Avant-garde Calligraphy: Breaking the Boundaries

by Maria Nikolaeva

What do you think of when you hear the word calligraphy? Beautiful Chinese characters, the contrast of black lines on white canvas. But if you go to a modern calligraphy exhibition, you may see something quite different.

Traditional Calligraphy Styles

Let’s start with the importance of tradition in calligraphy. Calligraphy has been an essential part of Japanese culture for centuries. And, naturally, there have been rules too. To master calligraphy, you need to copy ancient styles and a teacher’s model writing. There are five core calligraphy styles: Seal script, Clerical script, Cursive script, Regular script and Semi-Cursive script. All of them formed in China long before Chinese characters were adopted in Japan, and the Japanese continued Chinese calligraphy traditions while also inventing their own styles suitable for the Japanese language, such as kana style. Nevertheless, the idea behind calligraphy remained the same throughout history: a calligrapher would draw a character in a certain ancient style, trying to convey their will and therefore adding personal touches to the work.

5 main ancient scripts.

So what is avant-garde calligraphy? 

Avant-garde calligraphy is a modern movement in calligraphy that focuses on expression through abstract forms. In other words, it gives more importance to form rather than meaning of a character.

How It All Started

The history of avant-garde calligraphy starts in the 19th century with a calligrapher Hidai Tenrai. 

In the end of 19th century, observing new impressionist art styles in Western painting, the calligrapher Hidai Tenrai (1872-1939) started to emphasize the expressive potential of calligraphy. He insisted that the most important thing for a calligrapher is hitsu i, ‘the spirit of brush’. It is this spirit that makes a piece of calligraphy expressive and powerful. And, therefore, a character being drawn is not as important as hitsu i. Even a single line by itself can be powerful and expressive if drawn with hitsu i. To illustrate his point, he doodled some lines for his pupils, and they are now considered the first example of abstract calligraphy art. 

“Ai” by Ueda Sokyu

In 1933 Hidai Tenrai founded a calligraphy group, “Shoudo Geijitsu Sha”, which represented the beginning of the modern movement in Japanese calligraphy. Calligraphers started to diverge from the classical scripts and draw abstract forms, emphasizing self-expression. Leading calligraphy societies could not easily accept these modern pieces that broke established rules. For example, a piece “愛” (“Ai”, “Love”) by Ueda Sokyu, submitted for an exhibition, was rejected. The reason was that, although the character was named 愛, the piece resembled the character 品 (“goods”), not 愛. The calligrapher countered by saying that it expresses his idea of love, and it doesn’t matter that it happened to look like the other character. 

In response to this trend, the Mainichi Calligraphy Exhibition created a new section ‘New Trends in Calligraphy’ in 1951, which subsequently was renamed into “Zenei Shodo” (前衛書道), or “Avant-garde Calligraphy”. 

It’s All About the Stroke

So how is avant-garde calligraphy different from any Western abstract art? For a start, the former evolved from a tradition hundreds of years old, while the latter can completely defy what has been done before. Those who want to engage in avant-garde calligraphy need to learn to draw classic scripts first.

Avant-garde calligraphy is usually based on a character, and therefore follows a certain stroke order. Like classical calligraphy, it also has performance-style execution. A calligrapher should draw a line, as the modern calligrapher Morita Shiryu puts it, “in one piercing movement”. There should be no thinking involved in the process, it is a natural movement of the body that defies subjectivity and draws energy from the subconscious. Some artists see the process of drawing as an attempt to connect to life force or even ‘cosmic consciousness’.

Ryu chi Ryu (Dragon knows dragon) by Morita Shiryu, 1964

The connection between the line and the mind/spirit has been stressed since long ago. It is believed that the mind of the calligrapher is reflected in the brush stroke. If your mind is pure and clear, the line will also be strong and confident. Therefore, it is important to practice patience and refine your spirit. It is no wonder that Zen practitioners started to engage in calligraphy as a form of meditation and a way to reach enlightenment. 

Actually, what makes a line good was vividly described by Lady Wei, the fourth-century Chinese calligrapher, scholar, and teacher of Wang Hsi-chi, who is regarded as the greatest calligrapher in Chinese history. She said:

“The writing of one who has strength of brush is ‘bony’ and the writing of one who is weak in brush is ‘fleshy’. Writing that is bony with little flesh is called ‘muscular’; writing that is fleshy with little bone is ‘ink hog’. Writing that has much strength and is rich in muscle is sacred; writing without strength or muscle is sickly. Each is used according to the situation.”

“Ki” by Sousai Inada, 2017

Modern calligraphers still follow the advice of Lady Wei (brush stoke should be confident) and also draw inspiration from Hidai Tenrai (a brush stroke should be expressive). Avant-garde artists in particular are looking for new ways to express themselves. For example, Yoshikawa Junichi likes to experiment with colors and sizes. “The world is changing at a fast pace. I want calligraphy to respond to that”, he says. Older artists like him hope that young generation of calligraphers will not be bound by existing styles and will try to find their own ones, exploring new directions in calligraphy.

Yoshikawa Juichi drawing on Tiananmen Square, almost completely covering the 5000 meters of the square.


Christine Flint Sato, The Rise of Avant-garde Calligraphy in Japan, 2000 http://stendhalgallery.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/SLcatmk2.pdf

Interview with Juichi Yoshikawa, Mainichi Shodo http://www.mainichishodo.org/gendai/zenei/

Avant-garde Japanese Calligraphy http://www.beyondcalligraphy.com/avant-garde_calligraphy.html

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