Japanese calligraphy

by Terence MacNamee

Last weekend I was at the opening of Sanae Sakamoto’s latest exhibition of calligraphy works at Bad Schönbrunn in Zug, central Switzerland. It was quite an occasion. The Japanese ambassador and lots of Japanese residents were there, as well as Swiss admirers. The artist did a live performance of calligraphy to open the exhibition, so we actually saw works being created, in that spirit of spontaneity which is so characteristic of the arts in Japan.

The Lassalle house at Bad Schönbrunn is a Jesuit retreat house which now functions as a centre for spirituality and dialogue. It is named after Hugo Lassalle, a Swiss Jesuit who went to Japan as a missionary but learned the culture of Zen himself from the Japanese. He lived there during the last war and actually survived the atom bomb. Today the centre carries on his work, bringing together Zen and Catholic spirituality. There is a whole Zen scene established here with meditation courses and retreats; also calligraphy and brush-painting in the Japanese style, for Sanae Sakamoto also teaches here. She has a loyal following. In her courses, as in her own work as an artist, she emphasises the Zen and Tao background of the activity. It is indeed impossible to understand what she is doing without that background.

It is a welcome development for the calligraphic art of the East to be made known to the West. This is a difficult undertaking, to be sure, because the very notion of writing differs between the West and the Far East, and of course the difference between the languages is a considerable barrier to overcome. Also, the spiritual and aesthetic traditions on which Far-Eastern calligraphy is based are very different from ours in the West. Yet, looking at it, we can see that here is an art form that we need in the West, something we have not had, a gap in our culture or civilisation of which we are only now becoming aware. When that kind of awareness happens, we know that, truly, the minds of Asia and Europe are being brought together.