Kawanabe Kyōsai, Female Ghost, a hanging scroll painting

Meiji era, about AD 1871-89

Together with Dancing Skeletons, this painting demonstrates Kawanabe Kyōsai's fascination with the macabre and the supernatural. This tendency was to a large degree shared by the nineteenth-century Japanese public. Many Kabuki plays of the time were peopled with restless spirits of the dead and live ghost story-telling was particularly popular at the height of summer when a cooling shiver down the spine would have been most welcome.

However, Kyōsai's love of the grotesque went even further. As a boy of eight, he is said to have fished a severed head from the river and taken it home to draw. In this painting we can almost hear the female ghost shrieking in triumph as she bears off the severed head. Cutting off a defeated enemy's head was the ultimate sign of victory in battle, but here, she even has blood dripping from her gaping fangs: the unthinkable suggestion is that she has actually bitten off this head. The ghost glides upwards on wisps of cloud in her shroud-like gown, tearing at her hair and glaring from her green, gold-hooded eyes. The peacefully resigned downward cast of the head's closed eyes somehow only increases the horror.

The origin of this fearful incident has not yet been traced, but the theme recurs in a painting by Kyōsai's contemporary, Kawakami Tōgai (1827-81). Another painting by Kyōsai shows a male ghost with a severed female head hanging by the hair from his teeth.

The singature reads 'Seisei Kyōsai' followed by a hand-written cypher (kaō), both done in gold paint.

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Height: 1068.000 mm
Width: 377.000 mm

Museum number

Asia JA JP ADD1096 (1996.10-10.01)


Purchased with the assistance of the National Art Collections Fund


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