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  • Ink Splashes on Camera:Calligraphy, Action Painting, and Mass Media in Postwar Japan
  • Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer (bio)

The rapid postwar modernization and internationalization of Japanese calligraphy coincided with the global spread of action painting. However, scholarly discussions of action painting, even those that employ transcultural and comparative approaches, have for the most part failed to see the connection.1 Calligraphy is mentioned as a source of inspiration for postwar abstract painters, and the works of Jackson Pollock and Georges Mathieu have occasionally been compared to East Asian calligraphy.2 Indeed, on his trip to Japan in 1957, Mathieu publicly acknowledged that he had been inspired by the wild cursive calligraphy of ancient China, and Pollock's method of laying his canvases on the floor has been thought to resemble calligraphic practice.3 But, tangled as it is, the nexus between Japanese calligraphy and action painting demands attention. In particular, the role played in this exchange by the calligraphers themselves, who were engaged in the strategic internationalization of their practices, has yet to be explored.

Calligraphy was perhaps the last of Japan's art forms to undergo modernization. By the early twentieth century, the calligraphers, who had ardently resisted the new artistic and cultural system imposed by the Meiji reforms of the preceding century, found themselves excluded from official, state-sponsored art institutions and organizations. In contrast to the privileged position that their art form had held in the premodern period, its practitioners were now cut off from state-sponsored opportunities for dialogue and collaboration with other artists. In the 1930s, the calligraphers had made a few feeble attempts to modernize their art, but it was only during the postwar period—with its near-total [End Page 299] transformation of Japanese political, social, and cultural life—that calligraphy achieved a new status as a highly visible form of modern art.

Paradoxically, the calligraphers' new visibility after the war was triggered by yet another act of exclusion. In 1946, the Allied occupation forces—in particular the US Education Mission to Japan, which questioned the usefulness of calligraphy for the age of print media, radio, and television—had ousted calligraphy from the educational curriculum, which had been the calligraphers' only refuge in an official Meiji cultural system that had otherwise excluded them. The shock of this final institutional uprooting pushed the calligraphers to take a proactive stance and start a dialogue with a wide range of cultural players in a struggle for the survival of their art.4 At this watershed moment, a group of young Japanese calligraphers broke with tradition in an effort to prove the relevance of their art to new audiences. In its epistolary manifesto, the Bokujinkai group, formed in Kyoto in 1952, declared:

Now, a great future is opening in front of calligraphy. European and American avant-garde artists, and Japanese progressive artists and art critics, keep knocking on calligraphy's doors.… The world of calligraphy, which has long been hibernating in the shell of authoritarianism, is finally being shaken from outside. Calligraphic art, which has preserved a long tradition in a remote corner of the Orient, has finally come into sight of the world. But will it be able to resurrect itself as a truly modern art, or will it be abandoned and self-destruct after progressive artists have absorbed its essence? We acutely feel that we are standing at this crossroads right now. When we think about it, we feel as if we cannot lose even one day.5

With these words, the postwar generation of Japanese calligraphers launched the ambitious and perilous venture of reshaping calligraphy's public image as a modern art form, and the new calligraphy—variously known as avant-garde (zen'ei) or modernist (kindai)—was born.

For the Japanese calligraphers who were pursuing this agenda of radical modernization during the late 1940s and early 1950s, international abstract art was a central point of reference for the "modern," and the calligraphic sections of European informel and American abstract expressionism offered access to greater international visibility. But it was the perceived analogy between calligraphy and the new action painting—facilitated in large part by the media—that catapulted the calligraphers into the public eye...