How Shodo Calligraphy Strokes Become Fine Art
Foreign, intricate calligraphies can come across as abstract brush strokes at first glance, an alien art to those who grew up reading the Roman alphabet. Japanese calligraphy, or Shodo, transports viewers from the mundaneness of everyday script into unfamiliar artistic ground.
If it’s maddeningly difficult to distinguish Japanese characters from Chinese, it’s because they were once the same language. Long ago, the Japanese crossed the seas to Tang dynasty China to learn everything about their handwritten artwork.
Looking at how rich Japanese calligraphy is today, they must have known something of the prize that awaited them before they braved the treacherous waters off the eastern coast of China. It is believed that of every 20 boats making the journey from Japan, only a few ever made it to China.
Japanese calligrapher Atsuko Osa made the much safer trip from Tokyo to Jakarta to showcase her skills at the Japan Foundation last Thursday. The silence in the neon-lit classroom was broken when the elderly Osa bowed and offered a cheerful “konichiwa” (good day).
Osa unpacked her tools; brushes of all sizes, a bunchin, or metal appliance to weigh down the calligraphy paper, and hanshim, a special ink and its container. A small crowd gathered around her, heads craned forward, trying to see the artist with her brush.
“Can you guess what this character is?” Osa asked, holding her brush. In movies, Asian calligraphers seem gentle and elegant as they deal with the ultrathin paper and soaked brush. The work has to be immaculate and every movement measured and calm, to avoid ripping the delicate paper or creating an inky mess everywhere.
Osa, who was introduced to the brush by her late father, Seisui Toyoda, is a graceful elderly woman. But even her sophisticated flowery garments couldn’t disguise her passion for calligraphy. Once the paintbrush was in her hand and met the wafer-thin paper, it was obvious that she put a generous amount of energy behind her every stroke.
It appeared that she wanted to make sure the paper absorbed every last drop of ink as she poured out all her passion and knowledge into her art.
Besides the abundant ink, there was an abundant amount of knowledge behind each character. A group of teenagers who attended the workshop quickly figured out that Osa was painting the character “Onna,” which represents woman in an outdated form of the Japanese script. It is the most ancient and original character; it looks like a woman kneeling down with her arms folded.
“The woman was kneeling down, and then she slowly stood up. Now we have this character,” Osa said as she drew the modern word for woman in Japanese, which looks like a woman standing up in a fighting stance.
Just like Onna, most Japanese characters have gone through a series of transformations over many years. In tribute to this, the day’s lecture and demonstration was titled “A Chain of Changes.”
The audience at the lecture listened attentively as Osa talked about the history of calligraphy, which dates back to 1500 BC and the Yin period.
It started with depictions of people on the walls of caves, mostly drawn from a side viewpoint. Inscriptions were found inside bronze pots, bamboo shoots and, much later, on paper.
Kanji (the Japanese name for the characters adopted from Chinese) must be drawn in the correct order of strokes for all three types of writing: Kaisho, a more distinctly formed set of characters; Gyosho, a more cursive style; and the more abstract cursive Sosho.
Osa pointed at three scrolls hanging on the wall, illustrating the three forms. “The first scroll was actually done by a first-grader,” she said. The audience simultaneously gasped in disbelief.
Just like the Japanese who traveled to China in ancient times, Osa studied kin-bun calligraphy before having her work displayed around the world. She passed on her knowledge to her two children, who did the scrolls that decorated the classroom wall.
Other works like Osa’s are on display in the Japan Foundation’s Summitmas I building for those who want to discover how brush strokes become art.