Immense amounts of importance have been placed on the founder and leader of the Gutai group, Yoshihara Jiro, for being a pioneering voice in the post-war Japanese art scene. His oft-quoted imperative to his students, “Do what has never been done before!” has been placed at the helm of the genesis of Asian abstraction itself, and likened to a totality of Asian avant garde art. However, Yoshihara’s rise to prominence, though not to be under-estimated in any way, was not a singular phenomenon in the artistic landscape of post-war Japan. Many of Yoshihara’s contemporaries were spectacularly gifted, but due to various paucities in communication and disparities in international exposure, they have for one reason or another been left on the peripheries of contemporary discourse. One such extremely important figure who was operating at the same time as Yoshihara in the forties and fifties in Japan was Inoue Yuichi, a master of inks who was responsible for advancing the amalgamation of Eastern and Western aesthetics. Founded upon Western notions of “action painting” and Eastern calligraphy, Yui-chi (as he is often known, where his given name is used in place of his surname) created an oeuvre filled with calligraphy that was born solely from his own spirit, and was a body of works that breathed new life into a traditional art form. Counted among the most important vanguards of global contemporary art, his name has been placed by the side of artists such as Franz Kline and Henri Michaux. A pioneer among his time, he along with four other radical practitioners of sho—which can be simplistically translated as “calligraphy”—formed the eminent Bokujinkai, the Ink Human Society in 1952.
Yui-chi was born in Tokyo in 1916, and witnessed the horrors of war-torn Japan. At the age of nineteen he began training in painting, but soon after began to learn calligraphy under Ueda Sokyu, an innovative practitioner of twentieth-century sho. Ueda’s own master, Hidai Tenrai had already been teaching his students to advance old calligraphic models beyond the confines of tradition, and to merge them with the then fresh European aesthetics of the day. Sho was then founded upon emulating old traditional styles, which were predicated on even older Chinese calligraphy. Thus, sho was filled with mild variants on producing kanji (Chinese ideograms) according to established styles and forms. Yui-chi would go on to advance his master’s ideas, and would fuse more avant-garde ideals and Western abstract painting with those of traditional sho.
It has often been noted that the emancipation from war brought unto Japan a basis to breathe life into their art, and was a period filled with deep introspection and struggle to both capture the horrors of war as well as to exorcise it. Having been one of the very few survivors of more than one thousand people during a school bombing in March 1945, Yui-chi was undeniably scarred by the war, and perhaps even more so than his peers, was determined to seek meaning in art and to impart new significance to old ideals; to carve out new forms of expression. Working autonomously in the mid-forties and early fifties in Tokyo, Yui-chi came across Hasegawa Saburo’s essay, “News from France and America”, which explained the latest avant-garde movements in Europe. This same essay would be published in Bokubi (Beauty of Ink), the first issue of Bokujinkai published in 1951. Through this essay, Yui-chi would become familiar with action painting, and abstract expressionism.
The way all such ideals would impact Yui-chi was beyond profound. It is well known that Gutai’s Yoshihara, who through a renouncing of past ideals and methods of creation, encouraged his students to create ideologically new art forms. Yui-chi on the other hand, while also experimenting with the rejection of old forms, would eventually arrive at a mastery of old forms but reproduced with new aesthetics. Posed between control and freedom, Yui-chi perfected a style that still adhered to the production of kanji but exuded a deep devotion to action painting. In a calligraphic tradition that celebrated control, Yui-chi would inject a refreshed sense of self-awareness and freedom into his unique practice of sho.
The process that Yui-chi undergoes to create each kanji is extremely laborious and indicative of his perfectionist attitude. Choosing a certain character, the artist would place large sheets of paper onto the floor, and with a large brush, allow for form and content to merge, at times recreating the essence of the character, at times the feelings he felt when he created them, numerous times, again and again, onto the same sheet. After this, Yui-chi would select his favourite creation of the character and destroy all the other iterations, finally cutting them down to a certain shape, taking in each character’s unique spatial properties. Created in this method, Dream (Lot 714) is a whimsical piece that depicts varying brush density, amid tiny bursts of ink splatters. The overall effect is one that captures the essence of a dream: the character ebbs and flows, each brushstroke not jarring, yet containing a sense of the artist’s own self and energy. The vertical orientation of Dream also recalls at once traditional calligraphic hanging scrolls, and is a perfect example of the renewal Yui-chi prompted with his development of ink art, where he sought to revolutionise tradition.
Yui-chi’s art is just beginning to resurface in the contemporary art scene, but it is no doubt that his renown has been noted many decades ago. As early as 1954, the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited Yui-chi’s works in Abstract Japanese Calligraphy. Four decades afterwards, this great master’s work was shown in Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky, which was curated by Alexandra Munroe and presented in the Guggenheim museum. During this show, Yui-chi’s work, Ah, Yokokawa National School, an intensely personal work recalling the painful memories of wartime bombing, was exhibited. It was promptly awarded as much importance as Picasso’s Guernica. All such exhibitions, titles, and comparisons are all small ways in which Yui-chi’s ground-breaking methods and ideas were deeply celebrated, and were counted amongst the most advanced and original of his time. It is without a doubt that this grand master of inks will soon be lavished with the praise he deserves.
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