New Publication Announcement: Bokujinkai: Japanese Calligraphy and the Postwar Avant-Garde by Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer

Cover of Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer, Bokujinkai: Japanese Calligraphy and the Postwar Avant-Garde (Japanese Visual Culture Series 19, Brill: 2020).
Cover features fragment of calligraphy by Inoue Yūichi.

We are delighted to announce that, in December 2020, a book on postwar Japanese avant-garde calligraphy by Dr Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer, Lecturer in Japanese arts and culture at SISJAC, has been published. Bokujinkai: Japanese Calligraphy and the Postwar Avant-Garde (Brill, Japanese Visual Culture Series 19, 2020) crowns a decade of ground-breaking research, methodological innovation , and meticulous archival work. Conceptualised, researched, and developed across multiple locations in Europe, United States, and Japan, this project came to fruition at the Sainsbury Institute, and will make an important contribution to the field of Japanese art history and its global relevance.

About the Book

 As the French theoretician of abstract art Michel Seuphor wrote in 1962, “in the 1960s, every abstract painter is fascinated by the East, dreams of visiting Japan, perhaps to find the delights of Japanese calligraphy.” This book is dedicated to the artists who launched and fueled this fascination.

 In 1952 five calligraphers, Morita Shiryū, Inoue Yūichi, Eguchi Sōgen, Nakamura Bokushi, and Sekiya Yoshimichi, formed an avant-garde group called Bokujinkai—People of the Ink, with the aim of bringing calligraphy to the same level of recognition as abstract painting. In order to reach this goal, the Bokujinkai launched creative collaborations with European Art Informel artists and American Abstract Expressionists, and soon started sharing exhibition spaces with them at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Documenta in Kassel, São Paulo Biennale, and Carnegie International, among others.

L. Alcopley contemplating work by Eguchi Sōgen at the exhibition of modern Japanese calligraphy at Museum Cernuschi in 1953. Photograph from Bokubi no. 58 (September 1956), p. 9 

 The Bokujinkai also left a significant footprint in the visual culture of postwar Japan, and for almost a decade competed with the Gutai group for leadership on the avant-garde art scene. Unlike any other modern calligraphers before them, the Bokujinkai collaborated with the most progressive artists and theoreticians of their time across a number of art forms and genres. Among their close peers were the Gutai’s Yoshihara Jirō, abstract painters Suda Kokuta and Hasegawa Saburō, print artist Ōsawa Chikutai, and Zen theoreticians Hisamatsu Shin’ichi and Ijima Tsutomu. Through this extended network, the Bokujinkai integrated calligraphy into the broader context of modern art and intellectual discussion in Japan and beyond.

By examining this exceptional moment in the history of Japanese calligraphy, this book shows that calligraphers were fully-fledged members of the transcultural exchange between the most progressive artists of their time. This is the first study to draw attention to the Bokujinkai group as a phenomenon of the global postwar avant-garde, and to return modern Japanese calligraphers to the place of prominence owed to them for their significant artistic contribution and international involvement.

Structure of the Book

This book consists of an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction lays ground for this study and briefly describes the history of modernisation of Japanese calligraphy. Chapter one discusses the political and cultural processes in Japan during the occupation period, which shaped calligraphy’s avant-garde, while the second chapter introduces the Bokujinkai group as a central player in the Japanese avant-garde calligraphy. Chapters three, four and five are based on visual analyses of works that resulted from the interactions between the Bokujinkai calligraphers and international abstract painters, and three perspectives from which these interactions could be conceptualised, namely the linear black and white abstraction, primitivism, and Zen philosophy. The sixth and final chapter discusses the end of the interactions between calligraphers and painters in the mid-1960s, and the self-withdrawal of the Bokujinkai from the global art scene. The conclusion summarises the findings of this study and briefly describes the current state of the Bokujinkai group and calligraphy in Japan today.  


Bokujinkai primarily addresses academic audiences interested in Japanese art or East Asian art, yet it will also speak to the audiences for global art, postwar European and American art, and postwar Japanese cultural history, and it will be essential for collections in these areas, as well as for collections in the history of language and script, and the relationship between text and image.

This book can also be an important teaching resource and can be used in a range of courses, including surveys of postwar abstract art, Japanese art, modern East Asian art, the postwar history of Japan, global art history, methodologies of transcultural studies, and interdisciplinary Japanese studies, among others.

 Bokujinkai: Japanese Calligraphy and the Postwar Avant-Garde is a lavishly illustrated and designed volume, available in both hardcopy and electronic formats, and can be ordered on the publisher’s webpage, as well as from all major book retailers. Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer is also happy to answer any questions about the book and its content, and is open to proposals regarding book talks, invited teaching sessions and discussions related to this research. 

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