Arts of Japan – Brush Writing Reflects Beautiful Personality


Chobunsai Eishi (Japanese, 1756–1829). “Hanaogi of the Ogiya,” from the series Beauties of the Yoshiwara as Six Floral Immortals (Seiro bijin rokkasen), ca. 1794. Edo period (1615–1868). Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1919 (JP1124)

An old ancient eastern observation is that ‘Calligraphy reveals the person’, calligraphy being an especially highly decorative form of handwriting and a most revered art form.

Organized by John Carpenter, Curator in the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the exhibition now showing Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan is all about the perception that how, through creative innovation, someone’s handwriting style can convey one’s literary education, cultural refinement and carefully nurtured aesthetic sensibilities.

Works on view date from the 11th century to the present day demonstrate that the supreme motive behind the art of handwriting was beauty. They are complimented by some 100 ceramics, textiles, lacquers, woodblock prints and illustrated books all of which relate to the beauty of brush writing.

The focus on beauty sometimes meant that the writing itself became barely legible in some cases. The Japanese however, have highly valued the ‘look’ or the aesthetic above all else for centuries in all their art forms from ceramics to gardening.

Calligraphy is another of the art forms the Japanese inherited from China, which for centuries has been a ‘cultural catalyst’ in the Far East from one country to another, from one ware to another and, from one medium to another.

China dominated its neighbours, its influences eventually eddying strongly to Europe, originally through the near and Middle East, though eventually directly via the East India companies established by the English and the Dutch.

Portable Writing Cabinet with Tokugawa Family Crests, Chrysanthemums, and Foliage Scrolls K?ami School, Lacquer Japan Edo period (1615-1868) The Metropolitan Museum of Art NY, Bequest of Stephen Whitney Phoenix, 1881 Accession Number: 81.1.133a–h

According to a Chinese adage “Knowledge comes from seeing much” a particularly relevant comment for students of art.

While some aspects of Chinese history may seem a little obscure to people in the west it is however their art and trade wares that have always attracted a great fascination.

Historians and the Han Chinese consider the Ming period from 1368 to 1644 as the last great dynasty that was really Chinese. It seems relatively near and modern in the long context of Chinese history.

In 1368 when it began, many scholars consider the supreme periods of their major arts including literature, calligraphy and painting had already passed

Chinese poetry informed Japanese court culture from the earliest times. It also served as an inspiration for painters and calligraphers through the ages.

Integrated with the permanent installation of ancient Buddhist and Shinto sculpture in the Arts of Japan galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, a splendid array of religious narrative paintings and mandalas that juxtapose text and image to convey sacred messages is revealed.

Honoring the Three Gods of Poetry: Women Composing Poems Chobunsai Eishi (Japanese, 1756–1829) The Metropolitan Museum of Art NY, Gift of Estate of Samuel Isham, 1914 Accession Number: JP948

It was believed that copying such narratives, or sutras, or having them copied by others would bestow religious merit. This meant that no expense was spared in creating editions of sutras.

The magical efficacy ascribed to the transcription of Buddhist teachings in ancient Japan laid a foundation for the reverence of the written word.

Works on view in this section include essential Buddhist scriptures, which were transcribed in glittering gold and silver pigments on indigo dyed papers. Shimmering frontispieces that attest to the importance placed on the brush-written word accompany them.

Calligraphy of a Tang-dynasty poem, “Maple Bridge Night Mooring” Ike Taiga (Japanese, 1723–1776) Period: Edo period (1615–1868) Date: ca. 1770 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2008 Accession Number: 2008.66

Ink paintings of Chinese-style landscapes were cherished by court and warrior elites in pre-modern times and often were accompanied by poetic inscriptions. During the Edo period Ike Taiga, one of Japan’s most prolific literati artists, excelled in a special calligraphic style called karay?, or Chinese-style calligraphy.

This calligraphy inscribed gold leaf screen shows Taiga’s execution of a famous Chinese poem, “Maple Bridge Night Mooring,” composed by Zhang Ji in the eighth century.

Translated, the poem reads:

The moon sets, crows sing, and frost fills the sky.
Maple trees along the river and fires in fishing boats
face me, sleepless with lament.
The bell of Cold Mountain Temple outside Suzhou tolls,
At midnight, the sound reaches this boat.

Highlights include deluxe lacquer ware and textiles inspired by traditional Japanese literature.

One exquisite kimono is embellished with a poem brilliantly embroidered in silk and as well there is a warrior’s campaign jacket with brushed ink characters. They both ably demonstrate how textiles were used to present calligraphy as a decorative art form.

One room will offer a view of rare privately published prints and illustrated books on poetic themes and the show concludes with a selection of contemporary prints and calligraphy; among them is a work by Shinoda Toko (b. 1913), who is celebrating her 100th birthday this year.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013

Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan

Books of Flowers and a Writing Brush Ryuryukyo Shinsai (Japanese, active ca. 1799–1823) Date: 19th century The Metropolitan Museum of Art NY, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 Accession Number: JP2208

The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

August 17, 2013 – January 12, 2014

The Sackler Wing Galleries for the Arts of Japan, Galleries 223–232

NB  As of July 1, 2013, the Main Building of the Met and The Cloisters are open 7 days a week.

A variety of education programs will take place in conjunction with the exhibition. These include exhibition tours, a bookmaking studio workshop, and a How Did They Do That? weekend program for all ages.

Gallery Talk:
Exhibition Tour—Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan
September 6, 2013 | Free with Museum admission

Gallery Talk:
Exhibition Tour—Lacquerware in Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan
September 14, 2013 | Free with Museum admission

Studio Workshop:
Bookmaking: Japanese Techniques
September 15, 2013 | Fee: $65 for the one-session workshop, plus $10 for materials. Fee includes Museum admission. Limited student discounts available.

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