We should make use of calligraphy as an art movement, without which we should not talk about the revival of culture.
Rebirth of the Phoenix
Ablaze with a quietly ferocious flame, the exquisite and superlatively executed Otori - Phoenix spreads its luscious scarlet and gold plumage and prepares to take flight – one of the most iconic characters from the oeuvre of Ueda Sokyu, a central figure in the history of the Japanese avant-garde. The first disciple of Hidai Tenrai, the founding father of the prestigious Tenrai School and of modern Japanese calligraphy, Ueda was mentor to Morita Shiryu and Inoue Yuichi and instrumental to the establishment of the renowned Bokujin-kai (Ink Human Society) in Kyoto in 1952. In 1951, the first issue of Morita’s Bokubi (Ink Beauty) was in fact published under the watchful eye of Ueda. Earlier in 1948, penning the introductory message for the first issue of Sho no bi (Beauty of Calligraphy), Ueda wrote: “We should make use of calligraphy as an art movement, without which we should not talk about the revival of culture” (Ueda Sokyu, “Message on the Founding of the Magazine”, Sho no bi No. 1, April 1948).
The immense importance of Ueda Sokyu’s oeuvre must be understood in the context of the post-war Japanese landscape. In 1945, the Allied occupation of Japan suspended the teaching of Japanese history, geography and ethics, and in 1947 eliminated calligraphy from the elementary school curriculum. It was against such an austere cultural environment that Ueda called for a rallying of his comrades to revive and revitalize art and creation – an uprising against not only Western authorities but also against the ancient tradition and high art of calligraphy. Ueda caused great controversy in 1951 when his exhibition of the character Ai (love) was rendered in a such an abstract and ‘illegible’ manner that it could also be read as other characters. Facing challenges from conservative artists, Ueda declared: “I transform characters as a new form due to my creativity […] Because this is an art exhibition, there is no problem for creative works that are not easy to read”. Under Ueda’s influence, avant-garde Japanese calligraphy flourished and became an art form in its own right, ultimately influencing the abstract creations of global artists of such eminent ranks as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Hans Hartung and Georges Mathieu.