Calligraphy or What?


A room full of calligraphy can be heavy going on the untrained eye, but this month AMNUA eases us in with a stimulating exhibition of works by Japanese calligrapher Yu-Ichi. Bold, vigorous characters mark their territory on the walls in manageable number, while Yu-Ichi’s paired-down approach offers access to an art form which at times can feel impenetrable.

Calligraphy, the art of writing, combines two fundamental elements; language and aesthetic form. It is one of the mostly highly revered arts in the Far East. Without a good understanding of the language used therefore viewers may feel at a loss, unable to appreciate the interaction between word and form intrinsic to calligraphy.

Yu-Ichi’s approach of tackling only one character at a time is more sympathetic to the foreign viewer, although by no means was this his intention. By understanding the meaning of one character we are able to interpret both linguistic and artistic meaning at once.

Take for example his rendering of the character “貧” (pin) which means “impoverished” or “inadequate”. The lone character resembles a figure wearing a cone hat as though it might work in the fields for long hours under the sun. There is a distinct three-dimensional sense as the character leans into the distance, its two legs thick and foreshortened as though we are gazing from beneath. The character stands tall but its imbalance could perhaps allude to connotations associated with the meaning of the word.

This approach, coined in Japan as “limited character calligraphy”, became popular among Japanese calligraphers such as Yu-Ichi in the 1930s, and later in 1980s China with the emergence of modernist calligraphy. Modernists in China and Japan believed calligraphy did not appeal to modern taste because it had never until then managed to break away from its set pattern.

They looked instead to Western artistic practices and began experimenting with structure, scale and composition, as well as using different media such as coloured ink or oil paint.

Not everyone approved. Traditionalists saw it as a quick way to attract attention, loosing the depth of meaning and beauty found in the traditional art form. It was, to them, the fast food of calligraphy. Yu-Ichi himself did not identify as a calligrapher, but rather considered his work and that of his contemporaries as “ink art”.

In many ways the work of Yu-Ichi certainly deviates from traditional practice, but his calligraphic spirit is clearly present. What is striking about his work is the palpable trace of his creative process. His writing is physically demanding. There are buckets of ink involved and brushes that are far from flimsy. Dribbles and splashes reminiscent of Jackson Pollock chart the journey of the brush as it is manoeuvred around the paper with strength and confidence.

“I worship the character” he once said. Although executed in only a matter of seconds, each character is the product of several hours pondering and experimenting. He was highly critical of his work and if it wasn’t perfect he destroyed it. Only this way could Yu-Ichi achieve his seemingly effortless style with wonderful depth and texture using the humble brush and ink.

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