Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan

Kitagawa Utamaro (Japanese, 1754–1806). "High-Ranking Courtesan," from the series Five Shades of Ink in the Northern Quarter (Hokkoku goshiki Zumi), 1794–95. Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1922 (JP1368)

The exhibition is made possible by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation.

Exhibition Objects

Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan

August 17, 2013–January 12, 2014

"Calligraphy reveals the person."

—Ancient East Asian proverb

In the East Asian tradition, handwriting was thought to reflect one's personality, but not in the sense of Western graphology, or handwriting analysis. Rather, through the copying of revered models and through creative innovation, a distinctive handwriting style conveyed one's literary education, cultural refinement, and carefully nurtured aesthetic sensibilities.

The art of brush writing in East Asia both encompasses and transcends the Western aesthetic concept of "calligraphy," a word derived from Greek that literally means "beautiful handwriting." Japan inherited from China a fascination with the artistic potential of inscribing characters with flexible animal-hair brushes while developing its own distinctive system for rendering poetry and prose written in the vernacular.

Showcasing masterworks of brush-inscribed Japanese texts, some serving as independent works of art and others enhanced by decorated papers or by paintings, this exhibition takes a close look at the original gestural movement marked in each work—the applied pressure, speed, and rhythm that are said to reflect the artist's state of mind. The works on view, dating from the eleventh century to the present, demonstrate that beauty was often the supreme motive in the rendering of Japanese characters, even at the expense of legibility. Complementing examples of calligraphy are paintings evoking the literary contexts that have inspired poets through the ages. Lavishly decorated brushes, writing boxes, inkstones, and ink tablets—the cherished accoutrements of writers—demonstrate the esteemed status of brush writing in Japanese culture, past and present.