Calligraphy of a Poem
, Early 17th century
Hon'ami Kōetsu, Japanese
Gold, silver, and ink on paper; mounted as a hanging scroll
7 1/2 × 6 3/4 inches (19.1 × 17.1 cm)
Mount: 33 3/4 × 11 3/4 inches (85.7 × 29.8 cm)
Purchased with the Henry B. Keep Fund and with gifts (by exchange) of Mrs. Andrew B. Young, Mrs. Henry W. Breyer, Sr., and Karen Myrin, 1988
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About This Work
This is one of a number of poem cards that Hon’ami Kōetsu
(ho-nah-mee koh-et-tsu) made using verses from the Wakan rōeishū
(Collection of Japanese and Chinese Poems to Sing).
The text reads:
Iriai no kane no
Kyō mo kurenudo
Kiku zo kanashiki
A mountain temple—
Evening and the sunset bell,
Whose every voicing
Vibrates with a message sad to hear:
"Today too is over, dusk has come."
Kōetsu brushed the poem onto paper decorated by the painter
Tawaraya Sōtatsu with a sparse scene of a silver river under a sky
of abstract clouds in gold wash. The image on the paper does not
necessarily illustrate the poem. Neither does the poem describe
the painting. Instead, Kōetsu thought about the meaning of each
word of the poem, and also about the qualities of beauty in the
paper, and tried to make his calligraphy
harmonize with both.
The card has been mounted on a hanging scroll that depicts another sky and water scene in iridescent gold and silver. Japanese paintings and calligraphy traditionally have been painted on paper and mounted on scrolls as a means of protecting and displaying them. Artists mounted their paintings or calligraphy on a heavier material such as silk or thick paper and then attached it to a thin
bar on the top for hanging and a dowel (a round wooden rod)
at the bottom to weigh down the scroll when displayed vertically
and lend support when rolling the scroll for storage. Hanging
scrolls were displayed for a limited period of time—a day,
a week, or a season.
Calligraphy in Japan
Since Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China in the
sixth century, calligraphy or shodō
—the art of beautiful writing—has been an important force in Japanese art and culture. At first,
Japanese Buddhist monks used calligraphy as a teaching tool to
read and tell the story of the life of the Buddha. Most early
calligraphy in Japan uses the Chinese written language. The
Japanese gradually evolved their own written language from
the Chinese forms, but Japanese calligraphers continued to use
Chinese characters mixed with kana
, syllabic Japanese characters.
Chinese writing does not have an alphabet. Instead, each character
represents a visual image of a word or phrase, like a pictograph.
These "pictures" of words must be memorized and can be spoken
in many languages. In the poem Kōetsu has brushed onto this
poem card, he uses a mixture of Chinese characters and kana
poem is read in vertical lines descending from the top, beginning
on the upper right corner and moving to the left. Each calligrapher
has a unique way of writing and composing each character. Kōetsu has chosen to emphasize two words in particular. They are larger, thicker, and darker than the others. Both of these are Chinese characters. The character at the top of line four represents the concept of dusk, or day's ending, in the poem. The
words underneath it are written in kana
. The very last character
in the poem, in the bottom left corner, all by itself, is a Chinese
character representing the idea of sorrow or sadness. Kōetsu is the
calligrapher of the poem, but not its author, his brushwork emphasizes
the thoughts within the poems that are important to him.
This object is included in Learning from Asian Art: Japan
, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont.