Bokujinkai and Avant-Garde Abstract Art
Franz Kline, Painting Number 2, 1954, The Museum of Modern Art
I watched a Metropolitan Museum’s event recorded in 2013. There were two lectures about the exhibited objects of medieval artwork which contain calligraphy, one by Tomoko Sakomura and the other by John Carpenter. These talks were followed by a calligraphy demonstration by a zen monk, Harada Rōshi.
Sakomura introduced several Japanese colourful portraits of poets with 31 syllable poetry (waka) in the form of black ink calligraphy. The selected poems were cited at social gatherings at the imperial court in medieval time. Elites learnt and memorised poems in collections such as Kokin-shū. Beautifully stroked poems were not only offering textual meaning, but some, with a ‘scattered style’ (chirashi-gaki) had a visual quality. Sakomura next showed folding screens depicting two well-known rivers: Yoshino with cherry blossoms and Tatsuta with autumn leaves. The rivers were not only showed trees full of cherry blossoms and maple leaves, but were also decorated with slips of paper (tanzaku) containing poems. Matching and showing part of poems entertained elites. Elites shared both visual as well as textual content.
Ogata Kenzan, ‘Fourth Month’ from Fujiwara no Teika’s ‘Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months’, 1743, The Metropolitan Museum
Carpenter showed zen artwork with calligraphy texts from medieval Japan. More formal texts were readable, but others showed dynamic strokes according to the individual calligrapher’s taste. Here again, written texts readable or unreadable, convey messages in textual as well as visual forms. At the end of the event, Harada Rōshi, in his demonstration (or performance) impressed the American audience by combining the beauty of dynamic monochrome calligraphy with zen philosophy.
Therefore, it is clear that calligraphy conveyed both visual and textual meaning in medieval Japanese artworks.
Next I read part of Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer’s latest book titled ‘Bokujinkai Japanese Calligraphy and the Postwar Avantgarde‘.
Shortly after the end of World War II in 1948, there was a movement in Japan of a group of calligraphers called ‘People of the Ink’. The group was led by Morita Shiryū who attempted to internationalise Japanese calligraphy by introducing it to a foreign audience. ‘Like a Rainbow’(niji) was the symbol of his outreach activities, bridging between the East and the West. Morita and his Bokujinkai ‘People of the Ink’ calligraphers started to send out their journals called ‘Bokubi’ with works of black ink brushworks to artists in Europe and America.
They received an overwhelming response from avantgarde abstract artists with no knowledge of Chinese and Japanese characters, such as Franz Klein in New York and Pierre Soulages in Paris. Those Western avantgarde artists were inspired by Japanese calligrapher/black-ink artists’ monochrome images, their movement and speed, and the metaphysical and East Asian philosophical system. Soon they started to explore this newly acquainted style in black and white visual and theoretical art. This encounter made Japanese calligrapher artists aware of the concept of blank space (yohaku) and the performing element of black ink art and calligraphy. They also discovered ‘line’s human dimention (ningensei); its expressivity (hyōgensei), and temporal characteristics (jikansei) in the European tradition.
Both groups of artists from Japan and Europe-American avantgarde artists were also resonating with each other and with another avantgarde experimental artist group from Japan, the Gutai Art Group.
In conclusion, Japanese calligraphy coveys both aesthetic and textual values. In encounter with the European avantgarde abstract artists, the two strongly influenced each other.
Question: How was the ‘People of the Ink’ perceived by Japanese audience, especially the idea of utilising calligraphy and transforming the traditional way of writing method into a form of abstract art?
Sunday at the Met: Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan, September 2013
- ‘Brushing Waka: Japanese Court Poetry in Text and Image’ by Tomoko Sakomura, Associate Professor of Art History and Chair, Department of Art, Swarthmore College
- ‘Poetry in Ink: Japanese Calligraphy and Decorated Writing Paper’ by John T Carpenter, Curator of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum
- Zen Calligraphy Demonstration by Shōdō Harada Rōshi, Head Abbot of Sōgenji Zen Monastery, Okayama, Japan and Abbot of Tahoma Zen Monastery, Washington State
E.Bogdaonva-Kummer ‘Morita’s Rainbow: Line and Space in Calligraphy and Abstract Painting’ in ‘Bokujinkai: Japanese Calligraphy and the Postwar Avantgarde’ (Brill: 2020)