October 25, 2014-November 30, 2014

Inoue Yuichi


Text / Sun Xiao-Tong

Calligraphy is generally recognized as a visual art composed of various types of lines. Nonetheless, the process of writing not only embodies the aesthetic qualities of these lines but also implicitly conveys the quinta essentia of calligraphy. In other words, these lines do not rigidly serve as the components of characters, but come to life in the process of writing. Admiring and learning from classics help us grasp the quinta essentia of calligraphy. In sum, calligraphy is about writing characters rather than drawing lines.1 —Inoue Yuichi, 1985

Using a brush, the artist unrestrainedly applied the extremely dark ink on the plain and pure-white rice paper, which faithfully reflects his consciousness and physical motions at the very moment of writing. It resembles the birth of the universe, from which the primeval landscape in the artist’s mind came into existence. The bold and thick strokes can be compared to the ancient monoliths towering on the earth. The deft and ethereal strokes look like rain and dew. The hollow strokes whip along as fast as wind and lightning. The slow and dithery strokes reflect all his unspeakable cares. The artist’s intricate thoughts and flowing ponderings were solidified in the simplest linear structure and compressed in the thin layer of the rice paper. His works therefore become the everlasting legacies of the moments of no return. Besides, the stark contrast between black and white on the rice paper reifies the artist’s profound thought and creative mind.

At my first admiration for the calligraphic works by Inoue Yuichi (1916-1985), I was deeply impressed by their magnificent compositions. As an iconic figure of the post-war Japanese modern calligraphy, Inoue has broken the traditional rule that the characters must be aesthetically pleasing and elegant. With his creativity and unique posture, Inoue has transcended the confines of “classical calligraphy.” He not only pioneered an aesthetic engineering that reflected the Zeitgeist, but also responded to his living conditions. Inoue has not only repudiated the claim that he had been an activist of avant-garde Shodo, but also expressed obvious disdain for and abhorrence of avant-garde Shodo in verse.2 However, to objectively and comprehensively review Inoue’s unique achievement and status in the field of art, it is still necessary for us to treat the historical background and the environment in which he lived as the entry point. In other words, this article conducts a historical study on and a discursive analysis of Inoue’s life, formation of style, and artistic creativity, and thereby vividly reveals the quinta essentia of his calligraphic works.

Background: Abstract Expressionism and Japanese Modern Calligraphy

His eyebrows furrow. His face wears a wry expression. The bald and bare-chested man is lifting a large brush that is almost half of his height from a barrel of dark ink. This act entails strenuous effort. The ink soaks through the head of the large brush, making the brush even heavier. Small gasps and sighs escape the man’s throat. He steps barefoot on the rice paper stretching on the floor, and takes a posture that looks like riding a horse. Then he writes and moves in halting steps. The ink-drops on the rice paper from the tip of the brush resemble the overture to a concert. In the twinkling of an eye, the man shouts aloud. His sonorous voice pierces through the deep silence and chaos. The brush and the ink marks become monoliths falling on the white wilderness. The strokes of characters gradually emerge with the artist’s motion. The unrestrained, vigorous, and dynamic configurations of lines are the brainchild of the artist. The dance on the rice paper represents a sudden burst of the artist’s passion, and the ink marks serve as the evidence of the occurrence of the writing ritual.

It is a description of Inoue’s creating process. We may clearly perceive his concentration on and resolution in his writing from the documentary played back today. The magnificent and powerful strokes not only demonstrated his aesthetic orientation but also embodied a collective ideological thirst for liberation and reconstruction in his time. People painfully struggled to rediscover the value of the self from the devastated world in the aftermath of the Second World War. The struggle took place not only in the victorious Europe and the United States but also in Japan whose national confidence was shattered by her defeat in the war. In the field of art, the struggle in the Western world resulted in the abstract expressionism that underscored subjectivity and inward exploration, while that in Japan led to the emergence of some artists who returned to the system of classical Shodo. These Japanese artists broke traditional paths of calligraphy by enthusiastically improving and reforming existing local art forms, and thereby rediscovered self-esteem and values. Despite their different geographical locations, the two artistic movements emerged concurrently out of the demand for reconstructing the Zeitgeist. They differed in aesthetic essence but were similar in the form of presentation. The formal similarity further facilitated the exchange and mutual reference between Western and Japanese artists. The movements and exchange peaked in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In 1957, the Sao Paulo International Biennale,3 hailed as one of the three largest art events in the world together with the Venice Biennale and Kassel Documenta, for the first time invited Japanese modern calligraphers Tejima Yukei and Inoue Yuichi to exhibit their works. Inoue presented three of his famous works—Thorough Disillusionment, Anatman, and Wonder. His works were juxtaposed with those by other high-profile artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline from the United States as well as Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages from France. It implied that the oriental and Asia-based Japanese modern calligraphy has been accepted by the avant-garde and forward-looking international art. In other words, Japanese modern calligraphy converged with the Western abstract expressionism prevailing at that time, representing a seamless blend of oriental and occidental cultures. The exhibition made Inoue’s artistic achievements known to the international art community. The work Thorough Disillusionment was highly appraised as one of the iconic works of abstract expressionism. The image of that work was even included in the book A Concise History of Modern Painting written by the renowned British critic Herbert Read.4 Actually, the display of Japanese modern calligraphy in the Sao Paulo International Biennale, which reflected the taste of Western mainstream, was not an unprecedented phenomenon. The exhibition Abstract Japanese Calligraphy held in MoMA in 1954, the touring exhibition Japanese Calligraphy and Ink Art in Europe in 1954, the Fifty Years of Modern Art in the Brussels International Exposition in 1958, and the 1959 Kassel Documenta all had exhibited Japanese modern calligraphic works. What is worth noticing is that Inoue’s works were displayed in all the above-mentioned major exhibitions, which not only confirmed Inoue as a Japanese modern calligrapher par excellence but also indicated the positive recognition from the international art community.

The Western art world that had praised only abstract expressionism at that time showed special preference to Japanese modern calligraphy from the faraway Orient primarily because their similarity in the form of presentation. For example, Inoue’s creating process described above is strongly reminiscent of Pollock’s action painting. Besides, there was ample evidence on the technical and ideological exchange between Western abstract expressionism and Japanese modern calligraphy. Mark Tobey has admitted that his works were influenced by Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. The abstract works by Franz Kline and Pierre Soulages that treated black and white as the dominant colors also exude an aesthetic charm similar to that of calligraphy. In turn, many Western modern art theories and ideas have inspired Japanese modern calligraphy. The last few issues of the monthly journal The Beauty of Calligraphy published between 1948 and 1952 by the calligraphic association Keisei-Kai led by Japanese calligrapher Ueda Sokyu have carried a series of essays on Piet Cornelies Mondrian, Hans Arp, and Isamu Noguchi. One of Kline’s works even graced the cover of the inaugural issue of the magazine Bokubi (the beauty of ink) launched by Japanese calligrapher Morita Shiryu in 1951, and the entire issue was about the American artist of abstract art who remained unknown to the Japanese public at that time. The general literature indicates that the exchange and dialogue between Western abstract expressionism and Japanese modern calligraphy were concrete and direct, although they were two independent aesthetic systems. The key difference between the two systems lay in their attitude towards signifiers. Abstract expressionism developed on the basis of “painting.” It refused to be representational but sought to reflect artists’ true feelings. In other words, it assigned a high priority to artists’ subjectivity, making artists create more intuitive imagery.5 In contrast, some Japanese modern calligraphers (e.g. Inoue Yuichi) persisted in “writing”, because the symbolicity of characters was exactly the essential core of calligraphy.

Shodo has been a traditional art form in Japan since ancient times. Its aesthetic origin undoubtedly lies in its intimate and significant relationship with Chinese culture. The Pacific War ended with Japan’s surrender, which drastically changed Japan’s political-economic system and dissolved the unbroken male lineage of the Emperor. The subsequent massive introduction of foreign cultures and thoughts shaped a brand new Japanese society based on the values of pluralism and openness. The field of calligraphy was also subject to the post-war structural change, which prompted Chen Zhen-Lian to demarcate the modernization of Japanese calligraphy by treating the year of 1945 as its beginning.6 Besides, there was a gradual change in Japanese Shodo community that had stuck to the principles of respecting masters, hierarchical ethics, and schools. In 1933, the creative Japanese calligrapher Hidai Tenrai invited a group of younger calligraphers such as Ueda Sokyu, Ishibashi Saisui, Kaneko Otei, Osawa Gakyu, Tejima Yukei, and Hidai Nankoku to co-found the Association of Calligraphic Art and publish a journal entitled Calligraphic Art. The inaugural editorial of the journal stated: “As an ancient form of art, calligraphy has evolved with time. It remained at the forefront and reflected the Zeitgeist of each era. Accordingly, we should develop a modern form of calligraphy that belongs to the present era.”7 The statement can be regarded as the point of departure for post-war Japanese modern calligraphy that flourished with demand for transcending the self through continuous innovative changes. These calligraphers inspired by Hidai Tenrai have created various possibilities for calligraphy with their respective aesthetic tastes and artistic practices, for example, the “avant-garde school” represented by Ueda Sokyu and Osawa Gakyu, the “minimalist school” led by Tejima Yukei, and the “eclectic school” guided by Kaneko Otei.

Hidai Tenrai was a pivotal figure because he did not ask his apprentices to swear obedience to him. Hidai believed that “calligraphy is an art of presenting the nature and releasing emotions.” He also stressed that a calligrapher should “wield the brush with mind.” He attached importance to traditional techniques and advocated reflecting on the self through free imitation. These inspirational, pioneering undertakings naturally encouraged young calligraphers’ independent thinking. For example, Ueda Sokyu has argued that “the studies on ‘wielding the brush with mind’ and the configuration of characters can be compared to that on the composition of paintings.”8 Although traditional calligraphy has developed the principle of “ingeniously arranging ink and blanks to create an aesthetically pleasing composition,” it was not until Ueda Sokyu that the formative, abstract and spatial ideas were formally introduced from modern art to calligraphy. In addition to the basic principles of “writing,” Ueda treated the whole calligraphic work as a scene. The approach that draws towards painting and emphasizes artist’s subjectivity gradually became the essential core of the “avant-garde school.” It is easy to discern that this approach shared some aesthetic appeals with Western abstract expressionism. Inoue Yuichi had ever asked Ueda Sokyu for advice, and therefore was greatly inspired by Ueda in terms of the ideas for creation. In fact, Ueda was not merely Inoue’s enlightener in the field of calligraphy but also the most important calligrapher whose influence has endured throughout Inoue’s career. Inoue has created his independent system of art and underlying philosophy of aesthetics with his unique characteristic and talent. However, to trace to its source, his achievement was intimately related to the circumstances of his time. In sum, his works were not exempt from the necessity to respond to the challenges posed by the underlying trends of times.

Personality: An Indefatigable Calligrapher

Observing Inoue’s unique calligraphic works and his conspicuous bald head, it is hard to imagine that such a charismatic artist has simultaneously forged a career spanning over four decades as a primary school teacher before his retirement in 1976. Inoue was born in Shitayaku, Tokyo City on 14 February 1916. His father was doing old furniture business. As the youngest son, Inoue has three elder sisters. Despite his considerable interest and talent in fine arts demonstrated since his childhood, Inoue was forced to enroll in Aoyama Normal College, Tokyo Prefecture (which was tuition-free and job-guaranteed) rather than applying for colleges of fine arts due to the economic difficulty his family encountered. On leaving the college in 1935, he taught at Yokokawa Elementary School in Honjoku, Tokyo City. With his great zeal for art, he spent his leisure time to pursue further education about painting at a graduate school of fine arts. However, he failed to make personal advancement in painting. It was not until 1941 that he devoted himself to the field of calligraphy. Recommended by Uno Murayuki, Inoue Yuichi was formally accepted by Ueda Sokyu as an apprentice in 1942. Ueda advised Inoue to imitate Yanta Sengjiao Xu by the great Chinese calligrapher Chu Sui-Liang in the Tang dynasty. With his extraordinary comprehension skills and diligent practice, it took Inoue less than a year to earn Ueda’s praise. Ueda claimed that Inoue’s impressive progress primarily resulted from the “innocence” and “purity” of mind. It also became the ideal state of creation that Inoue yearned for throughout his career.

In 1944, the escalating war put Japan under a mandatory evacuation. As a school teacher, Inoue took refuge with his colleagues. The US Army launched a major air raid on Tokyo during 9 to 10 March 1945. Inoue was there and witnessed a hell on earth. He survived the raid by a hair’s breadth and was shocked to see the cruelty of war. He had been haunted by the memories of war for decades. The frenzied and irregular strokes in the verse Ah! Yokokawa Elementary School written by Inoue in 1978 strongly resembled the scene of the battleground full of tears and blood. He vividly depicted the inferno of wartime and stated in the postscript that “I was on duty at Yokokawa Elementary School at that time and miraculously survived the air raid. I heard the heart-rending cry of mothers and kids. The cry was deeply inscribed in my mind.” Inoue almost lost everything in the war. It was his iron-will that helped him stand out the immense suffering. In his diary, he wrote that “Ah! The fiery-spirited young people yearning for serving your fatherland, it is the time to devote yourselves to expanding our cultural horizon and bringing prosperity to Japanese art.” Such an impassioned manifesto not only reflected Inoue’s wish to bestir himself through creation, but to some extent also responded to the aspiration of the intelligentsia in his time towards rediscovering national confidence and the value of the self through the development and innovation of local art and culture.

The inaugural issue of The Beauty of Calligraphy was published in March 1948. The issue carried many works by Ueda’s apprentices. Being a survivor of the war, Inoue was deeply inspired by those works, and began to submit his own works on a monthly basis. Nonetheless, with his intensive study and exploration of the quinta essentia of calligraphy, simply following Ueda’s instruction was far from enough to meet Inoue’s ambition to make breakthrough in the field of calligraphy. He wrote the following sentence in his diary in June 1949. “If I simply follow Ueda’s instruction without my own reflection, no achievement of mine will be recognized even after a decade. The only way to make a name for myself as a calligrapher is to admonish and reflect on myself, and thereby pursue continued progress.” Since the passive learning from his master had come to an end, Inoue began to exchange with other calligraphers of his generation. He got acquainted with Morita Shiryu and Hasegawa Saburo in 1951. In early 1952, he and several calligraphers such as Morita Shiryu, Eguchi Sogen, Nakamura Kiko, and Sekiya Yoshimichi co-founded the Bokujin Kai (association of calligraphers) and published the journal Bokujin (calligrapher). The initiative was unquestionably the response of these young calligraphers to the unsatisfied state of affairs at that time. Although the development of Japanese modern calligraphy originated from the ambience in which calligraphers united to restore national confidence, it was not exempt from the conflict arose from the internal strife of the association and the confrontation between conservatives and reformists. The political conflict deviated from the essence of creating art, which prompted Inoue to propose three critical appeals in his article The Liberation of Calligraphy:

(1) Liberate calligraphy from the mire of “the calligraphy of calligraphers (technique-based)” and turn it into “the calligraphy of humans (retaining the innocence of mind)”

(2) Liberate us (calligraphers) from all the traditional confines, that is, liberate our humanity from the role of a “calligrapher”

(3) The first step is to revolt against the feudalistic community of calligraphy (liberate ourselves from the community of calligraphy).

The three appeals reflected Inoue’s expectations about his works, served as the model for his practices, and surrounded the core of all his creations.

The three-year period between 1954 and 1956 was a critical period for Inoue because he was locked in the inner struggle that “whether calligraphy simply means ‘writing words’.” Many calligraphers at that time also found themselves in this predicament. Words have practical values, and calligraphy is an aesthetic system embedded in the existing configurations of Chinese characters. To enrich the visual presentation of calligraphy, the “legibility” of words may be compromised. When the words in calligraphic works become barely legible, the boundary between calligraphy and abstract painting would be blurred as a consequence. If so, can we still regard calligraphy as an independent art form?

In 1954, Inoue emphasized the necessity of “writing words” for calligraphy and stated that “in the final analysis, calligraphy originated from writing words. … Although it may vary in configuration and imagery, calligraphy still entails writing words. We use calligraphy to present our inner world. … Calligraphy is the perfect combination of literariness and configuration.” In 1955, however, he repudiated his previous idea. He clearly noted in his diary that “I should discard the elements of words.” Besides, in his creating process, traditional brushes and ink were discarded in favor of tufts of hay, comic paper, and enamel. His statement clearly revealed that he was deeply influenced by Western abstract expressionism and action painting at that time. In order to dismiss their preconceived ideas about calligraphy, Inoue and other members of the Bokujin Kai carried out a series of experiments on materials and forms. They created a batch of completely abstract “calligraphic” works. Inoue even entitled these works with serial numbers and letters of the alphabet to eliminate the referentiality of characters. However, their radical action of “discarding the elements of words” soon backfired on them. Instead of the freedom in creation they had expected after discarding the elements of words, the action lost them the orientation of creation. In December 1955, the journal Bokujin carried an article by Sekiya Yoshimichi, in which he criticized that “the consequence resulting from the abandonment of precious heritage of words is disordered and confused works.” After deep contemplation, Inoue decided to return to use brushes and ink in 1956. Reviewing the period he praised as “avant-garde,” Inoue described that “after I daubed the rented house with enamel paint, I realized that the freedom of mind is primordially inexistent. The primordial inexistence of the freedom of mind implies its ubiquity. I should not discard beautiful Chinese characters that the Western world lacks. I realized the uniqueness of words only after I abandoned them…Now, I declare: ‘writing words open and above board from this day onwards.’ I write down ‘thorough disillusionment’ to dismiss the idea of using enamel.” Inoue comprehended the quinta essentia of calligraphy during the struggle in his life and pursuit of aesthetics. He modified the commonly used term “sheer fatuity” into “thorough disillusionment.” The term coined by Inoue not only serves as a memorial for his realization about life and aesthetic cause but also becomes his eponymous magnum opus.

Despite the past experience of “avant-garde” experiments, Inoue was reluctant to regard himself as an “avant-garde calligrapher.” He even claimed that he possesses an “anti-avant-garde” attitude. In 1958, Inoue critically summarized the relationship between “avant-garde calligraphy” and his works as follows. “The reform movements for calligraphy spring up in the post-war era. … As part of the post-war democratization and the liberation of humanity, these movements arise from the most feudalistic community in the art world, namely the field of calligraphy. Of course, these movements are influenced by Western modern art. … In the post-war era, we have not only liberated ourselves from the hackneyed rules of traditional calligraphy but also freely conducted various experimental trials. For example, we have strayed away from calligraphy into the field of painting and become wan-looking for achieving the diversity of presentation. … Only the brave who critically reflects on his nature can comprehend ‘avant-garde calligraphy.’ In other words, the avant-garde calligraphy is no longer a challenge for the brave.” Subsequently, discovering the true self in his time became the core of Inoue’s creations. Since then, he has never renounce his belief due to the shifting tide of history, even though his works have attracted international attention and admiration, the mass fervor for abstract expressionism has declined, and the orientation of Japanese calligraphy has returned from Western modern art to local art. Instead, based on his real-life experience, he genuinely and persistently created works that show himself in his true colors to the last moment of his life. On 15 June 1985, Inoue died of liver failure at the age of 69.9

Art: Life as the Calligraphic Text

As an artist who holds up “innocence” as the highest principle, Inoue created his works completely on the basis of his real-life experience. He has never acted in an affected manner. Contrarily, many people were visibly moved by his honesty and simplicity as well as his forthright and straightforward manner. Excluding his early calligraphic practice, Inoue embarked on conscious “creation” in 1949 when he painted The Portrait of My Father. His father, Inoue Eiji, died of cerebral hemorrhage that year at the age of 79. To commemorate his father, Inoue Yuichi painted his father’s appearance and figure with brush and ink on a silk scroll. In the portrait, his father wears a wide-brimmed straw hat, holds a bamboo-made cane, and carries a sack on his shoulder, looking like about to go out. Inoue also transcribed the scripture of Jiga-ge in chapter sixteen “Life Span” of the Lotus Sutra on the upper part of the scroll. Inoue transcribed this section of scripture to commemorate his father because his father, as a pious Buddhist, deeply believed in the Lotus Sutra. Before Inoue was born, his father has went to the Hokkekyo Temple and made a pledge to the deity for having a son. Later, Inoue was born and named “Yuichi” (having the first son). His father’s sudden death probably had a huge impact on Inoue who was just about to build a stable life at that time. The Portrait of My Father not only illustrated how Inoue was missing his father, but also became his first artwork completely based on his subjective contemplation. It is worth noticing that Inoue has ever visited the Hokkekyo Temple before his eldest daughter was born. He was very fond of the word “hana” (flower) among the five words on the plaque “Myo-ho-ke-kyo-ji” written by Japanese calligrapher Honami Koetsu (1558-1637). As a result, he named his eldest daughter as Hanako, and successively created a number of calligraphic works that present various configurations of the word “hana.” Twenty-five pieces of these works were put together in his anthology entitled Styles of Flowers published in 1971.

In each stage of his life, Inoue would focus on several specific Chinese characters that not only served as his propositions concerning creation but also corresponded to his life condition in that stage. Those words had spiritual meaning for him, such as Thorough Disillusionment in 1955 as well as The Bombing of Tokyo and Ah! Yokokawa Elementary School in 1978. Based on his experience and comprehension of life, Inoue created his works with simplistic strokes and ink. Nevertheless, these works reflected not only his indomitable will and creative energy but also all his unspeakable cares.

In the early 1960s, Inoue created many works on the words “dream,” “mother,” and “filial piety” that are related to his mother who was suffering from exacerbated rheumatoid arthritis and has been sick abed for over a decade since 1948. His wife, Inoue Kikue, undertook the responsibility for taking care of his mother. Following the custom of writing calligraphy to usher in the New Year, Inoue let his mother wrote a word on the New Year’s Day of 1961 (several months before his mother passed away). She could not read and write Chinese characters and therefore always wrote in Hiragana. However, on that day, Inoue wrote the word “dream” beforehand for his mother to imitate. She passed away three months later. Inoue mounted the calligraphic work by his mother, and the material used for mounting was the cloth laid on his mother’s mattress for years. In order to commemorate his mother and show gratitude to his wife for painstakingly looking after his mother, Inoue has created many works on the words “mother” and “filial piety” since 1961. The mild and thick ink in those works not only embodied the proverb “blood is thicker than water,” but also implicitly reflected Inoue’s genuine affection to his mother.

Inoue termed the period between the late 1960s and early 1970s as a period of crisis in his fifties. The “crisis” unfolded in several aspects. First, the Western art world no longer pay as much attention to Japanese modern calligraphy as it did in the 1950s and 1960s because the aesthetic taste for abstract expressionism changed, which deprived Inoue of the international platform to present his works. Second, Inoue’s physical strength was declining, making him fairly anxious about failing to strike a balance between the role of a teacher and an artist. Third, and the most direct to his emotion and psyche, was his relationship problem. At fifty, Inoue took up the position as the dean of studies at Samukawa High School, where he first met Sato Mayuno, a 28-year-old art teacher and a consultant to the calligraphy club at the school. They frequently exchanged their ideas about calligraphy and Inoue began to develop feelings for her. The great deal of romantic poetry in his diary during 1969 indicated how much he was in love with her. While being bold and path-breaking in artistic creation, Inoue was quite restrained and conservative on the relationship issue. He has never shouted her name from the rooftops. Instead, he confessed to his wife that he had feelings for Sato Mayuno, and carefully avoided venting the pent-up feelings. In 1971, Inoue left Samukawa Elementary School and took up the position of principal at Asahi Elementary School, Samukawa Machi. Sato also left her job for getting married the next year. Inoue’s secret love for Sato died as a result.

Inoue kept creating works on the words “no” and “love” between 1969 and 1973. He always wrote a word dozens or even hundreds of times, and then carefully selected a few among them to be preserved. It implied that Inoue has devoted a great deal of time and effort in writing these words. With regards to the word “no” selected from his lover’s name “Mayuno,” the ink blots left deliberately by the artist on the paper were reminiscent of the spring cherry blossom in Japan. They were also the metaphorical expression of Inoue’s teardrops for his unrequited love. Moreover, the configuration of gentle and deft strokes resembled the state of mind that fluctuates with the gains and loss as well as the happiness and sorrows in love. Combining the visually abstract structures with Inoue’s life story, we may surprisingly find more profound imagery and spiritual sustenance embedding in the seemingly simple Chinese characters composed of ink and blanks.

To resolve his midlife crisis, Inoue devoted himself entirely to creating calligraphic works. In addition to venting his pent-up feelings through writing the words “no” and “love,” he also wrote the word “poor” as a visual reminder of “happy is he who is content.” From Lao Zi, the Analects of Confucius, and the poetry by Japanese poet Miyazawa Kenji, he realized that the vexation in life results from insatiable desires. To fulfill real freedom and ideal, we must return to the state of “innocence” and “poor.”

Characteristic Style and Artistic Achievements

As a close friend of Inoue and a famous Japanese critic, Unagami Masaomi10 categorized the trajectory of Inoue’s career in calligraphy into seven periods in chronological order, including the period of practicing (1950-1954), straying (1955), thorough disillusionment (1956-1959), chaos (1960-1965), concision (1966-1969), variation (1970-1981), and retirement (1982-1985).11 Nonetheless, to elaborate on Inoue’s calligraphic works, it is necessary to feature his characteristic style.

(1) Challenging existing structures of characters and pursuing innovative configurations

This is a common characteristic style among the calligraphers of the avant-garde school who pursue purely abstract configurations of characters. Some in the school even radically deconstruct traditional components of characters and create with sheer imagery. The representative works of this school include The Multi-faceted Thunder and Lightning (1945) by Hidai Nankoku with swimming fish-like strokes, and Love (1951) by Ueda Sokyu in the shape similar to that of the character “Ping.” The work by Ueda was inspired by the smile of his grandson. Among the calligraphers of this school, Ueda Sokyu, Uno Murayuki, Inoue Yuichi, and Morita Shiryu remained in the system of characters, while Hidai Nankoku, Nakajima Yusui, and Takeshi Sofu created completely with the image of ink. As mentioned earlier in this article, Inoue had ever questioned and felt confused about the nature of characters in the mid-1950s. Although he returned to “writing words” after recognizing that the absence of characters would diminish the value of calligraphy, such “return” by no means implied sticking to traditional rules. Rather, it was a reengineering of calligraphy with a more profound understanding about the configurations of characters.

Inoue’s works clearly showed his modifications to the existing components and structures of characters. The purpose of these modifications was not only to make a real breakthrough in techniques and configurations but also to satisfy the compositional requirement. In the work Mountain (1966), for example, Inoue added a hook mark to the last vertical stroke of the word, creating a dynamic effect and a sense of liveliness. In the work Boat (1982), he deliberately dragged the vertical stroke into an elongated shape to highlight the vertical structure of the word, and then balanced the composition with an arcuate horizontal stroke. In the work Numbness (1977), the thick and big strokes were concentrated at the lower left part of the composition, while the upper right part was left a blank. The configuration oozed a unique charm similar to the Yin-Yang symbol. The work Love (1973) consisted of one horizontal stroke and nine point strokes. The almost geometry-based configuration made this work vivacious. Besides, each point stroke varies in shapes so that the viewers would not find the work dull or vapid. The pluralistic presentation not only reflected Inoue’s deep exploration of character configurations but also demonstrated his great creativity.

(2) Transcending the confines of classical calligraphy through experiments on different materials

The calligraphic materials and tools should evolve with times. Traditional materials and tools undoubtedly have their historical significance. However, they could not satisfy Inoue’s aspiration for innovation. In terms of the size of rice paper, he did not adopt the relatively small ones that usually used by classical calligraphers on a desk. Instead, he wrote on rice papers that their sides range from 100 cm to 200 cm in length and therefore entail the movement of his whole body. In addition, the place for creation was moved from the desk to the floor, where he stepped barefoot and wrote on the large rice paper. Moreover, the content of his works were often a single word or a couple of words. Accordingly, square-shaped or rectangular rice papers were more suitable than vertically-hung scrolls or traditional scrolls to present the characteristics of his works. The approach made his works visually approximate the system of painting.

In terms of the application of materials, Inoue showed his great spirit in experiment. In addition to the tufts of hay, comic papers, and enamel he adopted in the 1950s to eliminate the elements of words, he also ordered customized papers that are 120 cm in length and a brush as large as a mop in order to write majestic words. The thick ink applied through the large brush on the rice paper would be full of cracks after a certain period of time because the traditional ink that uses gelatin as the agglutinate material could no longer glue the ink particles on paper. Therefore, Inoue invented a specific kind of ink that combines water-based glue and carbon powder to solve this problem. Because of the specific material, his works often exhibited distinctive effects as those produced by the ink condensed overnight; that is, the effects of rendering, hollow, and accumulation were concurrently exhibited in a single linear stroke, giving the viewers great visual delight.

(3) Innovation on the basis of imitating classics

Both the aesthetic systems in China and Japan regard “imitating classics” as a vital process for enlightenment. The process also carries the meaning of “innovation on the basis of traditions” that implies “drawing experiences from ancient times to profit the development today” and “following the past and herald the future.” Inoue had been imitating classics since he was a beginner of calligraphy. In fact, he attached particular significance to “imitating classics” throughout his lifetime. Nevertheless, “imitating classics” by his definition entailed conscious and active reflection rather than simply accepted whatever the classics conveyed.

Inoue believed that we should directly draw experiences from ancient times, comprehend the creative spirit of ancient masters to promote the self, and blend our consciousness into the comprehension. As he argued, “the creating process entails repeated groping for the existence of transient moments and creating immortal artworks at those moments. Sometimes we may discern this kind of aura when admiring ancient classics. …The imitation I plan to achieve is boldly capturing the aura at the very moment. The result is not only a copy but also an artwork.”12

At the end of 1978, Inoue was diagnosed with hepatic cirrhosis. Knowing his days are numbered, he embarked on the engineering of imitation. The meaning of “imitating classics” at the time was unquestionably different from that in the early stages of his practice. He tried to transcend the confines of time and space, and engage in direct dialogue with ancient masters via “imitating classics.” Besides, he attempted to achieve a remarkable feat of his artistic engineering in a simple and plain way. In 1982, after imitating the last Gatha left by Japanese monk Yuaner Bianyuan, Inoue wrote his own Gartha as follows. “To master calligraphy by enlightening my wisdom is the goal of my 66-year-long life. The only way to gain the wisdom is through diligent practice rather than learning from masters.”13 Afterward, he began to imitate the Stele of the Ancestor Temple of Yan and Jianzhong Gaoshen Tie by Chinese calligrapher Yan Zhenqing. He devoted himself entirely to the imitation in this period and wrote on the paper lager than the original in size. According to the textual evidence, after breakfast, everyday, Inoue and his wife would enter the atelier. He would burst with anger if his wife did not pave the next paper after he finished a work. His health deteriorated quite seriously due to his concentration on imitating classics. Subsequently, he stopped imitating because he was hospitalized for his illness in 1984.

The calligraphers of Inoue’s generation valued his imitation highly. Eguchi Sogen held that “giving an overview on Inoue’s effort in imitation, the Gatha he wrote in 1982, a year prior to his imitation of the Stele of the Ancestor Temple of Yan, reflected his last aura; the Gatha was written as follows: ‘Being an innocent and poor calligrapher by enlightening my wisdom is the goal of my 67-year-long life. The only way to gain the wisdom is to realize that all is primordially void.” Okabe Sofu also claimed that “Inoue’s last batch of works such as Boat and Above clear and calm the viewers’ mind, and his last Gatha fill the viewer with heartfelt admiration.”14

(4) Persistence in calligraphy

Inoue has never given up calligraphy even when he was too ill to write. In fact, he had an obsession with recording. Therefore, he tended to make notes of every event that he regards meaningful. The diaries written in his early age may be destroyed by the war. However, more than one hundred diaries he wrote in the post-war era were preserved perfectly. Unagami described that “the words neatly written in the A5 college notebooks were too dense and small to be legible. This kind of diaries that is suffocating and reminiscent of the term ‘demon’ is 163 in number.”15 It is thanks to his adherence to writing diaries that we can review his life through the tremendous amount of recordings nowadays.

In 1983, when he was too ill to write large calligraphy, Inoue developed a way of writing with pencil and charcoal. In 1984, he presented related works at the galleries in Tokyo and Osaka. In early May of 1985, Inoue had planned to create with pencil and charcoal based on four fairy tales written by Miyazawa Kenji. However, the creating process was disrupted because he was hospitalized for his illness. Later, he died in hospital at the age of 69. In the documentary on his last image of writing, we see a humpbacked and skinny old man keeps writing with a charcoal and a bright and piercing expression in his eyes. The charcoal is even broken when he is emotionally wrought up, leaving the traces of the charcoal torn asunder on the paper.

Inoue concentrated on calligraphy throughout his lifetime. He persisted in pursuing his goal despite the change of times, and accomplished his mission of artistic engineering with his true self. His immortal works that remain untouched by the shifting tide of history not only represent the specific ambience in his time but also have many resonances for later generations.


1. “Inoue Yuichi on Calligraphy.” In The Calligraphy of Inoue Yuichi. Unagami Masaomi, ed. Chinese translation by Yang Jing. Tianjin: Tianjin People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 1995.

2. Ibid. In 1982, Inoue Yuichi wrote the following paragraph: “Write at your will. Splash the faces of those calligraphy pedagogues with ink. Sweep those deceptions and hypocritical decencies out of Japan. Money cannot buy my free will. I want to go my own way. No one can tell me what calligraphy is or is not. I am going to break off my relation to all confines, even the will of creation. Just do it! Ah! Modern calligraphy, what is modern calligraphy on earth? Instant and superficial modern poets, calligraphy that insists on minimal characters and delicate strokes, and avant-garde calligraphers whose works are inferior to those of third-rate painters, are all its features. Those with poor skills claiming themselves as classics, those who plagiarize as much as possible, lazy people and diligent people, everyone in the society where fakes prevails, get rid of all vulgar expressions! Come on! Let the fierce wind blow. Those who are willing to sacrifice life for calligraphy, let’s write a great history of calligraphy with courage and pride!”

3. It is now reorganized as Sao Paulo Art Biennial.

4. Chen Zhen-Lian. Modern Japanese Calligraphy. Zhengzhou: Henan Fine Arts Publishing House, 1999, p. 32.

5. In 1952, the poet and critic Harold Rosenberg concluded the condition of art at that time with “abstract expressionism.” See Les Grands Evenements De L’Histoire De L’Art. Jacques Marseille, ed. (Chinese version). Taipei: Linking Publishing, 1998, p. 300.

6. See note 4, p. 1.

7. Zhou Tao. “The Rise and Fall of Japanese Modern Calligraphy.” In Contemporary Thoughts of Calligraphy in Asia: The Development of Calligraphy in China, Japan, and Korea. Hangzhou: The China Academy of Art Press, 2001, p. 144.

8. Francette Delaleu. “La calligraphie japonaise d'avant-garde.” In The Proceedings of the International Calligraphy Symposium: Words and Writing. Taichung: National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, 2000, p. 79.

9. For details on Inoue Yuichi’s life, see Unagami Masaomi. Inoue Yuichi: Calligraphy is an Art Belonging to Everyone. Chinese translation by Yang Jing and Li Jian-Hua. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 2013.

10. Unagami Masaomi is Inoue Yuichi’s close friend who totally understands his art. They made acquaintance with each other in 1970 when Inoue Yuichi was at 54 and Unagami Masaomi was at 39. After Inoue passed away, Unagami acquired the right to publish Inoue’s works and embarked on organizing and editing them. In 2000, he published The Chronological Catalogue of Inoue Yuichi’s Works (three volumes) that collected the images of Yuichi’s 3,200 pieces of works among which only 500 of them were presented publicly. Unagami devoted himself to promoting Inoue’s artistic thoughts by not only publishing his anthology and documentary but also organizing retrospective exhibitions on his works. In 2012, China Renmin University Press published the simplified Chinese version of Inoue Yuichi: Calligraphy is an Art Belongs to Everyone, the biography of Inoue Yuichi written by Unagami. Born in 1931, Unagami is a famous art critic who has been promoting Japanese modern art for a long time. He also published several monographs such as The Selected Works of Yagi Kazuo, Munakata Shiko, and The Collection of Kinouchi Yoshi.

11. Unagami Masaomi. “Inoue Yuichi and his works,” Chinese translation by Yang Jing and Li Jian-Hua.

12. See note 9, p. 316.

13. The last Gathas refer to those spoken or written by Zen monks before they deceased, which often reflect their thorough understandings of life after their lifelong practice of Buddhist rules. The last Gatha left by the monk Yuaner Bianyuan is the earliest one in Japan. Its original text is: “To benefit human beings by enlightening their wisdom is the goal of my 79-year-long life. The only way to gain the wisdom is through diligent practice rather than the study of exegetics.” See note 10, p. 317.

14. See note 9, p. 320.

15. See note 9, p. 27.

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