“Famous Mirror: the spirit of Japan” (1874) | all images courtesy Isreal Goldman Collection, London

From cute cats and landscapes to the occult and the erotic, nothing was off bounds for this eccentric 19th century Japanese artist. But it was his extraordinary wit and humor that set him apart from other artists of his time.

“Elephant and racoon dog” (1871)

Kawanabe was born into the privileged class of samurai in 1831 and began taking painting classes at a very early age. He studied under many great teachers; one of them being Utagawa Kuniyoshi. He earned the nickname “demon painter” because of his talent but he would grow into that name. He developed a heightened curiosity for death and the occult at an early age, perhaps from an episode in which he discovered a corpse by the Kanda River and picked up its head.

Kawanabe lived through a tumultuous time: the transition from the Edo to Meiji period where Japan saw itself shift from a feudal to modern state. He was arrested 3 times for his political views, which often manifested themselves in his caricatures.

The art dealer Izzy Goldman has been collecting Kawanabe’s work for over 35 years and now a huge selection of paintings and prints are on view at Bunkamura in Tokyo through April 16, 2017. One of our favorite pieces is the one below of an adorable cat playing with balls.

“White monkey hanging from a vine before a waterfall; monkey in a tree by the river, holding loquats”

“Animal Circus” (1871-1889)

“Tenno festival and long neck monster from the series ‘Pumpkins at play'” (1864)

Skeleton Shamisen Player in Top Hat With Dancing Monster’ (1881-1889)

from left to right: “Hell courtesan and Ikyuu” “Ghost” and “Shoki kicking a demon high in the air”