The YU-ICHI phenomenon
In 1995 the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt exhibited more than 30 works by Inoue Yūichi (also known as YU-ICHI, 1916 – 1985), all centered around the character HIN 貧. These works were created over a period of 24 years, from 1954 to 1977. The character means “poverty” – a highly anachronistic concept during the years in which these works were made, when Japan was getting back on its feet after the catastrophe of the Second World War and rising to become Asia’s dominant economic power. These symbols, arranged in a row in the long exhibition hall, appeared like a sort of grotesque ballet – the longer you looked, the more it became apparent that each of these symbols actually depicted a person: wearing a big straw hat, with a rather solid, angular body and two somewhat short legs, some appearing to run, others to dance or even to stumble. Perhaps entirely unawares, over a period of many years YU-ICHI had created something of a self-portrait – you could even say a mirror image of his inner state of mind.
In an interview, the artist himself spoke about this cycle of symbols:
“I began from the feet,(1) using my left hand to write. I then wrote the body, the head and the hat, all with my left hand. Usually I write with my right hand, but in this case I used the left and began from the bottom in order to break up the form I was used to. It is important to always try to achieve something new. As soon as you become captive to specific forms, you end up going around in circles. That’s why you need to break up the forms.”(2)
From these words it is possible to decipher how the artist deals with the subject of writing. Usually, in its most expressive forms, calligraphy itself is a discipline that is bound by centuries-old tradition. It is generally practiced by masterful, educated, artistically minded people who see themselves as a kind of intellectual elite. This applies in Japan as much as in China, where East Asian calligraphy developed as a discipline of aesthetic perfection almost 2,000 years ago.
YU-ICHI’s words show that for him, these works involved a radical break with all traditional rules and an entirely new approach to calligraphic art. This has a lot to do with the nightmare of a destructive war that finally came to an end including in Japan with two nuclear bombs in August 1945, and which YU-ICHI himself had survived by the skin of his teeth having been in Tokyo during the massive American air raid in March of the same year. After this inferno, many of those affected were convinced that nothing could ever be as it was before. During the late 1940s and early 1950s many young Japanese artists deliberately sought a radical new beginning, in happening art, for example (which one might even say was invented in Japan), in abstract expressionist painting, or even in avant-garde calligraphic art, which was related surprisingly closely to the paintbrush eruptions of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Hans Hartung or Pierre Soulages, for example. The avant-gardists of calligraphy drifted towards a breakthrough into new territory, which encompassed the entire Japanese avant-garde and which was all the more surprising given the economic desperation of the postwar years. They did so wildly, impetuously and in the hunt for true freedom – after many years under a fearsome dictator. YU-ICHI was also influenced by the fact that, having had to earn a living as a humble schoolteacher since the 1930s, he was excluded time and again from the upper-class calligraphy circles that usually had the say at the time. On the other hand, this underdog and outsider role also represented a huge opportunity for him. It guaranteed him the freedom to do what he felt was right artistically – not having to align himself with the expectations of specific interest groups.
Defining influences for the young Inoue Yūichi were undoubtedly on the one hand his initial education in painting and on the other the time he spent between 1942 and 1950 as a student of the avant-garde calligraphic artist Ueda Sōkyū (1899 – 1968), who was a pioneer of an entirely new form of calligraphy. Ueda saw calligraphy as the expression of the artist’s individuality, free from all restrictions inherent in characters, as long as one could see not only visual symbols but also bearers of specific verbal messages. Consequently, YU-ICHI’s early works from the mid-1950s included pieces that were simply abstract-expressionist painting, fully removed from readable characters.
Despite his position as an outsider, from the 1950s YU-ICHI gained a remarkable level of fame, which went well beyond the Japanese avant-garde calligraphy scene. Thus, among others, in 1954 he exhibited in a show about Japanese calligraphy in New York, participated in the fourth São Paolo Biennial in 1957 and took part in documenta II in Kassel in 1959.
Yet with the emergence of Pop art in the USA in the 1960s, which increasingly pushed abstract expressionism into the background, ever less attention was paid to Japanese avant-garde calligraphy – especially on an international scale. Thus it was not until a few years after his death in 1985 that YU-ICHI was gradually rediscovered from the early 1990s onwards, largely thanks to the tireless efforts of the executor of his estate, publisher and gallery owner Unagami Masaomi (UNAC Gallery, Tokyo). Over the last 20 years or so his work has been the subject of increasing interest in Japan itself, as well as in China, Europe and the USA, and YU-ICHI is now considered perhaps the most important calligraphic artist to come out of Japan during the 20th century.
The Japan Art Gallery, which has sold and marketed his work exclusively in Europe since the 1990s, is to dedicate a special exhibition to YU-ICHI during the fall of 2016. It will offer a fascinating cross-section of various creative phases during the career of this outstanding artist. This year YU-ICHI would have celebrated his 100th birthday.
Stephan von der Schulenburg
(1) According to the standard rules of calligraphy, the characters should actually be written from the top left down to the bottom right.
(2) Quoted from the video film YU-ICHI. SCRIBO ERGO SUM, UNAC, Tokyo, 1994.