Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan

August 17, 2013–January 12, 2014

Chinese Poems Brushed by Japanese Monks

Poem about Sugar

Kokan Shiren (Japanese, 1278–1346). Poem about Sugar, Nanbokuchō period (1336–92). Hanging scroll; ink on paper. Promised Gift of Sylvan Barnet and William Burto

"There is no 'utensil' more important than the calligraphy scroll, which allows the host and guests to immerse themselves in the spirit of the tea ceremony."

—Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591), tea master

Chinese poetry informed Japanese court culture from earliest times, and has served as an inspiration to painters and calligraphers through the ages. Chinese-style ink landscapes, often inscribed with poetry, were cherished by members of the court and warrior elite. Abstract, abbreviated, or even "splashed ink" mountain landscapes accompanied by Chinese poems in brusque calligraphy were closely associated with Zen monk painters of medieval times. Such inscribed compositions were recognized as a distinct genre called shigajiku, literally, "hanging scrolls with poems and paintings."

Compared to sacred texts transmitted by other sects of Buddhism, the inscriptions of Chinese poems and religious sayings by medieval Zen monks are rendered in an idiosyncratic manner, reflecting a radically different attitude toward spiritual practice. Zen calligraphy is characterized by boldly brushed characters that conspicuously break the rules of conventional handwriting, but what it loses in legibility it gains in sheer visual potency that transcends the meaning of the phrases inscribed.

The most important venues for viewing the writings of Zen monks were tea gatherings, at which the focal point was an alcove called a tokonoma. In these niches, tea ceramics, flower arrangements, hanging scrolls of calligraphy or ink paintings, or an ensemble of treasured art objects could be displayed for guests. Calligraphic scrolls written by Zen monks, collectively referred to as bokuseki, or "ink traces," were the most highly prized type of scroll for both their spiritual and didactic qualities.