Spelling out China’s calligraphic influence

by Matthew Larking

At the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868), as Japan began to change its long-held cultural reference point from China to the West, a strong Sinophile interest was maintained by the nation’s cultural and political elites. From the late 19th century, however, the cultural reorientation to the West had deleterious effects upon the reception of calligraphy, which had been held by the Chinese literati tradition as an art form equal to painting and poetry.

Its status was seriously called into question by an 1882 article titled “Calligraphy is not an art” by the Western-style painter Koyama Shotaro. And even though the pioneer of Japanese art history, Okakura Tenshin, published a rebuttal arguing for an “Eastern perspective,” the triumph of Western conceptions of fine art left calligraphy marginalized.

The Chinese calligraphic tradition that was still enthusiastically received by an elite group of Japanese is the subject of Kyoto National Museum’s “Spirit of Brush and Ink: The World of Chinese Paintings and Calligraphies.” Though the works are from the collection of Riichi Ueno (1848-1919), one of the founders of the Asahi Shimbun, it was assembled by the renowned Chinese scholar and philologist Luo Zhenyu (1866-1940), who took refuge in Kyoto from 1911-1919 following China’s Xinhai Revolution of 1911. The East Asian scholar Naito Konan (1866-1934) facilitated the exchange and now the works form the core of Kyoto National Museum’s collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy.

The Ueno Collection primarily focuses on Ming- (1368-1644) and Qing- (1644-1911) dynasty paintings and calligraphy, but its historical spread is vast. The exhibition begins with a section on “Transcribing Manuscripts,” the fundamental employ of calligraphy before the print age, and the majority of works are from the first millennium — religious texts, historical records, a dictionary and poetry.

The subsequent section deals with calligraphic copybooks, which replicated the styles and techniques of earlier masters (almost no extant examples from the hand of a master before the Song dynasty are known) and were assembled into albums for aesthetic appreciation or for use as models for writing instruction. Wang Xizhi’s “Seventeenth Notebook” (4th century), for example, is exemplary of the calligraphic style of status in China’s Tang dynasty (618-907), exerting an influence through to the present.

T he following two sections deal with literati painting and calligraphy of the second millennium. What exactly constitutes literati painting is somewhat contested here, as is evident by the inclusion of Muqi’s (approx. 1200-70) undated painting “Returning Sails off Distant Shore.” This work is usually considered in China as part of the Chinese Zen Buddhist aesthetic, but as something by a nearly-forgotten and not particularly esteemed artist. In Japan, however, its ethereal washes and rough brushwork are highly regarded — particularly in tea ceremony scrolls.

A clearer definition of “literati” was gradually established during the Song dynasty and it celebrated a studied amateurism; dialogue with past masters; individual self-expression; and particular subjects matters, especially landscapes with brushed inscriptions. These were the ideals, though exceptions abound.

Dong Qichang (1555-1636) proposed a further definitive distinction when he claimed that painters classified as Southern School (non-professional artists, unlike those of the Northern School) were the true inheritors of the literati tradition because they emulated orthodox styles of ancient masters. Northern School painters were to be despised because they entered into vulgar professionalism.

Succeeding Dong Qichang, were a group of painters sharing the same surname, Wang, under whom literati painting is said to have stagnated due to their emphasis on superlative technique, which supposedly obviated creativity. Perhaps so, but if you look at the right portion of Wang Shimin’s “Landscapes” (1635), you’ll still see some of the finest painting on display.

When viewing Shi Tao’s “Paintings of Mount Huang” (1688), a later individualist master said to have reinvigorated literati painting, it is relatively easy to see how subservience to brush technique was a lesser aim than working toward an elevated spirit. His loose brushwork and simplified compositions, drained of myopic detail, provided the model for early 20th-century literati painting and calligraphy — represented here by the reduced, expressive composition of Wu Changshou’s “Pine, Bamboo and Plum Blossoms” (1926).

Rounding out this exhibition is a handful of Ueno’s Japanese art acquisitions, including the National Treasure “Amida Coming Over the Mountain” scroll, but it is still China’s influence that clearly remains the abiding interest of this exhibition.

“Spirit of Brush and Ink: The World of Chinese Paintings and Calligraphies” at the Kyoto National Museum runs till Feb. 20; admission ¥1,200; open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.kyohaku.go.jp