In 1002 CE, Sei Shonagon completed a tome detailing her life in the Japanese imperial court during the Heian Period. Called The Pillow Book (Makura no Soshi), it is a diary-like collection of observations and insights, some esoteric, some deeply personal, written in a stream-of-consciousness manner. The loosely connected lists, short essays, and fragmented text are a paragon of the freewheeling style known as zuihitsu. A combination of the Japanese Kanji for “brush” and “to follow,” it is often translated as “following the brush,” which is apt because the loose calligraphic format proceeds, as the name implies, without a real destination. Zuihitsu is, to put it plainly, a chronicle of the mind in motion. One where there are continual discoveries; one that is as much about the process as the product; and one where the method can alter the content itself. In zuihitsu you feel on the page an allegiance to ritual and a reverence for the movement of the mind. Writing becomes something that is felt.
Many centuries later Shonagon’s singular text would serve as the inspiration for a movie of the same name. In director Peter Greenaway’s remarkable 1996 film, we are first introduced to protagonist Nagiko as a little girl. Every year on her birthday, her father, a calligrapher, would write his birthday greetings on her face, intoning as his brush moved methodically across her forehead, cheeks, lips, then finished by signing his name down the nape of her neck. As he wrote, her mother would read passages from The Pillow Book aloud. As Nagiko grew older, calligraphy and skin and sexuality would become powerfully and inextricably enmeshed. “Treat my body like the pages of a book,” she says to a lover in one scene. “She has used each part of the body for the appropriate texts, even writing on ears and tongues, and here the words (Japanese, English, printed, spoken, Kanji) take on a sort of mystical, abstract quality,” the late critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film. “The talkies chained pictures to words; Greenaway finds a way out by using words as pictures.”
The history of the gestural writing with brushes that came to be known as calligraphy can be traced back to ancient China; it first surfaced during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and some of the most exalted calligraphers like Wang Xizhi (303–365 CE) and Lady Wei (272–349 CE) emerged shortly afterward. But various forms of calligraphy (the term itself comes from the Greek words for “beauty” and “to write”) have many centuries of history throughout the Middle East and Europe as well – the Dead Sea Scrolls unearthed in the Qumran Caves of the Judean Desert in Israel is one example; another is the Ma’il Qur’an from the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula which dates back to the 8th century. What separates the calligraphic practices tied to the Far East is that it is often more than just a practice: the writing is a dance. There is a performative flow to the movement of the brush, imbuing each stroke with the energy of a living thing. And every single stroke is purposeful: in the study of the art of Chinese calligraphy the first one you learn is a straight line. “Despite its deceptive simplicity this line is saturated with meaning because not only is it the Chinese symbol for one, it is also the line that divides heaven from earth, what is above from what is below, the visible from the invisible,” writes playwright Robert Lepage of calligraphy in his powerful production The Blue Dragon. “And if a picture is worth a thousand words, it can be said that – in China – a word is worth a thousand images.”
The calligraphic techniques that became a hallmark of the wildly undersung San Francisco-based artist Bernice Bing's later works (she passed away in 1998 at the age of 62) were honed from mentorships with Japanese artist Saburo Hasegawa and Wang Dongling at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where she went to study in the 1980s. In her striking abstract expressionist paintings, the calligraphic strokes served as a visual bridge of Eastern and Western sensibilities. Bing herself once said: “Chinese calligraphy has been evolving for six thousand years, whereas in our Western society we are but primitives experiencing a new aesthetic. In my abstract imagery, I am attempting to create a new synthesis with a very old world.”
For the modern artists who have woven ancient calligraphy into their work, the notion of each line being dynamic is something that drives their practice. French painter Fabienne Verdier spent years apprenticing with Sichuanese master calligrapher Huang Yuan in China and in her lush, outsized paintings (the paper is often laid on the ground and she uses brushes suspended from the ceiling) the brushwork is powerful and seems to have its own life force.
Rhythm and motion are ever-present in the compelling paintings of New York-based artist James Nares whose grand-scale gestural strokes are, he says, intuitive. “When I paint, I play my instrument and improvise along that fine line between spontaneity and design,” he says, adding that calligraphy, photography, and seismography are all referenced in his process. “Rhythm and repetition. Repetition and drift. Drift and metamorphosis.”
Cornish artist Mimi Robson’s intimate drawings inspired by the wild natural beauty of the northern Cornwall coast connect to calligraphy both visually, and, more deeply, as a self-reflective exercise. “Traditional calligraphy is done in rhythm with the breath so a mark comes from movement through the whole body,” says Robson, whose prep work for a piece involves not just readying her materials, but also preparing her mind, by letting go of expectations and fostering receptivity. “Approached with acute focus, calligraphy concentrates gestures into a meditation and so the lines drawn reflect the artist’s state of mind.”
At its heart calligraphy is indeed a moving meditation. An art form steeped in ritual and rhythm and repetition, the practice of which can simultaneously broaden self-awareness. As our culture has become more and more digitized, and the very act of putting brush – or even pen or pencil for that matter – to paper becomes more anomalous, it remains a tangible and powerful reminder that a stroke, a gesture, a word, can have a life of its own.
Words by Fiorella Valdesolo.
Images from top: James Nares, detail of Way Down Cross the Way, 2018, oil on linen. 27 x 99 inches, courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery. Fabienne Verdier, brushes, courtesy of Getty Images. James Nares, detail of Before I Go, 2016, oil on linen. 78 x 63 inches, courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery. Mimi Robson, brushwork, courtesy of the artist.