Masterworks of early calligraphy

Kyoto National Museum

The kana syllabary was invented in Japan during the Heian period (794-1185) based on kanji characters imported from China. 

Sinuous and simple, brush-written kana gave birth to a uniquely Japanese, aesthetically pleasing form of calligraphy. The written works of the early masters, referred to as kohitsu, are highly regarded and widely appreciated to this day. Visitors are encouraged to allow plenty of time to appreciate the masterworks of kohitsu in the collection of the Kyoto National Museum.

Moshiogusa Album of Exemplary Calligraphy 8-17th Century
From the end of the Muromachi period, Japanese calligraphy aficionados began the practice of collecting fragments of brushwork by famous calligraphers and pasting them neatly into the leaves of albums for viewing and connoisseurship. These compilations became known as tekagami, or sample albums of exemplary calligraphy.Moshiogusa, a poetic reference literally meaning “brinish seaweed,” is one of three such exemplary calligraphy albums that have been designated as National Treasures of Japan. (The other two are Minu yo no tomo in the collection of the Idemitsu Museum of Arts and Kanbokujō in the MOA Museum.) Throughout the Edo period, these albums functioned as essential references for the appraisal and authentication of manuscripts attributed to famous calligraphers of the past.

Moshiogusa contains 242 calligraphy fragments dating from the Nara period through the Muromachi period. Notable inclusions are the Heian-period fragments Kōya gire (Kōya edition of Kokin wakashū [Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poems]) and Hōrinji gire (Hōrin-ji edition of Wakan rōeishū [Collection of Japanese and Chinese Verses]).
It also contains rare examples of the Nan’in gire (Nan’in edition of Shinsenruirinshō [Collection of Poems from the Tang dynasty]) and Yotsuji gire (Yotsuji edition of Saibara [Gagaku] Sheet Music) as well as entirely unique fragments such as the Muromachi gire (Muromachi edition of the Hitomaro shū [Collection of Poems by Hitomaro]). The album is prized for not only its aesthetic qualities but also for the documentary value it brings to our understanding of the history of calligraphy.

Moshiogusa does not contain the authentication certificates found in most tekagami—usually inscribed strips of paper that are pasted into albums next to their corresponding entries. Instead, it is accompanied by a separate, twovolume concordance written by the Edo-period connoisseur Kohitsu Ryōhan (1790–1853). For this reason, scholars believe that Moshiogusa was used for actual practice by calligraphy appraisers, whose livelihoods depended on honing their ability to identif y and distinguish among different hands.

Kokin wakashū (Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times), Segment of Volume 12 (Hon’ami gire) 11th Century
This scroll is a copy of the first forty-eight poems from volume 12 (entitled “Poems of Love II”) of Kokin wakashū (Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times), a poetry anthology compiled by Ki no Tsurayuki (n.d.) in the early Heian period. From the order of the poems and the joins of the paper, we can tell that parts of the original are missing between the fourth and fifth sheets and at the end of the scroll.

Even upon first glance, the scroll bedazzles both with its decorative imported Chinese paper printed with a design of oleander flowers in glittering mica on a gesso (gofun) ground and with its delicate but well-rounded streams of richly modulating brushwork.
This calligraphy received highest praise from the master calligrapher Karasumaru Mitsuhiro (1579–1638) through the poetic accolade: “Just like the flowers of the field, it is bathed in dew.”Although traditionally attributed to Ono no Michikaze (894–966), this work was morelikely produced between the late eleventh and early twelfth century.

Fragments from this particular copy of Kokin wakashū are nicknamed Hon’ami gire (Hon’ami segments) because of an association with the master calligrapher Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637).
Kōetsu is said to have owned three scrolls (volumes 10, 11, and 14) of a copy of Kokin wakashū with the same aesthetic qualities as this work.Most surviving Hon’ami gire fragments are approximately ten lines long. Their white gofun grounds generally have sustained significant losses, making the texts very difficult to decipher. In contrast, this segment has eight entire sheets in extremely good condition, fully revealing to us an aesthetic that was prized by Heian-period aristocrats.

Poems from Wakan Roeishu (Collection of Japanese and Chinese Verses) on Paper with Design of Reeds   By Koreyuki    1160
Wakan rōeishū (Antholog y of Japanese and Chinese Poems for Recitation), originally compiled at the beginning of the eleventh century by the Heian poet Fujiwara no Kintō (966–1041), contains 804 outstanding Japanese and Chinese poems. This edition of the anthology, in two scrolls, has an impressive provenance. After being preserved in the daimyo collection of the Ōta clan, lords of Kakegawa in Tōtomi province, it was owned successively by two major collectors of the modern period, Fukuoka Takachika (1835–1919) and Hara Tomitarō (also known as Sankei, 1868–1939). 

Although each scroll begins with the heading “Notes on Wakan rōeishū,” these two volumes contain a complete transcription of the text with no commentary, not an abbreviated version. The first scroll contains poems organized by season, while the second scroll includes a miscellaneous section. The second scroll has a colophon indicating that it was brushed on the second day of the fourth month in 1160 (Eiryaku 1) by Sesonji Koreyuki (n.d.), the son of Fujiwara no Sadanobu (b. 1088) and a leading calligrapher of his day. This work is extraordinarily important as the only surviving authenticated calligraphy in the hand of Koreyuki.

In addition to the rarity of its calligraphy, the decorative paper upon which Koreyuki’s brushwork is presented also makes this work highly significant. Beneath the text are paintings of scenic elements such as willow trees, flowing streams, and water birds; but even more interesting is the incorporation of stylized characters, known as ashide (literally, “reed technique”). The Heian-period aristocrats loved sophisticated poetry games, and it is said that these hidden background characters contained mysteries that could be unraveled through keywords found in the poetic calligraphy.

Ippongyō waka kaishi (Poems on the Chapters of the Lotus Sutra)     12th Century
Aristocrats of the Heian period were in the habit of carrying around slips of paper called kaishi in the bosoms of their robes for use in impromptu poetry composition. This work is a collection of poems on kaishi written by some of the most famous poets of the late Heian period, including the poet-priests Saig yō (also known as En’i, 1118–1190) and Jakuren (1139–1202). Each poet wrote two poems on the theme of one of the twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra. From the official titles with which the poets signed their names, we can date the production of this work between the years 1180 ( Jishō 4) and 1182 ( Juei 1), though some scholars have suggested that the poem by Saigyō could not have been written during the same period.

The set is thought to have originally comprised a total of either twenty-eight or thirty sheets (with the addition of poems on the prologue and epilogue sutras comprising the Threefold Lotus Sutra); only fourteen sheets survive today.With the exception of the Saigyō poem, which is mounted as a hanging scroll, each of the poems is mounted as a folio, resembling one leaf of an album. Remarkably, an essay entitled Baisō hikki (Notes of the Plum Window) by Hashimoto Tsuneakira (1755–1805) mentions that at that time the Nara Temple of Ichijō-in (part of the Kōfuku-ji temple complex) was in possession of fourteen poems written on kaishi, which had been composed on sutra-related themes by such poets as Saigyō and Jakuren. Thanks to this mention, we know that only these same fourteen poems of the set survived until the Edo period. The poem sheets each have a fold in the middle, and there are traces of what appears to be copies of Buddhist texts on the back, suggesting that the backsides of the sheets were used as a booklet in the distant past.These fourteen are the oldest surviving poems on kaishi sheets in Japan. They are considered all the more significant due to the poetic luminaries who composed and transcribed the poems. In addition, while numerous fragments of calligraphy are attributed to the priest Saigyō, only a handful of these are considered unmistakably authentic—further increasing the importance of this particular work.

Ippongyō waka kaishi (Poems on the Chapters of the Lotus Sutra)
by Saigyō

Ippongyō waka kaishi (Poems on the Chapters of the Lotus Sutra)
by Jakuren

Ippongyō waka kaishi (Poems on the Chapters of the Lotus Sutra)
by Kamo no Shigeyasu

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