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The Art of Writing

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The Chinese and Japanese take calligraphy to another level despite their languages being very different. For decades I believed the Japanese adopted the Chinese system of writing to flesh out their existing alphabet in the sixth century but I recently learned that Japanese was 100% written in Chinese characters in the early eighth century and the two kana alphabets adopted in the early ninth. This made reading and writing Japanese easier for Japanese people but made it devilishly difficult for the rest of us because each character usually has one sound likely to have once been of Chinese origin, as well as a few, several, or maybe fourteen or fifteen homegrown ways of pronouncing it depending on the word or its grammatical function. I say usually because, for example, the Mandarin pronunciation of Japanese character 3715 below is not SHŌ nor SEI but SHĒNG. The “Chinese” names usually occur in compound words while the Japanese names usually occur as verb stems. It’s not much help knowing this.

Chinese has its own complexities. It can be alphabetized into something called Pinyin to give non-native speakers an idea what’s going on but Chinese is the only language in the world that doesn’t have an alphabet. Chinese people learn Chinese by associating those characters and the sounds they make one by one, and think of themselves as functionally literate if they know somewhere between 2,000–3,000.

The characters are variously numbered and graded in terms of simplicity, utility and frequency. Here’s the first 3,000 in order of their assigned numbers. No. 1 is mother. No. 3,000 is an archaic word for some kind of bamboo cage.

Chinese is daunting as a second language but Chinese people have no problem with it as a first. About sixty years ago, some people high up believed literacy rates would be improved if the writing system were less complex and, as a result, many characters were assigned simplified forms. For example, one of the characters for “art” was simplified from 術 to 术 and the character for “-ism” was simplified from 義 to 义. It didn’t make that much difference then and it makes even less now when little gets written by hand. For reasons of their own, the Japanese, Singaporeans, Taiwanese and Koreans feel more at home with the unsimplified forms they borrowed in the first place.

Chinese characters are often referred to as pictograms and, inasmuch as each one represents an idea, they’re much like the emoji we assign to basic nouns, thoughts and feelings. It’s just that Chinese has extra ones for abstractions, verbs, prepositions, adjectives and all the nuts and bolts of grammar and language. The English sentence I ❤️ N Y. is, symbol for symbol, the equivalent of 我爱纽约。”Love you long time!“ is a well-known English sentence with four concepts and four sounds and is the equivalent of 爱你很久 (“ai-ni-hen-jiu”) which it probably came from anyway.

For those of us not raised in an environment of pictograms, the look of written Chinese or Japanese is already strange but calligraphy takes the act of writing into that higher level of strangeness known as art, where calligraphy is more than penmanship or brushmanship. Writing the characters with the components in the correct positions, with the correct proportions and with the strokes in the correct order is a separate story. The left pair below is No. 3 “I” and the right pair is No. 321 “you” (polite).

It may be a separate story but it’s not an entirely unrelated story because much of that character information we know as meaning is contained in the path the pen or brush has taken. (In English, we make us of this type of information when we decipher poor handwriting.) Below are four instances of a character recognizably the same but, from left to right, with differing degrees of what I’ll call compression rather than simplification. The correct path of the brush is still detectable in the first three but, with the fourth example, the brush more or less follows the regular path for the left side and ends the right side correctly but in-between goes off-piste and the spiral becomes an abstraction not of the character but of the general movement required to form that part of it. It’s getting quite out there.

We’re now in the realm of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy where brush strokes are imbued with any number of qualities in addition to meaning, and where many of those qualities are expressions of the sensibility and skill of the artist.

One particular type of Japanese calligraphy is the ensō [円相] – it’s an ink circle drawn in a single brush stroke and has a strong relationship to the practice of Zen. This is no surprise. The circle has no meaning other than to symbolize absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, The Universe and, lastly and leastly, the ultimate nothingness. The circle can be either open or closed and doesn’t need to be perfectly circular. Incomplete or crudely drawn circles allow one to ponder the beauty of imperfection while complete and circular ones allow one to ponder a finite (i.e. not infinite) wholeness. Win-win. However it turns out, the circle always expresses a determined spiritual moment experienced by the artist and is appreciated as that.

An art that represents anything and nothing but also the method of its creation as channeled by the artist isn’t a uniquely Asian concept, but it’s one that Chinese and Japanese artist-calligraphers have traditionally pursued with an economy of ink, paper and motion.

Roy Lichtenstein found at least three ways to parody the Western artist as calligrapher.

The first example asks us to question the authenticity of the dynamic brushstroke presented as art, the second presents us a word as art, and the third presents the act of writing as art.

This long preamble is just me arranging the furniture before I introduce the work of Yu-ichi Inoue [1917-1985], a Japanese calligrapher I’d not known of until I happened upon a catalogue of a retrospective at a recent university book fair. Inoue is said to have liberated calligraphy but from what, I didn’t know. Nor did I buy the book but, that night, unable to forget the images I’d seen that day I worried it wouldn’t be there when I went back the next day to buy it.

The book doesn’t say much about Inoue’s early life but he might have been a teacher because he was working at a school on the night of the Great Tokyo Firebombing of March 10, 1945 in which 100,000 are said to have died. He would’ve been 38. Ten years later, it was the mid-1950s and a period of great creative renewal across all fields of art in Japan. Calligraphy was no exception. For most of 1955, Inoue pursued a brush-based abstract expressionism but from 1956 onwards used characters as the vehicle for his forms, making him a calligrapher and calligraphy his art.

作品 [Work] #7, 1955

The innovation for which Inoue is best known happened in 1956 and was to liberate calligraphy from being secondary to text and its meanings, and no longer about “illuminating” poetry or messages even if those thoughts were one’s own. In 1957 he wrote “I have thought in the past that calligraphy meant writing words that expressed one’s own thoughts, but I now find that idea too confining.”  He chose individual characters, and thought of them as easy or difficult to write depending on their meaning, shape and sound. He had no interest in who wrote a particular text or what it had to teach. He’s most well known for his single-character works that present characters as forms that evoke images. (Here I’m paraphrasing from the book.) Many of his works from the late 1950s navigate this fine line between painterly form and written character. The header image, “Fushigi” (wonder), 1956 is my current favourite.

Inoue made his own ink from a mixture of glue and carbon black and his own huge brushes from the leaves of a fan palm. The lack of a pliable tip meant it wasn’t possible to produce the characteristic flicks of Chinese characters formed with conventional brushes, while the brush material and thickness meant he couldn’t use pressure to pump ink to the writing surface. Instead, his characters have thick lines of ink that begin and end abruptly and are drawn at the speed gravity and capillary action allow the ink to flow.

Inoue’s works share a dynamism and immediacy with action painters such as Jackson Pollock but, with calligraphy, it’s not possible to add, subtract or re-work something once it’s drawn. The thing with calligraphy is that calligraphers’ intent is always known. There may be hundreds of attempts but each one is singular like the circles of the Zen monks or any other ink-based calligraphy for that matter. Inoue wrote in 1961,

When one writes calligraphy, it is the emotion, the rhythm of life itself that emerges and is given shape upon the paper. It is not the meaning assigned to the character, or the condition it implies. The vital rhythm of life, or the entirety of the Art is his world at the time of writing, is transformed into the movement of the brush, takes shapes, and forms space, with the meaning of the written character simply acting as a vehicle.

Kindai no Bijutsu No.28, Shiryu M Orita (ed), Shibundo, 1961, p.41, quoted on Yu-ichi Inoue: A Retrospective 1955-1985 Yuji Akimoto, (Kamimori Foundation, 2016, p.25

Even at the time, there were conflicting theories regarding the nature of calligraphy, the strongest being that it was about words, if not texts or messages. These and other aesthetic positions existed on a spectrum with painterly abstraction at one end and text illumination at the other but, across this spectrum, the atoms of written language still needed to be seen to be being used for calligraphic ends. It had to be like this or else calligraphy would stop being calligraphy and become painterly abstractions like Willem de Kooning’s urgent expressions of nobody knows what.

Inoue stripped away many other conventions of calligraphy and made it newly strange.

  • His works are large and not dainty.
  • They’re messy, telling us that the act of writing these shapes is urgent and more important than neatness.
  • Many of Inoue’s single character works either don’t fit squarely on the paper or extend past the edges.
花 [Flower], 1957
  • Some are on square paper, but others ignore the traditional 2:1 proportion of Japanese calligraphy and use the Western 1:1.41 of the A series of paper sizes.
  • Some of the single character works are characters imbued with character, such as this one for the character 貧 [“hin”, poverty]. I didn’t need to be told to see that, with this next character, the curve of the last (bottom) two strokes makes them appear as legs and this makes us then see the entire character as a person moving leftwards in three-dimensional space.

  • His “canvases” are sometimes extended with strips of newspaper, heightening the sense of urgency but also telling us the act of writing is more important than preciousness. It also makes the brush strokes appear not only as three dimensional but floating in space like clouds.
[Flower], 1960

  • Some of his later, text-based works have crossings out and corrections. This was previously unheard of but it makes sense. A dynamic correction is still a dynamic expression of a subsequent moment but just as frozen in time as an uncorrected work.
なめこと山の熊 [The Bears of Namekotoyama] (detail), 1985 – this is thought to be Inoue’s last work
  • Making characters increase and decrease in size to denote the loudness and direction of sound is a technique borrowed from manga, I read. This one is titled “The Frogs’ Birthday Party”.

All these techniques made Inoue a calligraphy formalist because he identified and pursued what made calligraphy calligraphy as distinct from painting, or the illumination of texts or poems. He was also a modernist in that he modernized calligraphy in the same way Gluck modernized opera by making drama and human emotions central. Both returned their respective arts to what made them unique in the first place.

There’s more. I haven’t mentioned Inoue’s multiple-character works he began from 1978 until his death in 1985. Of these, the many iterations of Night Air-Raid on Tokyo are laden with meaning both historic and personal but still very much about the act of writing.

I only learned about Yu-Ichi Inoue last month, but I missed learning about him in 2013 at an exhibition at the 2013 Sharjah Biennial, in 2019 at an exhibition at Hong Kong University and earlier this year at Tsinghua University in Beijing. I’ll probably miss others and I’m not going to beat myself up about it too much. Having one of Inoue’s works on my living room wall to admire is probably out of the question. This one book I have tells me nothing of Inoue’s life apart from that he didn’t die in the Tokyo firebombing of 1945 but from cirrhosis of the liver in 1985, two events that were probably connected. Us, we’re fortunate those two events were connected by a body of work that still speaks to us today.