Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Where Calligraphy and Art Meet

Having lived in Japan on and off for the last 25 years, and published a couple of books in Japanese, let me make a shocking confession: I don't know how to write a single kanji (ideogram). That is, I don't know how to write them as they are supposed to be written, with a precise stroke sequence. When I learnt kanji a quarter of a century ago, I objected to the idea that kanji had to be written in a prescribed sequence. 'No', my rebellious youthful self thought, 'I'll draw them in my own way, thanks very much!' There always seemed something obsequious and oppressive about having to conform to tradition in this way that was anathema to my spirit of creativity and individualism.

Subsequently, whenever Japanese friends happened to see my execrable handwriting, they would shake their heads at the idiosyncratic manner at which I arrived at my approximation of the Japanese script.

These days, with the ubiquitousness of texts, emails and computers, it hardly seems to matter: my reinvention of the Japanese writing system is (mercifully) rarely exposed to scrutiny. It has however left me with a lifelong disconnect to the grand traditions of Japanese calligraphy.

I of course recognize the talent of the great calligraphy masters of past and present. I understand the various schools and styles of calligraphy: the square style, the grass hand and so on. But none of it particularly excites me. I used to think of calligraphy (shodo) as something like tea ceremony, bonsai and ikebana: all venerable in their traditions, but far too stiff, fusty and conservative in their obeisance to tradition to catch my interest.

This all changed with a series of chance events back in 2005. I'd begun to think I might learn how to draw characters with a brush and happened to see an advert for a demonstration of calligraphy at the Kobe Club. On a weekday morning, as the only male person in an audience exclusively made up of expat wives, I was intrigued to see a lady calligrapher, Misuzu Kosaka (pictured above), dressed in a kimono, presenting calligraphy the likes of which I had never seen before. When Kosaka drew the character for 'sakura', you could somehow actually see both tree and blossom. She had the gift of making each character resonate in an entirely new light.

I was fascinated and asked her if she would teach me how to draw and for a few weeks met for private lessons at the KRAC in Kobe. I was unspeakably awful - unquestionably her worst ever pupil - and after a few weeks had concluded that I should never pick up a brush again.

Things might have stopped there, but just at that time my book 'The Tower of London' about the life of the great Japanese author Natsume Soseki in London in 1900-1902 was about to be published. The publishers sent me a mock-up of the proposed cover, containing both a picture of the Tower and the three Japanese characters for 'Tower of London' ('Ron- don-to', 倫敦塔). Even I could tell that the characters had been written by someone with a fairly clumsy hand and that we could do a lot better: it occurred to me that I might ask Misuzu Kosaka to do the characters instead.

A moment of high comedy ensued. In my naivety, I went over to her flat and asked if she would write the characters for me, expecting that she would pick up a brush and do it on the spot. Instead the conversation shifted to discussing a timescale measured in weeks for the commission and vaguely circled the question of the fee. I failed to understand how drawing three characters could possibly require weeks of profound contemplation, but trusting in her talent, I told her our deadline and left her to it.

Several weeks later, the calligraphy arrived: I instantly saw where the time had been invested. Kosaka had read Soseki's story 'The Tower of London' and managed to capture in the space of just three characters the nightmarish history of The Tower of London which Soseki had invoked. In Kosaka's characters one could recognize crucifixes, gallows and instruments of torture. Nothing could be further removed from the stiff traditions of Japanese calligraphy. This was calligraphy transformed into art, as if Kandinsky or Miro had picked up a calligraphy brush and started to paint.

The art work was so good, it seemed to me, that it deserved to stand alone on the cover but I worried that people would be confused if we juxtaposed it on the cover with an image of the Tower. So we settled on a compromise that a more convential, though beautifully drawn, rendering of the characters (pictured below) would appear on the cover, while the art work would comprise the frontispiece to the book. This set the pattern for three more books we did in the series for which I wrote the introductions and Kosaka provided the calligraphy for both covers and frontispiece: The Gate (Mon), Kokoro and The Three Cornered World (Kusamakura).

Time and again, I marvelled at Kosaka's extraordinary ability to capture the entire mood of a book, sometimes in just a single character. How for example could you do anything with the very simple character for 'gate' ('mon', 門)? Yet in Kosaka's hands, the two sides of the character began to resemble human heads facing one another, like the husband and wife of the novel facing each other across the brazier each evening, and was imbued with the same sense of intimacy, tenderness and melancholy which the novel itself so brilliantly captures.

In the case of The Three Cornered World (Kusamakura), Kosaka produced something entirely different. Inspired both by the novel's central image of a beautiful Ophelia floating in a stream and the concept that art is something which is constantly being imagined and re-imagined in the stream of consciousness of the person experiencing it, here we have multiple distorted and transformed images of the characters for 'Kusa Makura' (草枕) constantly being born anew in the mind of the reader. It is also a manifesto for a new type of calligraphy that refuses to be placed in the straitjacket of tradition, that sees the possibility of Japanese calligraphy connecting to the great art of the world.

For many years Kosaka's art has been prized in her native Kobe: every year on the anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, for example, Daimaru Department Store prominently exhibits one of her new commemorative art works, and she regularly stages exhibitions in the Kansai area. Her work on the Soseki titles represents just a tiny percentage of her prolific output.

It's international recognition and interest which will I think create the newest, most exciting chapters in the history of Japanese calligraphy. To take a leaf out of the book of the great innovative thinker, Richard Feynman, it's not by doing things the same as they have always been done before, but by experimenting and adapting the world around you to your own sensibility that the great breakthroughs in art and science are made. It's a lesson that a lot of the traditional Japanese arts would do well to embrace.

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