Curator's Corner

21st Century Calligraphy

By Karl Cole, posted on Jul 7, 2010

Since my post on the first of June, I seem to be on a tear about updating tradition. Did you ever get the feeling when you’re working on your own art that there is nothing that hasn’t been done? I often get that way about my painting, but I keep plugging along, hoping that future viewers will glean something from my painting that speaks to the period in which I produced it.

In my research about the contemporary art scene in China, Japan, and Korea, I’ve learned that traditional forms of art, i.e. scroll painting, calligraphy, and ceramics, still account for a large part of gallery offerings. A lot of western-influenced contemporary art is exhibited more in the West. This includes art that is totally modernist in technique, but relies on traditional subject matter.


Son Man-jin (born 1964, South Korea), Calligraphy, 2005.
Son Man-jin (born 1964, South Korea), Calligraphy, 2005. Ink and color on paper mounted as a hanging scroll, 29" x 19 ¾" (73.7 x 50.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2010 Son Man-jin. (PMA-3633)


The written language has been perceived as an art form since ancient times: Egyptian hieroglyphics, cuneiform, medieval manuscript illumination, Sanskrit, and Asian calligraphy, to name a few. Arabic calligraphy has achieved particular heights of artistic beauty, in part because of the emphasis in the Qu’ran on the importance of the written word. Perhaps in no other cultures, however, do we see calligraphy elevated to the status of primary subject matter as we do in the cultures of Japan, China, and Korea, where entire screens are covered in giant characters. In these works, the emphasis on the movement of the brush stroke is as important as what the characters say.

Son Man-jin is a contemporary South Korean artist with one foot in contemporary abstraction, and one foot in the tradition of Korean and Chinese literature and calligraphy. He transforms centuries-old poems into lively visual presentations, incorporating humorous and often abstract figures in his works. Many times, as in this work, the figures are based on calligraphy brushstrokes that have been much enlarged to create an abstract sense. While his abstract forms are completely modern, he makes sure that his calligraphy is not too far from traditional content. While he feels that calligraphy should be lively and expressive, avoiding the grid-like rows of Chinese calligraphy, he never enlivens it to the point where it denigrates the tradition of poetry and calligraphy.

Son has been exhibiting his calligraphic works since his debut exhibition in 1992. He often selects traditional Korean poems written in Chinese characters. The poem in this work is written by Shin Hum (pen name: Sang Chon, 1566–1628); it conveys the poet's appreciation and understanding of life. The calligraphy-based forms among the calligraphy recall the blown-up details of drawings that became the mature work of American Franz Kline (1910–1962).