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Expressive art of Japanese calligraphy on view in exhibition at Metropolitan Museum
Unidentified Artist, Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maple with Poem Slips. Japan, Edo period, second half of the 17th century. Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, gold, silver, and gold and silver leaf on paper. Lent by Peggy and Richard M. Danziger.

NEW YORK, NY.- Handwriting was thought to reflect one’s personality in the East Asian tradition, but not in the sense of Western graphology or “handwriting analysis.” Rather, through copying of revered models and through creative innovation, handwriting style conveyed one’s literary education, cultural refinement, and carefully nurtured aesthetic sensibilities. Showcasing more than 80 masterworks of brush-inscribed Japanese characters—some serving as independent works of art and others enhanced by decorated papers or by paintings—the exhibition Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan takes a close look at the original gestural movement marked in each work, by analyzing the applied pressure, speed, and rhythm that are said to be the reflection of the artist’s state of mind. The works on view, dating from the 11th century to the present, demonstrates that beauty was often the supreme motive in the rendering of Japanese religious or literary texts, even at the expense of legibility. These works are complemented by some 100 ceramics, textiles, lacquers, woodblock prints, and illustrated books that are closely related to the art of brush writing.

The art of brush writing in the East Asian tradition both encompasses and transcends the Western aesthetic concept of “calligraphy,” a word derived from Greek that literally means “beautiful handwriting.” Japan inherited from China a fascination with the artistic potential of inscribing characters with flexible animal-hair brushes, while developing a distinctive system of inscription for rendering poetry and prose written in the vernacular. In the case of East Asian brush writing, the original gestural movement—the speed, rhythm, and pressure—of the inked brush across paper or silk can be transmitted across centuries to the contemporary viewer.

Integrated with the permanent installation of ancient Buddhist and Shinto sculpture in the Arts of Japan galleries, the opening section of the exhibition introduces a splendid array of religious narrative paintings and mandalas that juxtapose text and image to convey sacred messages. It was believed that copying such narratives, or sutras, or having them copied would bestow religious merit; therefore, no expense was spared in creating editions of sutras. The magical efficacy ascribed to the transcription of Buddhist teachings in ancient Japan laid the foundation for the reverence of the written word. Works on view in this section includes essential Buddhist scriptures—transcribed in glittering gold and silver pigments on indigo dyed papers and accompanied by shimmering frontispieces—that attest to the importance placed on the brush-written word.

Reflecting a radically different attitude toward spiritual practice, the inscriptions of Chinese poems and religious sayings by Zen monks are rendered in an idiosyncratic manner compared to sacred texts transmitted by other sects of Buddhism. The calligraphy of Zen monks of medieval Japan is characterized by boldly brushed characters that break the rules of conventional handwriting conspicuously. What they lose in legibility they gain in sheer visual potency that transcends the meaning of the phrases inscribed. The exhibition highlights a number of superb examples of calligraphy by Zen monks that have been donated or promised to the Museum recently by Sylvan Barnet and William Burto.

Chinese poetry informed Japanese court culture from the earliest times and served as an inspiration for painters and calligraphers through the ages. Ink paintings of Chinese-style landscapes were cherished by court and warrior elites in premodern times and often were accompanied by poetic inscriptions. The exhibition displays an exquisite ink painting Splashed Ink Landscape by Josui Sōen, a monk-painter active in the late 1490s, that was acquired recently by John C. Weber; this is its first public showing in the West.

Drawing inspiration from the ancient court culture that flourished during the Heian period (794-1185), the central section of the exhibition highlights the flowering of women’s literary salon culture that produced such masterpieces of waka (31-syllable court poetry) and prose as the Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki and the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon by Sei Shonagon, both authored in the early 11th century. This section presents a calligraphy masterpiece by the high-ranking courtier Fujiwara no Yukinari, one of the few brush writing examples in the West by this master calligrapher, who was a close friend of Sei Shonagon. Brilliantly colored 17th-century screen paintings—nostalgically representing an idyllic vision of ancient court culture—boldly complement the elegant 11th-century calligraphy, which was executed on subtly decorated papers.

Other highlights of the exhibition include deluxe lacquerware and textiles inspired by traditional Japanese literature. An exquisite kimono with a poem brilliantly embroidered in silk and a warrior’s campaign jacket with brushed ink characters demonstrate how the arts of textiles could be used to present some calligraphy as decorative art. The Metropolitan Museum’s recently acquired Life’s Symphony by Maio Motoko (b. 1948) plays on the idea of the expressiveness of calligraphy by creating a composition consisting of nothing but ink-soaked washi (Japanese paper) arranged in the form of an undulating line across the wide expanse of a pair of gold-leaf screens.

A room of prints features rare privately published prints (surimono) from the Havemeyer Collection, as well as masterworks of ukiyo-e prints and illustrated books on poetic themes. The exhibition 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.

Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan is organized by John Carpenter, Curator in the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum.

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.

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