In the summer of 1954, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a ground-breaking exhibition entitled “Abstract Japanese Calligraphy”. Featuring revolutionary works by Japanese artists created in the decade immediately after the Second World War, the exhibition challenged an art scene in the throes of Abstract Expressionism with the invigorating momentum of a novel artistic movement that had a far-reaching impact on the international art world.
Not unlike China in the 1980s, post-war Japan experienced rapid cultural liberalisation and drastically increased exposure to modern Western art. Such an environment cultivated a group of avant-garde artists determined to debunk the myths of cultural imperialism and to take part in the global artistic dialogue. The exposure to new art forms and audiences provided inspiration as well as an opportunity for self-reflection and interrogation of cultural traditions. While Western Abstract Expressionists challenged the Euro-American definition of painting to seek a universal yet subjective visual language, post-war Japanese modernists turned to the classical tradition of shodo (“calligraphy”) in order to subvert and redefine its longstanding legacy. Their efforts forged a radical expressionist aesthetic that was distinctly Japanese in both form and essence, representing at once a departure from and extension of the spiritual, cultural, and intellectual heritage of kanji (“Han characters”).
One of the most influential avant-garde calligraphy groups in post-war Japan was the Bokujin-kai (“Ink Human Society”), which was contemporaneous with the establishment of the legendary Gutai movement. Co-founded by Inoue Yuichi (aka Yu-ichi) and Morita Shiryu in 1952, Bokujin-kai sought to liberate calligraphy from its deeply rooted conventions and ignite its pictorial potential. Infused with the aesthetic and philosophical principles of calligraphy, works by Yu-ichi, Morita and their contemporaries constitute an explicit and paradoxically reverent link to tradition itself. Yu-ichi’s single character action paintings feature massive, powerfully gestural yet still recognizable kanji characters, while Morita’s, equally renowned and celebrated, are more abstract, sometimes distorted to a point of unintelligibility. Both artists focus, not on the aesthetics of the character itself, but rather on the pure and unencumbered channelling of their inner states of mind through meditated yet spontaneous movement of both body and brush. Marrying tradition with modernity, image with text, and mind with body, their works both re-conceptualize and re-contextualize calligraphy as a contemporary artistic medium.
Modern abstract Japanese calligraphy’s entrenched roots in traditional aesthetic and philosophical values lend to its uniqueness and transcendent hybrid quality. Blurring the boundaries between calligraphy, abstraction, painting, and performance, the art form attempts to divorce itself from Western associations while at the same time revolutionizing traditional calligraphic expression. American painter Robert Motherwell described Yu-ichi as one of the few great artists of the second half of the 20th century. Although other major painters in the West actively denied the influence of Japanese calligraphy on their works, it is difficult to imagine that the attention garnered by modern Japanese art movements at the time did not obliquely influence further developments in Western modern art later in the century.
Unlike Yu-ichi, who eschewed fame and publicity to spend his time alone creating art, Morita devoted himself to the teaching and promotion of Japanese modern aesthetics. Aside from exhibiting extensively around the world and lecturing at Wakayama University from 1953 to 1961, Morita actively initiated international dialogues and embarked on an extended trip to North America and Europe in the 1960s, presenting lectures and demonstrations. As a result, Morita is not only a pivotal practitioner in the post-war Japanese art movement, but also an important voice in its international growth and development.
Complementing such efforts, the Bokubi journal constituted a dynamic forum for creative and artistic exchange across nations and cultures. Initially conceived as a means to introduce foreign art to Japanese audiences and cultivate a platform for modern art in Japan, Bokubi enabled the forging of precious friendships between the Japanese artistic community and foreign artists from abroad. In 1951, for example, Morita placed an image of Franz Kline’s work on the cover of Bokubi’s inaugural issue and published a heartwarming letter from the American artist, thus cementing a lifelong friendship between the two. Subsequent issues of Bokubi discussed the intertwining relationships between calligraphy, abstract painting, design, sculpture and architecture, featuring works by prominent artists including Isamu Noguchi, Mark Rothko, and Mark Tobey. Designed to be accessible to both Japanese and foreign audiences, Bokubi was an entrance ticket into the international art discourse.
In addition to igniting universal dialogues about modern Japanese painting, Bokujin-kai, with Yu-ichi and Morita at the helm, achieve a truly visual language with their honest, raw expressionism. In the present lots, the words “moon”) and “depth” or “deep pool” are illustrated with expressive nuances of the pictographic language. In Moon (Tsuki) (Lot 2818), Yu-ichi’s minimal yet bold strokes are thickly applied with a combination of infinite movement, energy, and self-control; while in Deep Pool (En) (Lot 2819), one of Morita’s more intelligible character paintings, the thickly applied ink pools into black masses that create intricately textured surfaces rarely seen in traditional ink wash paintings. Upon the occasion of his 1963 solo exhibition at Mi Chou, the first Asian art gallery in New York, Morita describes the “unity of action” wherein “life expresses itself in immediate action, without need of, or rather, by eliminating the intervention of discriminating consciousness or senses.” He concludes that “action can be something when we are awakened to our true self and when it actualizes the true self in and through that very action. Action which has nothing to do with the true self is nothing but debris in a pitfall.”
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