Thoughts on Bokura no Shoten from New York
In August 2019, I had the opportunity to meet Satō Tatsuya and Kokubo Mitsuki during their sojourn in New York City. Having largely studied modern calligraphy of the 1950s, I was excited to see images of large works like Kokubo’s Ashi (2018) that cited the early postwar works of Bokujin-kai. The catalogue reproduction of Kokubo’s work looked very close to works published decades ago in Bokubi, some of which traveled to New York in 1954 to be exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art. Although most artists visiting New York make the pilgrimage to MoMA, sadly, the institution happened to be closed for renovation during Satō and Kokubo’s stay. As we mused over the problematic reception of modern Japanese calligraphy in the United States in the postwar period, I recalled my own brief encounter with calligraphy in the MoMA collection.
Filed away in Department of Prints and Drawings are three calligraphy works by the artist Hidai Nankoku. The first time I viewed these paintings in the department’s study room was also my very first time looking at postwar Japanese calligraphy in person. The largest work, WORK 63-14-3 (measuring 151.2 x 120.2 cm) was hanging on the wall, while the smaller works were carefully arranged on a table. Examined up close, it was clear that what in reproductions looks like grey-colored ink is actually created by the connection between the ink and the slightly iridescent, ink-resistant paper. The effect was one of brushstrokes floating millimeters above the surface of the paper support.
The staff member assisting me with the Nankoku works admitted that the Museum had collected a lot of works on paper in the 1960s, many of which still have not been thoroughly examined and evaluated. Indeed, Nankoku’s calligraphy pieces were acquired between 1961 and 1964, and the smaller works were shown only once, in an exhibition of recent acquisitions at the museum that ran from 1962-1963. The largest work, WORK 63-14-3, has never been exhibited. Photographs of the works have never been published on the museum website. In many ways, the fact that these works are at MoMA, yet often unaccounted for, is indicative of the trajectory of early postwar Japanese calligraphy in New York. It arrived in major museum collections, yet today remains largely overlooked.
At the time I examined Nankoku’s brush traces, I was conducting research on Bokujin-kai and their international activities throughout the 1950s. Like other scholars, I discovered early on that any project on Bokujin-kai inevitably involves spending hours reading through copies of Bokubi and other Bokujin-kai magazines, carefully studying reproductions of calligraphy printed in its pages. I studied countless photographs of calligraphy in Bokubi, but rarely could I study a piece in the flesh. Reproductions of calligraphy – at least in the 1950s – flattened the works and made them look more like abstract paintings. Experiencing Nankoku’s work directly, however, revealed the textures of the ink, the sheen of the paper, the sense of the time and muscular effort it took to draw an enormous brush from the top of the sheet to the bottom.
Of course, the flattened reproductions in Bokubi were in many ways accidentally positive: flattening ultimately created a point of visual comparison with abstract paintings in the United States. Bokubi makes one realize that art historians have long undervalued the role of the periodical not only within art history, but as art history. For despite all of the haptic qualities I missed in photographs of Nankoku’s work, it was only through Bokubi that MoMA curators became aware of modern Japanese calligraphy in the first place. And it was only with the initial impetus of Bokubi that Nankoku’s works made it to MoMA at all. Bokubi was much more than a magazine – it was a type of circulating exhibition that “displayed” the most exciting avant-garde calligraphy in Japan to foreign readers.
It is tempting for an art historian to draw parallels between contemporary groups and collectives of the past, and certainly Satō, Kokubo, and the artists of Bokura no Shoten have many obvious similarities with Bokujin-kai. Yet in this text I would like to think about a less obvious similarity: a shared respect for the role of history in one’s training and artistic creation. When I met Satō and Kokubo in New York, I was struck by their scholarly interest in Bokujin-kai, the degree to which they embraced and admired these earlier calligraphers, the sense of obligation to understand the past lives of calligraphy. Our view of modern and contemporary art has been largely eclipsed by examples of artists who wanted to break with all tradition to create something completely new. The conscious, violent break with historic precedent has long been accepted as the defining feature of avant-gardism, of artistic progress, and of art considered worth appreciating and studying in Western academia. Bokura no Shoten, however, contends with the past quite differently and urges us to do the same.
There exists a large discourse on the meaning of “tradition” – which remains, even (and especially) today, a fraught term. Eric Hobsbaum and Terence Ranger argued that often tradition was “invented” to serve political purposes. Raymond Williams wrote that tradition is “a version of the past which is intended to connect with and ratify the present.” Conceptualized in this way, the connotation of tradition feels uncomfortably negative. Both Bokujin-kai and Bokura no Shoten show us that there is an overwhelmingly positive way to understand these same ideas.
Bokura no Shoten artists study past calligraphy because they believe that it is only by fully understanding their history (the history of calligraphy) that new things can be realized. The long tradition of calligraphy is the foundation of their innovative creations, and their notions of 21st century calligraphy are founded in an ethos of training embraced by Japanese artists for centuries. Just as Bokujin-kai members explored their artistic lineage by publishing dissections of classical calligraphy in Bokubi, Bokura no Shoten artists find their own lineage by taking the Bokujin-kai calligraphers as their instructors.
Lest one suggest that this is merely a contemporary revival of past ideas, we should recall that for much of Japanese art history, creation was only measured against an absorption and advancement of a vast corpus of visual references. The groundbreaking Edo period independent artist Soga Shōhaku claimed that he was a descendant of the established Soga school of painters. He probably was not, but because he consciously established this historic lineage for himself, today we can appreciate his study and absorption of the Soga school’s painterly atmosphere, and subsequent innovation of that atmosphere to the point of creating a unique and eccentric artistic style. It is almost impossible to argue that Shōhaku was deploying tradition in a conservative way.
In fact, although I was initially interested in Bokujin-kai for their decade-long global mission to have their works recognized as modern artworks, Bokura no Shoten’s practice has made me look back and re-examine this interest. Our conversation made me wonder whether the groups’ shared insistence on creativity rooted in historic study and rigorous training – an insistence on the very history of calligraphy itself – should in fact be re-examined and celebrated. Bokura no Shoten works point to the value in analyzing new artistic developments through older notions of artistic creativity. Works such as theirs highlight what is missed if we focus too heavily on artistic breaks with the past. Their works demonstrate that still in contemporary practice, a commitment to linking oneself with the past can be just as innovative as a commitment to splitting from it.
In 1955, the architect Horiguchi Sutemi, who had just completed several new buildings constructed in modernist developments of traditional Japanese architectural styles, wrote: “one must encounter and learn from tradition, and after being raised on that, overcome it, spread new roots and create a new trunk.” Creation was not making one new thing after another, but rather, “one idea is created on top of another, and with that as the foundation, the next thought is constructed… if the creation does not change at all from yesterday to today, then you can no longer call it a creation,” he explained.
Horiguchi’s ideas were perhaps seen as too conservative in a time of rapid postwar development, yet his constructive – rather than deconstructive – attitude regarding tradition and creation resonates strongly with young artists, scholars, and critics today. There is a balance to be found between learning from history and continuously forcing ourselves and our work to do something unprecedented. Artistic vision today often begins only by understanding how one will thoughtfully evolve from past successes and failures. Indeed, the more one knows about the history of Bokujin-kai, the more one can appreciate how Bokura no Shoten is shifting our views of both calligraphy and art.
Bokujin-kai artists initially aimed to break down boundaries between calligraphy and modern painting, and to gain artistic recognition from other genres. The abstract expression of their work was highlighted, but the particularities of calligraphy as its own form of creation less so. And the art world eventually began to agree with this stance. Yoshihara Jirō famously suggested that calligraphy itself was one form of painting. Bert Winther-Tamaki has argued that Morita Shiryū suddenly realized that, if he continued his international mission via Bokubi, the very genre of calligraphy might cease to exist. In certain panel discussions, Morita pushed himself and other calligraphers to outline exactly how calligraphy was different. Nankoku proposed one argument for the uniqueness of calligraphy: “I think what we call calligraphy exists because of the communication of the line,” he said.
These elements, which Morita was beginning to elucidate, are the exact elements that were suppressed in Bokubi photographs, and the exact elements that I discovered in Nankoku’s work at MoMA. They are also the exact elements that Bokura no Shoten artists have begun to develop and highlight in their works. In Satō’s work, for example, the textural beauty of ink is explored, its interaction with the paper is emphasized, and in this visible interaction of ink bleeding into the paper or skimming across it, we can glimpse the unfolding of time. This is particularly evident in Han (2018), where the diluted wash of grey ink swirling down the page recalls the texture of Nankoku’s large work at MoMA.
Or, if we look at recent works by Uchino Naoya, such as Kita (2018), we see the ink allowed to pool and puddle until it forms what looks like an organic membrane. Through the translucent skin, the crease down the center of the paper substrate is visible and creates a linear artery for the ink mass. In varying ways, the Bokura no Shoten artists thus seem to propose three irrefutable factors that identify calligraphy as calligraphy in the 21st century: ink, paper, and the development of line. By defining these parameters, they are at once solidifying the definition of calligraphy, and allowed it to expand in infinite permutations and experiments.
Ink, paper, and the development of line – these elements do not exclude color, do not limit scale, and do not restrict the calligrapher between brushing kanji, kana, or a series of geometric shapes with no lexical referent. These elements respectfully maintain the historic foundation of calligraphy, but also suggest that Bokujin-kai’s debates over the importance of the written characters are, as Nankoku also believed, not relevant to contemporary calligraphy practice. Bokura no Shoten works are thus a testament to the intense growth and creativity that can be generated from the conscientious study of – and training from – art history.
The opening of the newly renovated and expanded MoMA in October 2019 aimed to deepen and contextualize American views of the development of modern art. The initial display included works by artists of color, female artists, and modernists from around the world. There was little distinction made between paintings, photographs, film, prints, and archival materials, but rather, an emphasis on telling new stories. The works by Nankoku have not yet been brought out of storage, but as the dynamic works by Bokura no Shoten show us, early postwar calligraphy has become the foundation from which to understand contemporary developments in Japanese calligraphy. In other words, in our present context, we – whether we be calligraphy creators or art historians – still have plenty to learn by examining and re-examining artwork from the not-so-distant past.