Brushstrokes or Bellflowers

The wind when it blows
Sends the dewdrops scattering
From bush clover stems,
And on those fallen gems the moon
Lodges a moment on the autumn fields.

Fujiwara no Tadamichi

Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558-1637) was a Renaissance man of sorts, as he excelled in the fields of calligraphy, printing, lacquerware, and tea utensils. After centuries of warfare and uncertainty, Japan turned into an isolated country with a rigid social structure, but transition between the two allowed for remarkable fluidity, calm, and cultural flourishing. Kōetsu lived during this time of experimentation and innovation, developing a unique relationship between words and visuals exhibited in his poem cards, or shikishi. He achieves a state where calligraphy, pattern, and image cease to be identified as such and form a unique whole. For one instant, a brushstroke of calligraphy becomes a blade of pampas grass, a bush clover leaf, or a falling cherry blossom.

Still from the autumn [moon]
Unbidden come a thousand thoughts
To all who gaze,
But mine alone it is to know
The wind in the mountain pines.

Kamo no Chōmei

The character in the center of this poem card is the “but mine” (literally “for myself”) part of the poem. Kōetsu was the calligrapher and artistic director for this set of shikishi, but he laid his brush over the silver and gold designs of Tawaraya Sōtatsu and paper made by Kamishi Sōji. Sōtatsu’s brushstrokes were originally a bright silver and oxidized over time to a dark blue, an effect which may have been intentional. Kōetsu collaborated with the most prominent and talented craftsmen of the time, becoming part of a market that catered to the warrior elite. He advised wealthy families on interior design, hosted tea gatherings for respected tea masters, and mingled with other printers and calligraphers.

Even as I gaze,
The thought of it is lonely:
High in the heavens
The moon-capital lies still
In the sky of its dawning.

Fujiwara no Ietaka

When Christian missionaries introduced the movable-type printing technique a few years before Kōetsu was born, the printing process became faster and more efficient. The literature that had been available to the elite few was now circulating among a wider audience, as Kōetsu and his contemporaries were involved in the design and publication of classical literature and Nō libretti. For his shikishi, Kōetsu chose poetry from the classical anthologies that were compiled several centuries before his time. Both visually and thematically, he harkens back to the Heian period, when decorated poetry was a form of social communication among the elite. The essence of his work is rooted in the past, seeped in contemporary innovations, and utterly timeless.

Fasion by Dolce & Gabbana • Poem Card with Design of Chinese Bellflower and Grasses