The origins of Chinese writing lie deep in history, dating back to the 'oracle-bone inscriptions' of ancient times. By the time of the Wei and Jin dynasties, with their new sense of 'appreciation for harmony in writing,' Chinese characters no longer served only as written records. They were seen to embody the spirit of those who wrote them and to awake in them greater self-awareness; thus the independent art of calligraphy was born. By the 6th century A.D. calligraphy had spread to Japan, where it gradually evolved into a 'calligraphy ceremony,' a companion to the 'tea ceremony' and 'flower ceremony,' forming an important part of Japan's Zen culture.
The postwar years brought Japan into much greater contact with modern Western art. Artists were no longer restricted to Japan's native, traditional art forms; they aspired to participate in international art movements while retaining the power of Japan's traditional aesthetics, thereby producing new art forms. Inoue, together with four other like-minded artists, formed 'The Ink Society' in 1952 with the aim of 'liberating shodo (the art of calligraphy) from its traditional forms by incorporating modern artistic concepts, presenting it on a global stage.'
During the same period, Jiro Yoshihara, representing the group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as the Gutai group, gained a reputation for abandoning the outlook and approaches of the past and encouraging his students to adopt fresh, new creative forms. Yoshihara believed that the use of Japanese kanji limited the expressive potentials of calligraphy. Inoue, after a phase in the early '50s in which he experimented with purely abstract works without reference to kanji texts, or with enamel as a replacement for traditional ink, suddenly realized that character scripts were the very soul of calligraphy: "Kanji are not unchanging, lifeless shells. They have a spirit; they speak. Our written characters can shock the heavens and the earth and move the immortal beings with their spirituality." He thus returned to the practice of writing calligraphy, painting kanji with ink on paper, and abandoning the traditional forms and techniques of shodo. 'Human calligraphy' and 'the act of writing' became the central creative concepts of his work, uniting the individual self and the calligraphic script in the final work of art.
The work offered here, Ryu (Dragon) (Lot 77), is a major work by Inoue and dates from the early 1960s. In Liberating Calligraphy, Inoue wrote, 'By "human calligraphy" I mean that as a calligrapher, you free yourself from all of the techniques and rules of traditional shodo practice, giving freedom to your human nature and making calligraphy a more personal language.' In Ryu (Dragon), Inoue eschews traditional ideas of content in calligraphy and focuses instead on the single character for 'dragon.' Beyond the meaning of the character itself, Inoue stresses the relationship between meaning and form, and unites the pictographic elements of the 'dragon' character with the abstract aesthetic appeal of the written word. Instead of using conventionally-sized paper laid on a desk, Inoue custom-ordered a huge sheet of xuan paper which he placed flat on the floor; then, grasping a huge calligraphy brush made of stiff horse-hair bristles, he used his entire body to write this huge kanji character. He also employed a special adhesive ink he developed himself by first diluting a water-based binder, before mixing it with fine charcoal powder and allowing it to set slightly before use. The artist's brush movements and inky black spots of varied density leap onto the paper, while the vividness of the inks and their unique visual effects suggest deep black night and enshrouding mists. When Inoue confronted a huge sheet of paper with his entire body, the calligraphy became a vehicle for documenting his physical movements and explosive energy, one that reflected the mental state of the calligrapher at the time. 'The act of writing,' as part of the work, unfolds before the viewer with the ease and grace of the legendary, powerful dragons that would hide in the seas or roam among the skies.
During this same period in the '50s and '60s, artists in the West were actively exploring the possibilities of Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism. Many of those Western artists borrowed from Eastern forms - in particular, the energy of calligraphy - as they developed their new styles. One such artist was Robert Motherwell, who developed a style that paid homage to calligraphy in the form of splashed inks and linear brushstrokes. Inoue achieved breakthroughs with the strong sense of physical movement and abstract beauty he injected into his work, while its extremely explosive nature added an Eastern energy to the developing tide of international abstract art. By breaking down the boundaries between Japanese shodo, Action Painting, and abstract art, Inoue found in calligraphy a path for freedom and liberation of the self. With a startling energy of rhythm and spirit, Inoue depicted the rhythms and movements of life itself and added an invigorating new Eastern chapter to the history of modern art.