Japanese calligraphy: handwriting on wall

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Feb. 10, 2003 at 11:48 AM
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NEW YORK, Feb. 10 (UPI) -- Japanese calligraphy, a powerful influence on American abstract expressionist artists, is getting a rare and unusually rich exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum through March 2 in the form of selections from the collection of two Cambridge, Mass., private collectors.

Titled "The Written Image: Japanese Calligraphy and Painting from the Sylvan Barnet and William Burto Collection," the show includes hanging scrolls and some sculpture collected by two professors of English literature over a period of 40 years. Other works from the collection will go on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Sackler Gallery in Washington next year.

Japanese texts, often in the form of poetry but sometimes just one or two ideograph characters, were written not only to be read but also to be pasted on silk scroll mountings and displayed in viewing alcoves in Japanese homes known as tokonoma. There are 60 such works in the exhibition tracing the evolution of Japanese calligraphy from the Nara period (710-784) to the Edo era (1615-1868).

The flourish of ink strokes from the brushes of Japanese calligraphers, big and bold as well as small and delicate according to the artist's style, has excited interest among Western artists since the mid-1800s. But it was not until the post-World War II generation of abstract expressionists that calligraphy actually inspired the work of major American artists.

Among them were Robert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Mark Tobey, Franz Kline, and Brice Marden, all of whom were influenced by Zen Buddhism and its holy texts and aphorisms known as sutras, favorite subjects of calligraphic artists in both China and Japan. A writer could atone for misdeeds or gain future merit simply by copying out these texts.

Modern artists appreciated the beauty of individual brush strokes and the dynamic interactions within each character's composition, especially the interplay with interior space, without having any knowledge of the meaning of the ideographs they admired.

Chinese Buddhist monks brought the sutras to Japan in the 6th century and the Japanese began making their own copies, adopting Chinese script. More than a dozen sutras are on display, some of them written on decorative papers embellished with gold or silver foil, powdered mica, or printed designs. These often were cut up and remounted as small hanging scrolls. One of the most spectacular is the 12the century "Lotus Sutra" written in gold on indigo paper.

By the 9th century, the Japanese also developed their own phonetic-based script, known as kana, for secular purposes such as writing poems and letters, and these texts are well represented. A scroll titled "Hazy Evening Moon" bears a poem by a 19th century nun, Otagaki Rengetsu, written in a thin, feminine script that swooshes up to form a circle representing the moon. It reads:

"Refused at the inn/ But I took this unkindness/ As a gracious act;/ Under the hazy evening moon/ I slept beneath blossoms."

In a gallery transformed into a temple setting there are various religious icons including a 13th century Buddhist mandala, or cosmic diagram, known as "Womb World Mandala" and reputed to be the finest such diagram in any Western collection. It depicts a spiritual journey as described in the Great Sun Sutra. Also in the gallery is a famous mandala with imagery rooted in Japan's own Shinto religion.

Other highlights are writings by Zen monks known as bokuseki or "ink traces," considered the embodiments of the writers' spiritual qualities, and a group of poems written by monks in the 14th and 15th centuries that often treat ordinary subjects matter in witty, paradoxical ways. Poems and letters reflecting courtly life, written in kana on decorative papers, are especially beautiful.

The final section of the show is devoted to the bravura calligraphic style developed by Edo-period Zen monks after the Japanese capital was established at Tokyo. Their art is known as Zenga and consists of boldly brushed cursive-script writings. One of the finest is a painting titled "Daruma" by an 18th century monk, Jiun Onko, of a Zen sage who was famous for facing a wall for nine years of uninterrupted meditation.

Jiun depicts the seated sage with three quick sweeps of ink. Floating above him are two crudely painted characters translated literally as "No Knowledge" or "Don't Know" and taken as the answer to whether the sage ever found enlightenment. However, the paradoxical Zen translation of these characters is "Yes, he did." Take your choice! Barnet and Burto say in the catalog that Jiun is their special favorite.

The catalog includes 90 color illustrations ("The Written Image," Yale University Press, 256 pages, $55).

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