The Spirit of Haiga

An Interview with Ion Codrescu

by Jeanne Emrich

When and how did you first learn about haiga and what made you want to create your own?

I have been practicing sumi-e or ink-brush painting for about thirty years. One day, when doing the essential lines and washes of an ink painting, trying to suggest the form rather than give the details, I suddenly had the impression that the atmosphere of my painting was similar to that of a haiku I had composed some days ago. So I added the words of one of my haiku to that ink painting and did my first haiga. That was in 1989. The earliest text about haiga that I found was in Harold Stewart’s book, A Net of Fireflies. Later R. H. Blyth’s Haiku and A History of Haiku and Leon M. Zolbrod’s Haiku Painting were useful for their understanding haiku poetry and haiga painting. As a haiku poet and a graphic artist, I found the way to haiga in a simple manner, practicing ink painting and composing poems in my studio. Juxtaposing iconic and linguistic signs in haiga is a great challenge for me as a graphic artist and poet because I like to give many significations to a poem or to an image. And haiga gives me a lot of possibilities in accomplishing this aim.

Is haiga your primary vehicle for artistic expression? In what other forms do you create? Tell us about your life as an artist in Romania.

 Before attending the Art School in Constanta in my youth, my first “art school” was my small native village  surrounded  by  forests and fields. In a way, I  have  learned a  lot  from  nature.  Bashō was right in saying “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine.” After my studies at the National University of Arts in Bucharest, in 1973, I started to teach art, the history of art, and to make solo exhibitions with my work in different galleries and art museum in Romania and elsewhere. My art works are created using different techniques: pencils, ink, watercolor, pastel, gouache, tempera, mixed media, and collage. At the beginning, my primary vehicle for artistic expression was the landscape inspired directly from nature or the surrealistic landscape. I also like to create a poetic landscape that inspires the onlooker through dreaming or meditating. A landscape offers many possibilities to artists expressing their feelings. After 1989, I started to illustrate poetry and this activity became a priority in my studio. I have illustrated more than one hundred poetry books and a lot of literary journals, and these have been printed in Romania, Ireland, Canada, the United States, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan, and Great Britain. So it was just a simple step to find my way from illustrations for poetry books and poetic landscapes to haiga art. Now I find haiga extremely interesting as a haiku poet and artist and it has become my primary vehicle for artistic expression.

Who is your favorite traditional haiga master and how has this person’s work influenced your own, if at all?

Although the painter Tawaraya Sōtatsu and the calligrapher Hon’ami Kōetsu did not do haiga, both of them greatly influenced my juxtaposing of image and text in a haiga. Both of them lived before Bashō and their collaborative works are masterpieces of what we understand haiga to be—a combination of painting and haiku calligraphy in a single work. To name only one favorite traditional haiga master, it would be Yosa Buson. He was a poet and painter and he knew how to combine the art, calligraphy, and poetry to create his masterpieces. I have also been deeply influenced by my Japanese sumi-e master Ryuhei Nishiyama, who taught me how to  paint in ink, how to use the brush in this technique, and how to add calligraphy to a painting.

You have created haiga in ink-brush paintings in the traditional sumi-e style and, more recently, in collages. What appeals to you in each medium? Do you consider your work in collage to be experimental?

Most of my haiga are created as ink-brush paintings and watercolors. It’s not technique that makes your art traditional or modern. The most important aspect in your art is the expression of your own style that you find only after many, many years of work in your studio, after much hard practice. I think the ink-brush painting technique works very well with haiku poetry and with my spirit, too. I am at home with this technique. Rice paper of good quality and the ink give me a lot of joy when I work in my small studio. For me, the way a line of ink is born on wet or dry rice paper is a magical moment. I watch the solitude of that line on the emptiness of the rice paper and dwell in the mood as the ink penetrates the paper. The first line directs the composition for the next lines, washes, values, positive and negative space. The forms are born as something alive. All has a rhythm, a harmony, and a unity. The rhythm of the brushstrokes and the calligraphy of the poem must be full of energy and life.

My Japanese sumi-e master helped me understand the differences and similarities between the Eastern and Western calligraphy. Eastern calligraphy is rich in its brushwork, structure, and texture. I like to create the calligraphy in different ways: on wet or dry rice paper, with thick or thin brush strokes, long or tiny lines, with fast or slow rhythm in writing letters, with continuous, strong, clear or interrupted strokes, or just suggested letters. I also like to make strokes that appear into the image and disappear into  the  emptiness, strokes that start in the image and continue to  vanish  into  the calligraphy. I think the calligraphy in haiga must be a choreography of a poem, as a part of the composition, and not like something we add.

As already mentioned, I have created haiga using different techniques and media, including watercolor, gouache, tempera, pastel, and collage. Each technique has its own particular possibilities and expression. Adding calligraphy in a collage is a difficult task for an artist. Sometimes the calligraphy doesn’t fit with this technique. Yes, I consider my work in collage experimental. No other technique gives me as much satisfaction as ink painting because a unity exists between the way I create the image and the calligraphy by the same tool: the brush.

What in the haiga aesthetic is of top priority in your work? How does this attribute of haiga manifest itself differently in your collages as opposed to your ink-brush paintings?

The top priority in the haiga aesthetic, I think, is to unify painting and poetry, images and letters (calligraphy). Then the manner of balance between fullness and emptiness, the way of connecting the signs of the image with the signs of the calligraphy, text, and letters. Also a top priority in my haiga is the mode of putting into relationships the image and the text, the way they each respond, echo, resonate, and reverberate. I do not want to repeat in image what the haiku says in words. I want to go further. It is very important for me to give the impression that all is spontaneous, full of energy, simple, and direct. If my calligraphy is not full of rhythm, I destroy the work. I try many versions until I succeed in doing one well. I practice calligraphy—as a pianist plays before a concert—when I have to add text to an ink painting. When I used to make haiga in collage, I felt that it was difficult to harmonize collage technique with calligraphy,  at  least  for  me.  Each  has  a  different “energy” and “spirit.”

Today, we are seeing haiga in a variety of media. Which media do you think work most effectively with the haiga aesthetic and why? Which appear to present problems in applying the haiga aesthetic?

If we are seeing haiga in a variety of media, this is a good thing. Always art finds new techniques, new media, and new ways of expression. I have seen many digital photo-haiku that are called haiga. I think sometimes a photo is too “strong,” too “baroque,” with too many details to integrate them in the haiga spirit. Also “computer calligraphy” is “cold” in my opinion and does not have spontaneity, naturalness, and a “real life.” The painting and calligraphy are equally important in a haiga and if we do not pay attention to them, the haiga will be poor. Calligraphy is seen as a painting in China or Japan. So the Japanese poets are, in a way, also painters, with a very strong visual education. We Westerners do not have such a strong tradition and education in calligraphy and we have neglected the calligraphy, whether we are artists or not.

It’s encouraging to see very good haiga made by artists who understand the haiku and haiga spirit very well. I think if an artistic technique is used adequately with the haiga aesthetic there will be no problem with that work. For my haiku, I like to use ink and watercolor, but I am very interested in seeing experimental works using many different techniques. Who knows? Haiga is new in the West and only poets and artists who practice it will enrich it with a new expression of our time. The important point is to keep its spirit.

You are currently at work on a doctorate with a dissertation regarding haiga and the combination of text and images. What does the haiga aesthetic bring to the 21st-century world of art and poetry that is new? What is unique about the way text and images are combined in haiga?

In September 2004, I started  a  doctorate  in  visual arts with the the focus of “Image and Text in Haiga” at the National University of Arts in Bucharest. The doctoral research will last four years with some periodical exams and papers. At the end of this time, I will write a dissertation on this theme, and if an editor is interested in publishing it I would be very happy to present my haiga research as a book. First, I will complete comparative research on the relationships between image and text in Western and Eastern arts. Many similarities and differences exist in juxtaposing image and text in Western and Eastern art. Then I will study classical, modern, and contemporary Japanese haiga, its aesthetics, techniques, masters, schools, and so on. An important part of my research will be dedicated to the way this form of art has spread outside Japan. I know that many haiga painters practice in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Croatia, France, and Romania, and I plan to contact them to study and present their work. I teach haiga in an art school in Constanta and one section of my research will cover my experience in creating and teaching haiga.

 Just as Japanese prints influenced Western artists in the 19th and early 20th centuries, I believe haiku and haiga bring fresh air to the poetry and art of our time. Haiku and haiga are forms of poetry and art that fit very well with the 21st century when people are very busy. A haiga is a “drop” of pure poetry and art in this pragmatic world full of noise, kitsch, stereotypes, sex, and violence. A haiga uses a painting and a poem in the same frame and this creation asks onlookers to read the text and look at the painting simultaneously. They can then meditate in front of it to see and feel the layers of meanings and to experience all the connotations that the work evokes. This effect is unique in the art of juxtaposing image and text. A text has its limits. It does not allow us to tell all we want or all we want to understand. When we add a painting, the power of that text increases. Poetry, painting, and calligraphy at once make a unique art form that enriches our spirit in the 21st century.

In Japan, haiga traditionally appeared as scrolls and screens or other room-dividers. In the West, we have expanded the  tradition of art to include installations in gallery rooms as well as outdoors. We also have performance art. Could you see haiga used in such ways? In the haiga aesthetic, what would have to be retained for haiga to keep its integrity as an art form distinct from others?

As with any form of art, haiga must evolve. If artists who make installations in galleries or outdoors take into consideration the haiga aesthetic in making their works, I think nothing will be wrong. Performance art? Why not? If a performance art includes haiga I would be very glad to participate in that new experience. I like to see experiments in contemporary haiga and I am very interested in studying these experiments for my research. If we want to experiment with haiga, we are free to do them as many writers experimented with short stories or novels. It’s important to keep its spirit alive. Why don’t TV channels include a haiga moment in their broadcasts? A TV haiga? Why not? Thirty seconds of painting, calligraphy, and haiku would be very good for people. To keep its integrity as an art form distinct from others, it always has to include painting, haiku, and calligraphy whether we use contemporary expression or not. The emphasis should be on keeping the painting in consonance with the haiku spirit.

 You have taught your art students about haiga and lectured on the form throughout Europe for many years now. You have also published haiga in black and white in your journal, Hermitage. Tell us about the state of the form in your part of the world.

As an art teacher, I have been teaching haiku, ink painting, and haiga to my art students for sixteen years. Some of them have international and national prizes for their haiku and haiga. In 2004,  I published an anthology of 208 pages with their haiku and haiga. The book is called Haiku-Haiga: Creative Activities for Students (Ex Ponto Press). I also now taught haiku, ink painting, and haiga to students from the United Kingdom, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Russia, and Tanzania who came to the Art Centre from Hyvinkää, Finland, in 1997 and 1998. During my solo haiga exhibitions in Romania, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, the United States, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain, and even in Japan I have lectured on the haiga art. When I started to edit Albatross (in 1992) and Hermitage (in 2004)—two international haiku journals—I tried to include articles on haiga and black-and-white reproductions of haiga. Now every issue of Hermitage has black-and-white haiga. The journal is sent to many subscribers all over the world. Now in Romania, as in other Western countries, haiga has started to attract the attention to some professional artists.

 The Museum of Art in Constanta, Romania, has announced that it is starting a museum collection of haiga. You were instrumental in initiating this project. Describe your hopes for the collection and how it might encourage contemporary poets and painters working in the form.

 In the spring of 2005, I started a project to establish an international haiga collection at the Museum of Art in Constanta (one of the most important art museums in Romania). I had a discussion with Professor Doina Pauleanu, the director of this museum, and she has been very enthusiastic about my project. All the original haiga works sent to the museum for the haiga collection will be judged by a jury consisting of members of the museum staff (art critics, artists, professors, and so on). The panel of curators will create a haiga exhibition when the collection is enough large for such an event and will edit a catalog when the museum has some financial support for such a publication. The museum will allow everybody (students, scholars, artists, poets, and the general public) to see, study, and research this international haiga collection. Those who wish to donate their haiga can contact me at my e-mail address (ioncodrescu@yahoo.com) for more information.

 Many fine poets write haiku in the West, but there are many thousands more artists. Some poets are already collaborating with Western artists in creating haiga. What advantages do you see in such collaborations? What disadvantages, if any?

I see only advantages because an artist can have a new interpretation, a new perspective of the haiku written by a poet. Many artists have a strong visual education and can find a lot of inspiration in haiku. Each person comes with his or her cultural and professional background, and when two strong creators meet the result has multiple significations for their work. Some poets actually have submitted a single verse to multiple artists and with quite surprising and varied results. It points to the aesthetic truth that the more interpretations that are possible in one haiga, the better it is for that haiku. I see no disadvantages in a collaborative haiga made by a poet and an artist. We have to stimulate this collaboration and Reeds and Hermitage are special places for this adventure.

Finally, what advice and encouragement would you offer to poets and artists wanting to try their hand at creating haiga?

 I would like to see more and more poets and artists creating haiga, and I would like to exchange experiences, ideas, and thoughts with them. Creating haiga is a challenge for any artist because he or she has to combine poetry, calligraphy, and painting, which is not an easy task. Many people think it is easy to write haiku but I do not agree. Writing good haiku is not easy. Making good haiga is as difficult as creating good haiku. Beginners have to study haiku poetry, haiga painting, and calligraphy. If haiku poets want to do haiga, the best way is to collaborate with professional artists. Raffael de Gruttola has collaborated with Wilfred Croteau, Peggy McClure, and Tadashi Kondo, and they succeeded in doing outstanding haiga. Now we have some books on haiga that are useful for beginners such those by Stephen Addiss (several different books), Leon M. Zolbrod (Haiku Painting), Jeanne Emrich and Michael Dylan Welch (Berries and Cream: Contemporary Haiga in North America), and by Yukki Yaura and Suiyu Enomoto (Haiga—Illustrated Haiku Poems). Although not a book on haiga, I also recommend The Art of Hon’ami Kōetsu by Felice Fischer (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000) for its discussion of how painting is juxtaposed with calligraphy.

Haiga is a challenging experience for a poet-painter. Anyone who wishes to become a poet or a painter can benefit by spending some time exploring its many dimensions. The result will be very rewarding. Haiku and haiga changed my life, and I am very grateful to those Japanese poets and painters who created these forms of poetry and art.


Reprinted from Reeds: Contemporary Haiga, Vol. 4, 2006 by permissions of the author and the interviewee.