main image
The "Three Perfections" of Japanese Art:
Poetry, Painting, and Calligraphy

Gifts of Mary and Cheney Cowles 2018–2019,
in celebration of the Museum’s 150th Anniversary

Episode 6 / 2020
First Look

The selection of works presented here . . . demonstrate the power and complexity of standalone brush-written calligraphy and its creative integration with painted images."

In East Asian cultures, the arts of poetry, painting, and calligraphy have traditionally been referred to as the "Three Perfections." The selection of works presented here, created in Japan over the course of nearly a millennium, demonstrate the power and complexity of standalone brush-written calligraphy and its creative integration with painted images. These scrolls and albums are just a sampling of the treasures of Japanese painting and calligraphy donated to The Met by Mary and Cheney Cowles, whose collection is one of the finest and most comprehensive assemblages of Japanese painting and calligraphy in private hands in the West.

The first two examples show the bold, brusque handwriting of Zen monks Musō Soseki (1275–1351) and Baisaō (1675–1763). Written entirely in Chinese characters (kanji), they embody the Zen ideal of transgressing conventions and transcending rules to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Both use a dry brush technique called "flying white" to achieve a sense of urgency, spontaneity, and freedom in their strokes. The rhythmic intensity of the brush writing enhances the spiritual meaning of the poems.

The next three works, so different in feeling, are done primarily in kana, the distinctive writing system that renders the syllables of spoken Japanese. Women played a special role in the development of kana during the Heian period (794–1185), so much so that it was referred to as the "women’s hand" (onna-de). The transcription of poems from the Collection of Elegant Flowers partakes of the fluid elegance associated with women's calligraphy of this era and shows how, when transcribing vernacular poems, calligraphers would dispose of the columns of the poem to create a dynamic composition. Ono no Ozū (1559/68–1631) innovated this age-old "scattered writing" technique, and her exuberant calligraphic excerpts from The Tale of Genji, which dramatically exaggerate the vertical strokes, are among the finest examples of female calligraphy from the Momoyama period (1573–1615) in a Western collection. The anonymous mid-seventeenth-century Courtesan Reading by Lamplight bears an inscription by the Kyoto courtesan Moshio.

In the final two examples here, we see how colorful paintings by artists of the Ukiyo-e school, who usually focused on woodblock print designs, were often inspired by literary or theatrical themes. Japan at this time had a high level of literacy, and references to classical East Asian literature or Buddhist scripture added another level of enjoyment to works devoted to such popular subjects as Kabuki or the Yoshiwara quarters of licensed prostitution. Miyagawa Isshō (1689–1780) imagines a vignette from a Kabuki play and Katsukawa Shunshō's (1726–1792) painting of a courtesan on an elephant, traditionally the mount of a Buddhist deity, creates a clever parody; its inscription, by the Zen monk Butsumo Esen (1772–1854), playfully espouses the dichotomy of experiencing spiritual and corporeal forms of reality.

These works are among more than eighty major works the Cowleses have given in celebration of The Met's 150th Anniversary and just part of an eventual gift of some 250 artworks to be presented to the Museum over the course of the next five years.

John Carpenter
Mary Griggs Burke Curator of Japanese Art
Asian Art
Made possible by Bloomberg

The Metropolitan Museum of Art LogoEmail

Type the CAPTCHA word: