Some Thoughts on the Works of Sho Master Inoue Yuichi
They are called SHO, these works of art that are both word and image. According to Rose Innes, the character Sho stands for writing, for document, letter, and for literary composition. And because writing and painting in the Far East have always been done with the same means, namely with ink and paper, word and image are not alien to each other.
The little old hut,
Destroyed by wind and rain
- its occupants?
Now the poor 16 arhats
Stand like meerkats.
(Inoue Yuichi, 1973)
Like birds in the sky, Inoue Yuichi's characters flit along after he has drawn them on the paper in black ink. Swiftly he scatters them onto it there, his brushstrokes appearing simultaneously harsh and tender. The fact that some of it goes beyond the edge of the paper does not bother either him or the viewers. Cheerful looking writing. The 16 sacred figures are his favorite topic.
Wherever you walk in his country, be it in the forest, in a park, in the city near a temple, you will encounter them everywhere, these stone beings almost always standing in a group close together. It is easy to forget the stone from which they are formed once you become aware of the different personalities that are gazing at you. They are Buddha's silent helpers; his 16 former disciples who now see to it that his teaching is not forgotten, and they go by the name of RAKAN. This simply means “people standing in a row” - a word derived from the term ARAKAN, the Japanese version of the Sanskrit word ARHAT. An Arhat is a human being who has freed himself from the compulsion of eternal return in the wheel of life.
RAKAN figures are still very popular and respected throughout the country. Occasionally monks or neighbors build a shelter around them to protect against rain and wind, out of which they can look together through an open wall. The 16 RAKAN encountered here by Yuichi stood exposed in the rubble of their crumbling roof and got just as wet in the rain as he did.
Compassion is a feeling that recurs again and again in the themes of his artistic work. We encounter titles like HIN (poverty), SHUHIN (to preserve poverty in the sense of Zen), KÔ (childlike reverence), DAN (to decide), but also RYÛ (dragon), TORA (tiger) and time and again HANA (flower). But in the latter’s case he largely thought in the Buddhist sense of MANDARA-KE (heavenly flower of compassion).
The tree that is always abundantly adorned with this flower is the red-flowered tree originally from China. We know it by the name “Judas Tree”, or “redbud tree”.
We first become acquainted with it in a work from the year 1974; in addition to the artist’s signature, it bears the note that it was made in 1974 in Arima, a community that evolved on the northern edge of Kobe.
From the land, the port city of Kobe is overlooked by Mount Rokko, which separates the metropolitan area from Arima and Arima thus somewhat isolated, was allowed to live a life all its own at the foot of the far side of the mountain. Arima is home to the oldest onsen in the country, hot spring baths whose water has issued from the depths of the Earth for centuries and been used for an equally long time. We can discover the name of this place every now and then together with different years on the edge of a work by Yuichi. He liked the place, cherished the hot springs and he loved the lavish blossoms and flowers of Arima including the redbud tree.
He gave the picture the title HANA ZUO (Redbud Tree).
And it is HANA the bud itself that dominates the paper issuing from the top and extending as far as the middle. The two syllables ZU and Ô are content with the slightly twisted trunk. The large HANA-Kanji is representative here of several thousand buds that adorn each of these trees.
Let us remain a while in Arima. Once again it is buds and blossoms that move Yuichi's thoughts, again a small picture is created and with it a spontaneous poem. And once again it is a five-line waka. But this time it becomes increasingly clear, even when looking at the picture for the first time, that it holds a bitter memory. Again, the birds are dancing. This time in an almost square picture field. And again, the brush, now somewhat more saturated with black pigment ink, flits lightly across the paper. Yuichi's hand leads the birds from the lower right to the upper left in a fan shape, whereby the loose order is more and more disturbed and visibly turns into slightly chaotic jostling. On the right side it begins with a light-hearted hand inspired by the densely growing hydrangea in Arima but is then transformed from one line to the next into increasing restlessness triggered by the wistful memory of his home that was once lost to bombs: I often wonder / are they still blooming? / The hydrangeas / that I saw through my window / before my house was destroyed.
Quite unlike the unrest in the details transforming the writing as it moves to the left, the appearance of this work of art shows a remarkable unity and tranquillity. Perhaps Yuichi owes this to his love for those flowers from the past and those of the present, which together had led him to give the image composed from the poem this tranquillity and perfection.
What makes SHO, “the art of Japanese calligraphy” so special and lends it such force is the fact that one can express much more with the representation of kanji than simply naming a word.
In 1995, the then Head of the Culture desk at the “Basler Zeitung” daily and I encountered the work 19 TORI by Inoue Yuichi at the Kunsthalle in Basel. We saw 19 times the character for bird, each on a piece of paper measuring roughly 120 by 230 cm. Each was recognizable as “TORI” and yet no single one resembled the others. We had arranged to meet a friend of the late artist there, who had died 11 years earlier. It was the day before the opening of the exhibition. For a long time, we stood there, surrounded by the immense birds. We stood there completely still. And around us things became more and more animated, as if the birds had forgotten that we were there. A hall full of life – and the three of us, completely motionless, in the midst of it all. That was an incredibly beautiful gift from Yuichi. Back then Friedrich Müller was responsible for arranging this magnificent exhibition.
And here, in his gallery, one of those birds has now reappeared. At the time, it was the eighth bird in the catalog.
Peter-Cornell Richter (C) 2022