|Senki by Miyamoto Musashi, Shimada Bijutsukan|
Calligraphy held an important place in the arts in both China and Japan. Indeed, it was probably regarded as the primary visual art, certainly more important than painting. It gained by the importance of the message it transmitted, but didn't suffer from the taint of craftsmanship. Practised by emperors, nobles, priests, statesmen and generals, as well as literati of various stripes, it also benefitted by being an art with an immediate practical application, and one that allowed expression, both of skill and sensibility, without necessarily possessing artistic talent.
As Japan adopted the Chinese writing system, it is no surprise that Chinese calligraphers were regarded as the chief exemplars of the art. These calligraphers are still revered today and fine examples of their art can be seen in various collections in Japan. (A minor spat ensued earlier this year when Taiwan loaned a famous work by Yan Zhenqing (J.Ganshinkei) to the Tokyo National Museum despite pointedly refusing to allow it to travel to the mainland. See here for more details).
Like many things adopted from China, Japan added its own twists, one of these being the fashion for displaying short pieces of calligraphy — often only a few characters — a fashion commonly associated with Zen.
One of the characteristics that is often identified with the practice of calligraphy is the development of the student's character. As an art which is dependent on copying models as the primary mode of practice, it has been said that this helps the student imbibe some of the character of the model.
In a similar vein, there has long been a fashion for reading the artist's character through the shape and flow of the characters her or she produces. Modern scholarship places more emphasis on the uses calligraphy was put to in the roles and institutions for which it was written rather than this impressionistic approach, but nevertheless, when faced by the power of a piece of art, there is something to be said for such impressions. Subjective though it may be, the individual response to a work of art is at the heart of art appreciation. I have been taken aback on several occasions when coming upon a powerful work unexpectedly, particularly, I might add, in the case of Yamaoka Tesshu — he was so prolific that his works do, indeed, turn up where you are not expecting them.
Not so Miyamoto Musashi – or not often, anyway.
The piece above — Senki — is one of his more famous pieces. This pairing of the two main characters, tatakau (fight, battle) and ki (energy, spirit) seems to be unique to Musashi. The line below it is from a Chinese poem by Bai Juyi (Po Chü-i; J. Hakukyoi), taken from the Wakan Roueishu (A Collection of Japanese and Chinese Poems for Singing), and elucidates the main two characters.
The chill current holds the moon as clearly as a mirror.
The chill current (the slow, inexorable flow of a broad river) is generally taken to represent Musashi's mindset: cold, unstoppable, and ever moving, yet which reads perfectly everything the opponent thinks or does.
There is a rather long (for this kind of thing) analysis (in English) of this work in terms of character on the website of the Japanese martial arts magazine Hiden. It is written by a calligrapher and aikido, William Reed. Although I feel it rather overanalyses, you might find it an interesting read. The following is one of the more interesting observations:
Thick strokes mix freely with thin strokes, and internal spaces are well preserved, which further reinforces the impression of a sword master who could remain calm and effective at the edge of life and death. Musashi knew how to be close enough to safely penetrate the opponent’s space and deliver a fatal strike.
In any case, the work itself deserves a close study, however you may interpret it. An interesting perspective on Zen calligraphy is that interpretation of calligraphy does not tell you about the character of the artist, as much as that of the observer. This, too, may be true, but for myself, I find the more I look, the more I see.