The late 19th and 20th centuries witnessed a series of flip-flops among scholars as to whether calligraphy could be considered a fine art. Compared to painting and sculpture, wrote painter Koyama Shotaro in 1882, calligraphy did not attain the level of an art based on the Western models that were taking root at the time. Scholar and art school administrator Okakura Tenshin disagreed, stressing the need for an Eastern perspective. “Ultimate Beauty: The Calligraphy of Japanese Emperors,” at the Kyoto National Museum traces the shinkan (calligraphies by emperors) from Emperor Shomu (701-756) through to Emperor Showa (1901-1989). The emphasis of the exhibition is on the supremacy of the art, even if the doubts of the modern period remain.
The appreciation and practice of calligraphy prior to the 20th century was subjected to different values from those cherished in the early 1900s, such as originality. “Invention” had been one of the leading critical terms for painting and the other arts since the Renaissance — which nonetheless took antiquity as its model. Language, however, has always concerned iteration and relies upon it for intelligibility. Likewise, calligraphy is part of an artistic culture of copying and the performance of the past. Its own “inventions” were more moderate because the past contained exemplary models exercising influence on the present. Tradition was innovation, not its antithesis, because, never static, it evolved with the changing cultural emphases of the times that understood the past in fluctuating ways.
Take Emperor Fushimi’s (1265-1317) copy of Ono no Michikaze’s (894-966) “Poem Draft for Folding Screen,” (14th century). So exact is the copy in conception that even Michikaze’s errors, marginal notations, and scrubbing out of characters, either wrongly written or unnecessarily so, are faithfully brushed in.
Emperor Fushimi could easily have improved upon Michikaze’s version, correcting the all-too-evident errors. It is in the repetition of these, however, that Emperor Fushimi’s own shortcomings are most clearly announced. He was unable in these reiterations to get his copy “wrong” in the ways that only Michikaze could. Instead he stumbled in the mistakes when Michikaze’s errors are more linear as they ought to have been in intention. As one of the “three traces” (calligraphers who were models to be emulated) the other two being Fujiwara no Sukemasa (944-998) and Fujiwara no Yukinari (971-1027), Michikaze’s model of calligraphy, mistakes and all, was not a model to supersede. It was perfection. Being able to reproduce Michikaze in this way made Emperor Fushimi pre-eminent among calligraphers in his own generation.
The exhibition proper begins with the “three brushes,” Kukai (774-835), Emperor Saga (785-842) and Tachibana no Hayanari (782-844) who, along with the “three traces,” provided the models upon which shinkan were based, and then forays into making tribute to Emperor Shomu with whom the imperial tradition began. This section also concerns the adoption of the Chinese writing system, its influence on Japan’s scribal culture, and the emergence of the distinctive kana phonetic script that arose in accord with Japanese tastes.
Elsewhere the developments in shinkan are taken up when the imperial line split in two, the Northern Court of the Jimyoin branch and the Southern Court of the Daikakuji branch, following the reign of Emperor Go-Saga (1242-1246). Political frictions aside, each group sought to imprint their distinctive influence as arbiters of cultural taste and the Northern Court developed a style known as the “blue of reason,” exemplified by Emperor Go-Kogon’s (1338-1374) “Letter” (1367).
The Southern Court in contrast sought the “red of passion,” found in Emperor Go-Daigo’s (1288-1339) “Letter” (1329). The former is a hard style in an even application of ink, whereas the latter is brushed in softer, further evocative tones. After the two courts unified in 1392, the “purple of nobility” was later emergent in the exceedingly elegant script of Emperor Go-Kashiwabara (1462-1526) as demonstrated in “Tentori Waka (Poem with Scores)” (15th — 16th centuries).
Arguably the finest Japanese innovation on Chinese models was the development of the chirashigaki scattered script found in Emperor Ogimachi’s (1517-1593) “Missive in Nyobo hosho (Imperial Court Lady Letter) Format” (1577). Chirashigaki featured flowing cursive scripts in Chinese characters or Japanese kana that dispensed with the regular spacing of characters that were appropriate to official documents — in which legibility was of paramount importance. An example of such regularity can be found in the copying of religious documents as in Emperor Fushimi’s “Hokekyo (Lotus Sutra) Volume 1″ (14th century) in which he follows the protocol of seventeen characters to a line in legible, uniform script. Chirashigaki, by contrast, scattered the characters across the paper in flowing lines of linked characters that could accentuate the “sounds” of the words.
Arguably, innovative Emperor calligraphy was well in decline from the late 17th century and it was in the hands of the commoners for the most part that the task of updating the old models arrived. Late 19th-century and early 20th-century artists such as Kawahigashi Hekigoto (1873-1937) and Fusetsu Nakamura (1866-1943) were among the preeminent exponents, though these must be seen elsewhere and at other times.
“Ultimate Beauty: The Calligraphy of Japanese Emperors” at the Kyoto National Museum runs till Nov. 25. For more information, visit www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/index_top.html