Using characters as a site, sho, as a tangible external form, manifests the dynamic movement of life.
To Recognise Greatness is Greatness
Strikingly majestic and consummately graceful, Ryū wa Ryū o Shiru — Dragon Knows Dragon is a supremely important work within Morita Shiryu’s oeuvre and embodies the highest essences of his calligraphic aesthetic. Morita’s adopted first name ‘Shiryū’ translates directly as ‘dragon child’ – evidence of the artist’s identification with the word and character Ryū (dragon). The personal affiliation to the character’s form and meaning prompted Morita to revisit its calligraphic manifestation repeatedly, and works containing the Ryū character are the artist’s most iconic and sought-after, appearing in premium institutional collections including that of The Art Institute of Chicago. The phrase Ryū wa Ryū o Shiru — Dragon Knows Dragon is also interpreted as ‘To Recognise Greatness is Greatness’; as such, the current work can be read as a monumental encapsulation of one of the most meaningful encountering of minds in the history of the post-war Asian avant-garde - the meeting of Morita Shiryū and Inoue Yuichi in 1951, which marked a significant turn in the post-war Japanese art scene and trailblazed an incontestably contemporary global avant-garde aesthetic.
Morita was born in 1912 in Toyooka City, Hyogo Prefecture in Japan. In 1937, he moved to Tokyo to study under avant-garde calligrapher Ueda Sokyu, disciple of Hidai Tenrai. In 1943 Morita returned to Kyoto to develop and mould his own concept and aesthetic of contemporary calligraphy. During the U.S. Occupation in 1948, Morita penned an essay titled “Like a Rainbow”, in which he described an unnamed American in Japan who was not able to read Japanese or Chinese but nonetheless appreciated the beauty of calligraphic brushwork, writing that the American could “see the beauty of the line itself” (cited in Bert Winther-Tamaki, Art in the Encounter of Nations, 2001, p. 76). Asserting calligraphy as the primordial art of the line, Morita imagined that one day these two art forms would come together at some lofty height “like a rainbow standing with one leg in the West and the other in the East” (Ibid.).
Such ambitions were soon realized. In 1952, two years before his close friend Yoshihara Jiro established the Gutai Art Association, Morita co-founded the influential Bokujin-kai (“Ink Human Society”) together with Inoue Yuichi and other Kyoto calligraphers, and the group’s impact was significant and far-reaching around the globe. While keeping with the aesthetic and philosophical principles of calligraphy, Morita and his colleagues focused not on the aesthetics of the character itself, but rather on the pure and unencumbered channeling of their inner states of mind through meditated yet spontaneous movement of both body and brush. The leader of the group, Morita’s ground-breaking works featured massive, captivating abstract single characters that placed equal importance on physical movement, inner force and visual aesthetics. Rooted in modern Zen philosophy, such works conceived of calligraphy as a site to manifest the dynamic rhythms of life – movement beyond intellect, emotion or ego. On the one hand, Morita ignited the extraordinary pictorial potential of kanji, liberating calligraphy from its deeply rooted conventions; on the other hand, his philosophically and spiritually rigorous works preserved the soul of abstraction and imbued his works with refined vital life force or qi(“energy”) amiss from the works of Western Abstract Expressionists.
Morita was greatly admired abroad as early as the 1950s and 1960s and accepted invitations to exhibit in prestigious venues such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the Sao Paolo Biennale, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the National Museum of Modern Art in Sydney. A prolific writer and editor, Morita also published the monthly journal Bokubi (‘Beauty of Ink’) for thirty years starting in 1951. The journal constituted a critical forum for creative and artistic exchange across cultures, enabling the forging of precious friendships and collaborations between the Japanese artistic community and Western artists. In 1951, for example, in the inaugural issue of Bokubi, Morita placed an image of Franz Kline’s work on the cover and published a heartwarming letter from the American artist, 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. In addition, Morita travelled and lectured extensively at key American and European institutions, such as the Art Institute of Chicago and Staatliche Kunsthalle, throughout his long career, fostering dynamic interaction between Japanese calligraphy and abstract art in the West.
Historically, Japanese calligraphy began when ancient Japanese travelers imported the Chinese kanji system into the country, and what followed next was an extraordinary process of internalization and adaptation: one involving an intuitive negotiation with the act of writing itself, in order to allow for the gradual capturing and evoking of subtle nuances in the indigenous Japanese language. It is perhaps to such reflective roots that Morita and other avant-garde calligraphy Japanese artists returned during the country’s regenerative postwar period: by unraveling the elusive yet resilient linkages between writing and text, form and meaning, Morita redefined both what it meant to “write” and what we mean by “form”. In the words of Hisamatsu Shin’ichi, author of Zen and the Fine Arts (1957) and frequent contributor of Bokubi: “What is directly manifest here is that that which is written is also that which writes; that, instead of form producing form, form is produced by what is without form” (cited in Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky, 1994, p. 131).