Calligraphy: An Overview

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The term calligraphy derives from the Greek word graphein (to write) and kallos (beautiful); it has therefore often been identified with "beautiful writing." But calligraphy is more than that. It arises out of a combination of several important elements: the attitude of society to writing; the religious concepts involved; the importance and function of the text; definite, often mathematically based rules about the correct interaction between lines and space and their relationship to each other; and a mastery and understanding of the script, the writing material, and the tools used for writing. Writing and script store information essential to the political, social, and economic survival of a particular group; they are as such part of the infrastructure of society. Calligraphy makes a statement about the sum total of its cultural and historical heritage. As such it can become subject to political and nationalistic/religious expressions and pressures. In addition, calligraphy united the pictorial with the scriptorial. A calligraphic passage, or even a single Chinese character, not only provides information through its scriptorial meaning but also communicates on a more direct and archetypal level through its inherent pictorial powers. Unlike writing, calligraphy cannot be acquired simply by learning; it demands insight and individuality, but individuality expressed within strictly prescribed boundaries.

Calligraphy needs enabling tools: a smooth writing surface such as paper, parchment, or silk and instruments like a quill pen and brush to produce the variation of lines so essential for true calligraphy. The sharply yielding point of a metal stylus on wax (as used in Rome and Greece), wet clay in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, or palm leaves on which the script is incised in South and Southeast Asia can produce pleasing results but not calligraphy. The material and the instruments used for writing simply do not allow the production of free-flowing lines. Though stone is not the best medium, it served well to receive and preserve calligraphic copies; indeed, Western calligraphy can trace its roots to the stone inscription found on Trajan's (r. 98117 ce) column.

The other important factor is motivation. According to the above definition, only three civilizations have produced true calligraphy: the Chinese (and those who use the Chinese script, namely Japanese and Koreans), the Arabs (and those who use the Arabic script), and Western civilization based on Roman letters, Roman laws, and the Christian church. In the case of Arabic calligraphy, it was the revelation of the Qurʾān and Islamic conquest; in the Far East artistic sensibility and political hegemony; and in the West the discipline of Roman letters and Christianity.

Calligraphy flourishes within a definite discipline. Scribal authorities such as the ones established in medieval monasteries of Europe; Ibn Muqlah's (866940 ce) reforms of the Arabic script based on the interaction between the rhombic dot, the standard alif, and the standard cycle; and the original definition of a Chinese character based within a square. There is also a connection with dynastic elements. For example, after the fall of Rome in the fifth century, a number of "national hands" developed in the various states carved from the disintegrating empire: the Merovingian style, the Visigothic script, Carolingian minuscule, Gothic, and so on.

The Position of the Calligrapher in Society and Religion

The position of calligrapher in society and religion reflects the attitude to his craft and the level on which it is practiced. In Europe and the Arab world calligraphy has always been first and foremost in the service of God and the divine Revelation. In the West the calligrapher was "in service" too, first to a human master (Rome), then to the monastic order to which he had given his life, and eventually simply to the customer who paid him. Only in the Far East did the calligrapher exist in its own right. He did not propagate any secular or religious order; his calligraphy was, with definite restrictions, an expression of his inner self.

Though mainly practiced by men, none of the three great civilizations actively forbade women to become calligraphers. The first Chinese treatise on calligraphy, published in 320 ce, that established definite criteria, still valid today, was written by the Lady Wei Shao. It is thought that even the great Wang Xizhi (321379 ce) was one of her students. In China and Japan calligraphy was an accomplishment practiced by the elite for the elite; a good calligraphic hand ensured success in the civil service examinations (enforced during the Tang period, 618 to 907 ce). During the Japanese Heian period (7941185 ce) it almost took the place of an aphrodisiac in courtly circles. If the first note from a prospective lover proved indifferently written, the affair could not proceed. A special form of women's calligraphy, written in the hiragana style, developed. The Islamic world, too, knew famous women calligraphers. Some Muslim ladies achieved a high competence in calligraphy; the emperor Aurangzeb's daughter Zebunnisa (16391702), for example, a great patroness of art and learning, was proficient in at least three calligraphic styles. In the Maghrib (the western part of the Islamic world) women were told that they had to write at least one Qurʾān to make a good marriage. Calligraphy written by eighteenth-century Turkish women is still kept in the mosques at Istanbul. Christianity had always favored literacy in women, hoping that a good education would make them more suitable for the monastic life, should their parents decide to dedicate them. Nuns often collaborated with monks in the production of calligraphic manuscripts, but unlike in China and in the Islamic world they worked, as did the monks, anonymously. Western calligraphy, which arose simply from copying texts that were often brought back after difficult journeys from Rome or neighboring monasteries, was part of the life to which they had dedicated themselves, and, like their male colleagues, they were strictly forbidden from boasting. This was different in the Islamic countries and in China/Japan, where a long list of famous calligraphers and their biographical data were freely provided.

"Beautiful Writing"

Although outside the strict discipline of calligraphy, beautiful writing is mostly based on pictorial expressions. Writing itself began mostly with pictures: in Egypt, among the Sumerians, in the Indus Valley, and in the pre-Columbian world of Central America. In the case of the Chinese this pictorial element is often still clearly visible. Though not rooted in the knowledge of traditional science and religious conviction, beautiful writing could sometimesas, for example, in the case of the originally Indian siddham scriptbecome calligraphy in the hands of Japanese masters.

But the absence of chancelleries and scribal authority had its restrictions. Judaism, for example, has produced many fine manuscripts and beautiful micrography but no calligraphy in the strict sense. During the many years of the Diaspora there were no courts or chancelleries that could establish and control definite styles. Except for the Sefer Torah, used in the synagogue, the meaning of the text has always been more important than its visual execution.

Another concept consists of writing a picture that relates to the meaning of the text. The calligrams (text pictures) of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (18801918) go however back through history to the Greek poet Simias, who, in the fourth century bce, wrote poems in the shape of an egg or the wings of a bird. The tradition continued and was eventually introduced into Christian Europe in the sixth century by the bishop of Poitiers, who wrote a poem in the form of a cross. Text pictures remained popular right through the Middle Ages and the baroque period and surfaced again among groups like the Dadaists and some individual modern poets. Though Islam is strictly averse to visual representation, calligraphers have been skillful in writing at least the basmalah ("In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful") in a variety of shapes. Such text pictures were also known in India and China and other parts of the world. Indeed the whole text of the Qurʾān, numbering some 77,934 words, has been written on the shell of a single egg.

Contemporary Calligraphy

In the West printing has generally been considered a move toward the end of calligraphy. But the twentieth century has seen a remarkable renewal of interest, both in Europe and, perhaps even more so, in America: exhibitions, the foundation of professional societies, teaching at art schools and colleges, and a growing circle of gifted amateurs and fine professional scribes. The roots go back to the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1880s and the work of William Morris (18341896) and, most of all, Edward Johnson (18721944). In Islamic countries and in the Far East the situation has always been different. Calligraphy has never been a disinherited art form, and printing (with wood block on which the hand of the writer could be incised) has never meant an end of calligraphic traditions. Letters, always the main basis of Western calligraphic traditions, began to appear in paintings (such as those of the cubists, surrealists, Picasso, and Joan Miró) and on newspapers (characters written by Mao Zedong on the masthead of the Peoples Daily ) and posters. Most important, however, was a certain kind of symbiosis between the three main styles that began to appear from the middle of the last century. Western calligraphers began to take an interest in Eastern conceptions of art and calligraphy; a definite example is Mark Tobey (18901976). Islamic calligraphers, many educated at Western universities, have begun to look for new interpretations, which could be incorporated within the core of their own traditions. But it is mainly in Japan that calligraphy is still deeply respected. Prices for a good piece of calligraphy may start at four thousand pounds and can go up as far as one million. There, "well written" still implies calligraphic aspirations, not just textual excellence.

See Also



Brown, Michelle P. A Guide to Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1660. London, 1990. An illustrated survey of the evolution of Western scripts.

Butterworth, Emma M. The Complete Book of Calligraphy. Wellingborough, 1981. Overview of the subject.

Catich, Edward M. Letters Redrawn from the Trajan Inscriptions in Rome. Davenport, Iowa, 1961. Influence of Trajan (Roman) inscription on letterforms.

Folsom, Rose. The Calligraphers Dictionary. London, 1990. Offers an explanation and definition of words and concepts connected with calligraphy.

Gaur, Albertine. A History of Calligraphy. London and New York, 1994. A comprehensive study of calligraphy in all its aspects.

Gray, Nicolette. A History of Lettering, Creative Experiment and Lettering Identity. Oxford, 1986. On the importance of letterforms in Western calligraphy.

Hamel, Christopher de. Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators. London, 1992. Deals with the makers of paper, parchment and inks, and with scribes, illustrators, booksellers and bookbinders.

Harris, David. Calligraphy, Inspiration, Innovation, Communication. London, 1991. Examines the breath of calligraphy in modern life.

Mote, Frederick W., and Hun-Lam Chu. Calligraphy and the East Asian Book. Edited by Howard L. Goodman. Princeton, 1988. Calligraphy before and after the start of printing in China and Japan.

Safadi, Yasin Hamid. Islamic Calligraphy. London, 1978. Examines the work of Islamic calligraphers from the beginning of Islam; deals also with calligraphy in Islamic architecture.

Whalley, Joyce Irene. Writing Implements and Accessories: From Roman Stylus to the Typewriter. Vancouver, 1975. Exhaustive study of the history of writing implements.

Yao, Min-Chi. The Influence of Chinese and Japanese Calligraphy on Mark Tobey (18901976). San Francisco, 1983. The spiritual influence of far eastern calligraphy on the American painter Mark Tobey.

Zapf, Hermann. About Alphabets, Some Marginal Notes on Type Design. New York, 1960. The place of calligraphy in modern type design.

Albertine Gaur (2005)

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Calligraphy: An Overview

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