he was with Kyosai when he finally passed away, entering the realm that he had so vividly depicted in life.

Prior to entering Conder’s collection the Hell Courtesan painting was also owned by the British surgeon William Anderson who worked in Japan and was a major early collector of ukiyo-e, whose collection of over 3000 items entered the British Museum; it was later published in Conder’s 1911 book on Kyosai. Conder’s daughter married a Danish man, giving a possible explanation as to how these Japanese paintings came to be auctioned in Copenhagen in 1942.

Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-89), a prodigiously gifted and celebrated artist, dominated the latter half of 19th century Japanese painting as decisively as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) had its first half. Also famed for his love of sake, Kyosai possessed an intense, relentless energy that left a stamp on every image he touched; he exhibited a trenchant wit; and turned his attention to an overwhelming plethora of subjects and formats. A prolific artist, he was drawn to paint the Hell Courtesan a number of times, with seven versions published. This particular painting, although its whereabouts unknown, was acknowledged in the British Museum exhibition on Kyosai in 1993 as the most technically accomplished of all of these.

Category: Fine Art

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