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Calligraphy of a Poem
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:

Yamadera no
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. The 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.


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