HONG KONG – Since the turn of the century, renewed focus on the Asian avant-garde has gone some way to decenter Eurocentric postwar art narratives. What Brushwork – From Asia to the World adds to the dialogue is not merely another visually and contextually compelling case for bilateral, rather than unilateral, influence, but one that zooms in on the reinterpretation of the brush. The curated selection reveals a subtle yet unmistakable ‘calligraphic turn’: whether using brush, knife or bare hands and feet, the diverse artistic languages manifest an overarching calligraphic spirit – one that imbues discipline, dexterity and transcendent pantheism into the legacy of the postwar avant-garde.
GEORGES MATHIEU LOOKING AT A PAINTING BY SHIRAGA KAZUO IN YOSHIHARA JIRO’S ATELIER, JAPAN, 1957. IMAGE COURTESY AMAGASAKI CULTURAL CENTER.
In such a nuanced aesthetic, temporality reigns. The revered art of Asian calligraphy dictates that there is no going back: in contrast to the Western painter who repeatedly daubs at his lines and forms, the calligrapher never embellishes what is already written. Irreversible like time, the sacred calligraphic stroke is at once ephemeral and permanent, embodying the poignant existential integrity of life, breath and being. The calligraphic gesture thus demands both intuition and concentration; freedom is exalted insofar as it is centered in the mind. Such a philosophy gestates an art of gestural transience imbued with dynamism and depth, as in the magnificent ichijisho (single character paintings) of Morita Shiryū and Inoue Yūichi.
MORITA SHIRYU, KAME (TURTLE - SYMBOL OF LONGEVITY), 1965, ESTIMATE 150,000–250,000 HKD.
Moving beyond the written word, the evolving abstractions of Western artists in the same period reveal unmistakable traces of ‘calligraphism.’ See for example the fiercely dancing lines of Georges Mathieu, or Pierre Soulages’s arresting monochromes composed of thick black strokes set against illuminated backgrounds. Soulages’s authoritative swashes and diagonals interpose with commanding presence and tension, recalling the pure form of Oriental characters. “I made line combinations which struck the eye of the beholder as a large form,” Soulages once said. “One fine day I realized that the drawings I was doing were reminiscent of Chinese characters.”1
PIERRE SOULAGES, PEINTURE 10 OCTOBRE 1952, EXECUTED IN 1952, ESTIMATE 4,000,000–6,000,000 HKD.
Anchoring the themed sale is the resounding tonal congruence and formal contrast between Soulages’s Peinture 10 Octobre 1952 and Shiraga Kazuo’s Jodo (Pure Path). In both, a dense calligraphic black foregrounds the texture and visceral vitality of paint, while the severe straight lines of the Soulage juxtaposes dynamically against Shiraga’s magnificent swipes. Unbeknownst to many, Shiraga took up traditional calligraphy in his post-Gutai years, and such a re-embracing of his oriental roots lends his legendary feet-strokes the spirit and soul of masterful brushwork.
SHIRAGA KAZUO, JODO (PURE PATH), SIGNED, TITLED AND DATED 1988.12 IN JAPANESE ON THE REVERSE, ESTIMATE 5,550,000–7,500,000 HKD.
Shiraga’s mature works became imbued with an elusive yet potent ‘centredness’, possessing what Ming Tiampo calls a “centripetal energy”2 not yet present in his early works. The stunning Crimson Rouge, one of his last masterpieces executed in his signature crimson lake, features an authoritative vortex at the heart of uninhibited gesture. Such is ‘calligraphism’ at its highest: a centering of raw passion, conducted in the mind, so as to manifest infinite expression within the finite stroke. As the world de-centers the origins of abstraction, therefore, Shiraga conducts a masterful re-centering of mind and movement, insodoing achieving spontaneity through meditation, exuberance through control, and elevating his world-class abstractions from mere tempestuous violence to a sublime transcendence.
SHIRAGA KAZUO, ENJIHEN (CRIMSON ROUGE), DATED 2004 ON THE REVERSE, ESTIMATE 8,000,000–12,000,000 HKD.
 Françoise JAUNIN, Noir lumière, interviews with Pierre Soulages, Lausanne, éditions La Bibliothèque des arts, 2002
 Ming Tiampo, “Suijū (Drunken Beast)”, in Kazuo Shiraga, ex. cat., Dominique Levy and Axel Vervoordt, 2015, p. 155