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South Galleries 

Hidai Nankoku Work

Sumi ink calligraphy on paper depicting four large, bold brushstrokes. A C-shaped curve in the upper half cups the top of an S-shaped brushstroke in the centre. At the bottom, a U-shaped curve lies above an upside-down U-shaped brushstroke.

M+,香港,© Yoshinobu Hidai 及 Kazuko Takahashi,圖片:KEI OKANO


When you see something as huge as this piece by Hidai Nankoku in a museum, do you ever find yourself wondering how it came to be here? 

Nankoku was a Japanese artist trained in traditional calligraphy. Later, he would push calligraphy to its limits, blurring the lines between this historic practice and more contemporary abstract painting. He often had an audience, creating many of his pieces, including this one, in public, sweeping a large mop-like brush across a canvas on the ground, conjuring up these brand-new symbols that bore no relation to existing characters.  

Lesley Ma, curator of ink art at M+, tells us how, a few years ago, she visited the artist’s family and discovered this piece.  


So, it's just a very simple Japanese house. And, you know, we took the train from Tokyo, went to Yokohama, walked through the tourist sort of area and then get to this backstreet, I actually remember it was a very cold day, but sunny and then, they led me to the garage where most of the works are stored. So, they pull out this folded piece of paper. So, it's folded, so it's kind of misleading. I thought, okay, it's not really that big, but in the end it was a huge piece, and, there it is! And it's really this amazing piece. I just remember being cold and, like, on the floor and unfolding this. And I actually remember on that back side of this folded painting, I saw some footprints, like, you know, dusty sand and, you know, it's really something in their garage for a while. 


Lesley’s quest had paid off, and now this incredible piece, found hidden away at the back of that garage in Yokohama, is on display for everyone to enjoy. When the work was finally examined by M+ conservators, it had one more secret to give up… 


And then on the back of this gigantic work, they found some pencil marked writings, there’s some Japanese characters written. And then at the very end of the writing, there's a miniature replica of the exact work. And then it was signed Nankoku in the Kanji characters. So, we were all eager to know what the other Japanese characters were about, so we consulted our colleague Ikko Yokoyama, and she wrote back, ‘Oh, this is cute. Quote: ‘You should consider how to hang the work on the wall without getting crinkled. Nankoku’.  

So, basically, he's telling us that, you know, this is which side is up. I thought that was a message from the artist to us that we are now fully responsible for this, and the piece that you're looking at is without wrinkles and the right side up. 


Titled Work, this monumental piece was created with sumi ink on paper by Hidai Nankoku in 1964. The vertical composition measures approximately 460 centimetres in height and 350 centimetres in width, which is higher than the height of a storey, and about 4 times as wide as a standard door.

On a faintly yellow piece of paper are four curved lines in heavy black calligraphic strokes. The first and second curved lines feature in the upper section of the paper and run around the axis, taking up about three-quarters of the space. The third and the fourth curved lines, with one running on top of the other, feature in the lower section and take up about one-quarter of the space. The width of each line is approximately that of two outstretched adult hands.

The first curved line is shaped like the capital letter ‘S’. The stroke starts on the right side of the axis in the upper section of the paper and runs in a curve to the left, crosses the axis and sweeps downwards at a slant. There, it turns in a curve to the right and crosses the axis again, taking a pause as it reaches the left side, and ends with an upward finish. The ink is heavier at the pause, and there’re traces of the brush’s upward movement at the end of the line.

The second curved line is arch-shaped, and it opens towards the right of the lower section as it wraps around from the top side to the left side of the first curved line. It begins above the start of the first curved line and close to the margin of the paper. This stroke runs downwards to the left, then it sweeps, pauses, and ends. The finish almost touches the end of the first curved line.

The third curved line is also arch-shaped, and it opens upwards. The inside arch looks as if it were embracing the lower half of the first curved line, while the two ends of the stroke curve slightly outwards.

The fourth curved line has a similar shape as the third, but it opens downwards. The inside arch is relatively flat, and it lies close to the bottom of the third curved line, as if the two lines were standing with their back to each other, while the two ends of the stroke curve slightly inwards.

The four curved lines are rendered in heavy shades of ink. The strokes are rough around the edges, leaving dynamic traces of the brush’s movement on the paper. The four curved lines together bring to mind a large ding, the Chinese ritual vessel. The first and second curved lines evoke the burning flame inside the ding, and the third and fourth curved lines resemble the body and legs of the ding.