The calligraphic quality of the work of Georges Mathieu

An iconic figure in French abstract art beginning in the 1950s, Georges Mathieu (1921-2012) encountered the Far East when he went to Japan in 1957 and came into contact with calligraphy and the Japanese tradition. However, André Malraux (1901-1976) had already referred to him as a “western calligrapher” at the exhibition held at the René Drouin Gallery in 19501first solo exhibition by Mathieu in Paris ; “Hiroshima on the Place Vendôme !” was the headline by critic Jean Caillens, implicitly connecting him to the calligraphy of the Far East. 

In the Far East, traditional calligraphy was initially developed by Buddhist monks. They make spiritual use of the art form, often alongside ink painting (shuǐ mò huà 水墨畫 in Chinese, sumi-e 墨絵 or suibokuga 水墨画 in Japanese). Calligraphy is known according to terms like “laws of writing” in Chinese (shūfă, 書法) and “path of writing” in Japanese (shodō, 書道). Born in China, this discipline begins to distinguish itself from ordinary writing during the Han dynasty (from 206 BC to 220 AD). It reaches Japan at the end of the Nara period (710-794).

While calligraphy in the Far East is imbued with a philosophical quality, western calligraphy never became a spiritual discipline, despite its development within religious institutions. Thus it remains close to the etymology of the word, which in France and most western countries, originates with the Greek kalligraphia, meaning beautiful writing.

Finally, a western calligrapher!” — André Malraux, regarding Georges Mathieu

So often remembered, should this remark be understood as drawing a simple parallel between modern abstract painting and far eastern calligraphy?

Similarly, art historian Sir Herbert Read wrote in 1954 that Mathieu was “certainly well aware of the principles of Chinese calligraphy” and that he deployed “two essential aspects of good calligraphy” and these are “a simulation of life in the strokes and a dynamic equilibrium in the design of the piece2preface by Sir Herbert Read in Chiang Yee, Chinese Calligraphy: An Introduction to its Aesthetic and Technique, Ed. Methuen, London, 1954.

To better understand this association of calligraphy with the work of Mathieu, one must look into research on abstract painting undertaken by the artist from the end of the 1940s.

Speed and sign

In 1963, in Au-delà du tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Mathieu describes his pictorial research related to the sign. There, he explains that from 1949 onward the background of his canvasses took on more uniform tones, and as a consequence, the signs inscribed on them became more and more independent3p.65 in Georges Mathieu, Au-delà du tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963. At the same time, curved and twisted forms became increasingly sharper and more precise, as the gesture accelerated.

The painter bases his research on the abstraction of his signs. As the sign itself is a tool of abstraction, it is not its form but its meaning that Mathieu renders abstract. Thus, he explains that the abstract sign refutes any meaning prior to its creation. It is no longer the result of an idea. This contrasts with the traditional calligraphy of the Far East, in which all of the traced signs have a meaning, as it is so intimately tied to reading. 

In this way, the painting of Georges Mathieu is built from abstract signs which he traces in a single gesture, giving the painter tremendous speed when he creates his canvasses. This speed, which translates an emotion in contrast with a pre-defined gesture, certainly led Malraux to establish a link between the abstract sign of Mathieu and the calligraphy of the Far East whose speed of execution is greater than western calligraphy. Moreover, calligraphy in the Far East can also escape the rigor that the practice requires and distort itself to convey the emotion of the calligrapher, making it practically illegible. Undoubtedly, this aspect of calligraphy that highlights the value of the gesture and the speed in order to translate an emotion enabled Malraux to refer to Mathieu as a “western calligrapher“.  

In 1959, shortly after his stay in Japan, Georges Mathieu wrote about the speed and personal inspiration of far eastern calligraphers: 

Far eastern calligraphy improvises on given characters, — it is true — but in total liberty according to one’s personal inspiration, and speed steps in just as does a certain state of “ecstasy”. As I was in Japan last year, I could see master calligraphers making gigantic signs in just a few seconds. Nobody would think to refute any artistic quality to their work under the pretext that it is done in just a few seconds. I will add to these conditions of speed and improvisation that of needing to be in a trance-like zone: it is both a concentration of psychic energies as well as the most total state of vacuousness possible.4p.39 in Georges Mathieu, From the abstract to the possible — Foundations for an exegesis of western art, Ed. of the Circle of Contemporary Art in Zurich, 1959

Mathieu also explains that calligraphers paint forms based on references from which they do not stray, but from which they free themselves through speed and improvisation. Thus, he maintains that it is about creating and not copying.5p.38 in Georges Mathieu, De l’abstrait au possible — Jalons pour une exégèse de l’art occidental (From the abstract to the possible — Foundations for an exegesis of western art), Ed. of the Circle of Contemporary Art in Zurich, 1959

Parallel development of abstract calligraphy

This notion of liberating the sign through the speed of the gesture most likely captivated Mathieu, since he establishes a parallel between it and lyrical abstraction the same year in De l’abstrait au possible (From the abstract to the possible). Lyrical abstraction is the artistic movement led by Georges Mathieu and defined by a direct expression of the emotion of the painter, often through the gesture itself, as opposed to geometric abstraction in which line and color combine to provide a structure to the composition.

Speed and improvisation are what enables one to associate this painting’s creative forms [l’abstraction lyrique] with those of liberated, direct musical styles like jazz or with eastern calligraphies.6p.38 in Georges Mathieu, De l’abstrait au possible — Jalons pour une exégèse de l’art occidental (From the abstract to the possible — Foundations for an exegesis of western art), Ed. of the Circle of Contemporary Art in Zurich, 1959

This explanation aligns with his early 1950s research on the abstract sign. As he explains in Au-delà du tachisme (Beyond Tachism) in this period, he puts forward the following idea: 

Therefore, I note that “calligraphy”, the art of the sign par excellence, has managed to liberate itself from the literal content signifier of writing, and it is henceforth only the direct power of meaning, with writing itself outstripping its own fundamental value.7p.65 in Georges Mathieu, Beyond Tachisme, Ed. Julliard, 1963

Mathieu is referring to the evolution, parallel to his research, of calligraphy as a fully artistic discipline. Between the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s, an avant-garde of Japanese calligraphy was created under the designation zen-ei sho (前衛書). The use of traditional materials, such as brush and paper, subsists in the practice of calligraphy performed by the artists who make up this avant-garde. The artists who joined this avant-garde were searching for a total freedom of gesture. These artists came together in a group known by the name Bokujinkai (墨人会, “association of the men of ink”) and whose structure revolves around the figure of Shiryū Morita. The latter founded the review entitled Bokubi (墨美, “beauty of the ink”), published between 1951 and 1981, which was considered to be the standard of the avant-garde movement in calligraphy, enabling the artists of Bokujinkai to establish contact with western artists.8in Aitana Merino Estebaranz, ¿Caligrafía o abstracción? El papel internacional del Sho en las exposiciones de posguerra (Calligraphy or abstraction? The international role of Sho in post-war exhibitions), Anales de Historia del Arte (Annals of the History of Art), vol. 23, 2013, pp.193-207

Next, Mathieu’s theory was confirmed by an article on Kline and Tal-Coat by Saburō Hasegawa, published in this review in November, 19519in Saburō (Sabro) Hasegawa, The Beauty of Black and White, Bokubi, 1951. In the article, he explains the link between kyo-so,10a word in Japanese that evokes speed as well as madness or inebriation(狂草), a style of cursive calligraphy (sōshotai 草書体 in Japanese, tsao shu 草書 in Chinese) that is freer and more informal and the painting of Pollock. Such an approach shows the willingness to associate this calligraphy with abstract western painting.

Mathieu shared the idea of a new abstract calligraphy without reference to writing, and as a result different from that of Bokujinkai, with Jirō Yoshihara, founder of Gutai.11see Rena Kano, under the direction of Didier Schulmann, Georges Mathieu, voyage et peintures au Japon, août, septembre 1957 (Georges Mathieu, Travel and Paintings in Japan, August, September, 1957), École du Louvre, Paris, 2009, p.13 Even though he himself distinguishes calligraphy from modern abstract painting, in a certain way, Mathieu is a precursor of this far eastern calligraphy that is totally abstract and without points of reference, which will only be materialized and developed through bokushō bijutsu (墨書美術, “the abstract art of ink”, first designation of zen-ei sho 12in Christine Flint Sato, The Rise of Avant-garde Calligraphy in Japan, in the exhibition catalogue Spring Lines: Contemporary Calligraphy from East and West, Ditchling Museum, Brighton, April-June, 2001) over the course of the 1950s.

While in Japan in 1957, Mathieu met up with art critic Michel Tapié in Nishinomiya (located between Osaka and Kobe) to visit the Kaisei-ji (Buddhist temple of the Rinzai sect) along with members of Gutai. Thus, he had the chance to admire a “frenetic calligraphy” painted by the Zen Buddhist monk Nakahara Nantenbō (1839-1925) on a fusuma (sliding paper door) in one of the temple rooms. It features a giant, eight meter, calligraphy made with a very large brush, which Mathieu considered to be “something rather informal13in Informal, honmono nisemono (本物偽物, the true and the false), Geijutsu Shincho, Tokyo, 1st November, 1957, pp.89-102 ; see Rena Kano, under the direction of Didier Schulmann, Georges Mathieu, voyage et peintures au Japon, août, septembre 1957 (Georges Mathieu, Travel and Paintings in Japan, August, September, 1957), École du Louvre, Paris, 2009, p.14, thereby employing the term used by Tapié at the beginning of the 1950s to describe the “anti-geometric, anti-naturalist, and non-figurative” avant-garde which is built around lyrical abstraction, itself identified at the end of the 1940s.

Confirmation of the parallel

Georges Mathieu establishes a connection between calligraphy and modern abstract painting rather than considering a preeminence of one over another, as he explained in 1956 in Rapports de certains aspects de la peinture non-figurative lyrique et de la calligraphie chinoise (Connections between certain aspects of lyrical, non-figurative painting and Chinese calligraphy).14reproduced in Georges Mathieu, Beyond Tachisme, Ed. Julliard, 1963 ; excerpted from a dialogue with Dr. Chou Ling, permanent delegate of China to UNESCO and master calligrapher Tchang Kta Tsen, organized by the International Center for Aesthetic Studies, June 11, 1956.

He did not consider the mere outward appearance of a work to be sufficient to link it to the Far East. In 1963, he wrote that “use of non-figurative signs is not enough to turn “writing” into calligraphy in an oriental sense15p.104 in Georges Mathieu, Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963. On the other hand, he establishes this link through a “primacy of the speed of execution“, the absence of any “preexistence of form“, the absence of any “premeditation of the gesture” and an “ecstatic state“.16in Georges Mathieu, Rapports de certains aspects de la peinture non-figurative lyrique et de la calligraphie chinoise (Relations between certain aspects of non-figurative lyrical painting and Chinese calligraphy), 1956, reproduced p.186 in Georges Mathieu, Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963

Without truly granting eastern calligraphy any kind of lineage with respect to his own work, he notes the “coincidence” between the kyo-so style and his own technique.17p.104 in Georges Mathieu, Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963 While they may not be oriental, the signs created by Mathieu can also not be qualified as western according to the criteria of speed, which he does not find in any of his contemporaries:

Signs of Masson, those of Tobey before 1957, those of Hartung are artisanal signs. They are elaborated slowly, redone ten times over (Hartung), composed, lifted up, grasped, contoured (Masson, Tobey) : they are western.18p.104 in Georges Mathieu, Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963

All of these elements confirm the parallel liberation of the sign, then the freeing of its abstraction, between the work of Mathieu and far eastern calligraphy over the course of the 1950s. Once the principle of abstraction is laid out, as a result, Georges Mathieu’s writing will never stop evolving over the course of his various periods of creation.

— Édouard Lombard, director of the Georges Mathieu Committee

Thanks to Celia Diaz Gonzalez, Kazuto Morita (Tamenaga Gallery), Tamio Ikeda (Tanakaya Gallery)

Photo: Le passé composé incertain (The uncertain compound past)

Références   [ + ]

1. first solo exhibition by Mathieu in Paris ; “Hiroshima on the Place Vendôme !” was the headline by critic Jean Caillens
2. preface by Sir Herbert Read in Chiang Yee, Chinese Calligraphy: An Introduction to its Aesthetic and Technique, Ed. Methuen, London, 1954
3. p.65 in Georges Mathieu, Au-delà du tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963
4. p.39 in Georges Mathieu, From the abstract to the possible — Foundations for an exegesis of western art, Ed. of the Circle of Contemporary Art in Zurich, 1959
5. p.38 in Georges Mathieu, De l’abstrait au possible — Jalons pour une exégèse de l’art occidental (From the abstract to the possible — Foundations for an exegesis of western art), Ed. of the Circle of Contemporary Art in Zurich, 1959
6. p.38 in Georges Mathieu, De l’abstrait au possible — Jalons pour une exégèse de l’art occidental (From the abstract to the possible — Foundations for an exegesis of western art), Ed. of the Circle of Contemporary Art in Zurich, 1959
7. p.65 in Georges Mathieu, Beyond Tachisme, Ed. Julliard, 1963
8. in Aitana Merino Estebaranz, ¿Caligrafía o abstracción? El papel internacional del Sho en las exposiciones de posguerra (Calligraphy or abstraction? The international role of Sho in post-war exhibitions), Anales de Historia del Arte (Annals of the History of Art), vol. 23, 2013, pp.193-207
9. in Saburō (Sabro) Hasegawa, The Beauty of Black and White, Bokubi, 1951
10. a word in Japanese that evokes speed as well as madness or inebriation
11. see Rena Kano, under the direction of Didier Schulmann, Georges Mathieu, voyage et peintures au Japon, août, septembre 1957 (Georges Mathieu, Travel and Paintings in Japan, August, September, 1957), École du Louvre, Paris, 2009, p.13
12. in Christine Flint Sato, The Rise of Avant-garde Calligraphy in Japan, in the exhibition catalogue Spring Lines: Contemporary Calligraphy from East and West, Ditchling Museum, Brighton, April-June, 2001
13. in Informal, honmono nisemono (本物偽物, the true and the false), Geijutsu Shincho, Tokyo, 1st November, 1957, pp.89-102 ; see Rena Kano, under the direction of Didier Schulmann, Georges Mathieu, voyage et peintures au Japon, août, septembre 1957 (Georges Mathieu, Travel and Paintings in Japan, August, September, 1957), École du Louvre, Paris, 2009, p.14
14. reproduced in Georges Mathieu, Beyond Tachisme, Ed. Julliard, 1963 ; excerpted from a dialogue with Dr. Chou Ling, permanent delegate of China to UNESCO and master calligrapher Tchang Kta Tsen, organized by the International Center for Aesthetic Studies, June 11, 1956.
15, 17, 18. p.104 in Georges Mathieu, Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963
16. in Georges Mathieu, Rapports de certains aspects de la peinture non-figurative lyrique et de la calligraphie chinoise (Relations between certain aspects of non-figurative lyrical painting and Chinese calligraphy), 1956, reproduced p.186 in Georges Mathieu, Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963