On a day when Ithaca was putting on its best impression of Seattle, and most Cornell students were returning to campus on (achingly long) bus rides, I was at the Johnson Museum for the second time in a week. My focus was placed solely on the calligraphy exhibit on the bottom floor. Thus, ignoring my natural tendency to run up the steps and check out the sculptures on the museum’s top level, I instead leaped down two sets of stairs to find the Gold Gallery, home of the Art of the Written Word: Calligraphy in Asia exhibit.
Now, before I had visited said exhibit, most of my (and maybe much of your) experience with calligraphy included New York City street artists and various tapestries hanging in the offices of more traveled family members. To dispel any notions of Confucianism then, “calligraphy” comes from the greek word “kaligraphia” and draws upon two roots — kallos (“beauty”) and graphein (“to write”); so it could be translated simply as “beautiful writing.”
Within the exhibit, it was soon clear that to serious calligraphers, this “beautiful writing” is anything but plain script. Among other things, calligraphy is a form of art used in books and poems, and also as functional symbols of good health, and as the chosen text for sacred scripts regarding principles such as Confucianism and Buddhism.
One of the most historically significant works present in the exhibit was a pair of copies of “Qian Zi Wen” (translated: “Thousand Character Essay.”) Qian Zi Wen is a text that has been written by amateur and veteran calligraphers for over 15 centuries, and describes Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian principles, in relation to how these moralities can lead to a life harmonious with the universe and society. One exhibit was a rendition of an essay by one calligrapher who wrote the Qian Zi Wen daily — on scrolls of paper partitioned like graph paper, where one elegant character fit into each square.
Like many of the works, a beautiful hanging scroll lay against one of the walls, adorned with calligraphy and sketches of flowers. The Korean artist and calligrapher Jo Huioryoung detailed each of these scrolls with a poem in Korean calligraphy along with an orchid, a symbol of fragrance and refinement. The scroll was evidence of how many Eastern Asian cultures regard calligraphy as a high form of art.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing pieces was the Japanese “Waka about snow, pine, trees and flowers.” Set on hanging scrolls, this Waka (poem) was, on the surface, a simple and elegant ode to nature, but upon reading the history of Waka, it became a testament to cultural pride. Indeed, the style of script that the artist employed befit poetry; wild and artistic characters swept up and down the paper, begging you to scan the writing until you found meaning.
Upon further investigation, I found that Waka has a rich history, and has played an integral role in Japanese culture. In the ninth and 10th centuries, when Chinese culture was impacting Japanese tradition most heavily, the Japanese imperial court was searching for ways to promote indigenous Japanese forms of expression. This included Waka, a purely Japanese form of poetic language, composed of 31 syllables/characters; it was clearly anti-Chinese, and therefore helped to preserve age-old Japanese tradition. This piece is most important, because it shows how something as simple as artful handwriting can represent much more than words — in fact, it can tell an outsider much about a cultural history.
Of the score of works within the Calligraphy exhibition, the above examples simply skim the surface of how important calligraphy is to many Asian cultures. To give you a second bite, in one exhibit there were also folios of the Qu’ran; Buddhist scriptures that detail the path to enlightenment; Iranian Shi’ite tiles from mosques; and Buddhism pilgrimage vests, all written in various scripts of calligraphy, as well as contemporary paintings and pottery adorned in and elegant script.
Calligraphy’s truest virtue, then, is its flexibility and universality; cultures around the world recognize the artistry and power of words — calligraphy has been used for purely aesthetic purposes, as well as for the demonstration of religious and secular principles. In fact, within many Eastern Asian cultures, it is said that beautiful writing reveals the character of its writer. Writing, for many cultures, is more than communication; it is the word of God, a symbol of cultural pride,and the expression and dispersion of one’s values, religious and secular.