Sunday, February 1, 2009

Review: Islamic Calligraphy

I am fascinated by the calligraphy of non-Roman alphabets. I'm a fan of Gothic scripts and other Roman-style fonts too, but I find them much more interesting when you can no longer make out what the words say (like in a medieval manuscript). That's why I've always been drawn to "foreign" calligraphy, such as the Kanji script used in China, Japan, and Korea. When I gaze at the bamboo scroll of Chinese characters hanging on the living room wall right near my desk, I am captivated by the free-flowing sensibility of line and brushstroke. Each character becomes an aesthetic object unto itself. They're not humanoid figures, but abstract ideas. I have no idea what each character means. I don't need to know, and I don't want to know. The scroll hangs on my wall as a grouping of ideas that collectively could meaning anything or nothing. They are words. And yet, whatever their meaning, they stand first and foremost for me as aesthetic ideas.

Because of this interest of mine, I had been looking forward to going to the Asia Society to see an exhibition on Islamic calligraphy (visit their website for a virtual exhibition, http://www.asiasociety.org/islamiccalligraphy). I went on Saturday. It was actually two small shows grouped together: Traces of the Calligrapher: Islamic Calligraphy in Practice, ca. 1600-1900 and Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur'an. The majority of objects on display were from the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), the Safavid and Qajar Empires (Iran), and the Mughal Empire (India). The first part focused on the world of the Islamic calligrapher. There were examples of writing implements and related accessories (e.g. reed pens, paper-cutting scissors, etc.), as well as writing guides that students would have used as part of their training. To be a calligrapher in the Arabic world was of great importance. Because traditional Muslim culture does not permit the public display of the human form in art, calligraphy became the ubiquitous type of art in the Islamic world. I hadn't realized that there are so many different types of Arabic calligraphic styles though, and that the skill in both writing and reading these calligraphies required much training and learning. As a result, calligraphers often advertised their abilities with certificates that demonstrated their expertise. The image you see here, for instance, actually has three different types of Arabic scripts on it, all of them written by one Muhammad Sadiq Kamali Efendi, who was active in the 1820s in the Ottoman Empire (the image is from the Asia Society website).

The second part of the show focused on how different scripts were used to write the Qur'an over time. On display were rare leaves of parchment dating back to the 8th century. One of the reasons why calligraphy became so important in the Arabic world was because it was believed that with the writing of the Qur'an the person was evoking the word of Allah. Thus, the calligrapher performed a spiritual act by setting down on parchment or paper the word of God. It seems not coincidental then that so many of these early Arabic scripts were difficult to read, and that only those who knew the verses by heart could read the texts themselves. This reinforced the spiritual connection to the calligraphy itself.

All in all, the exhibition was fascinating. It was a little silly to see so many carved reed pens in display cases dramatically lit, as if they were priceless objects of gold, but that is the traditional way of museum exhibitions, and it did emphasize their importance for the calligrapher. The Iranian pen cases made of papier-mâché were exquisite. Of course the examples of Arabic scripts throughout the exhibition were the highlight of the show. It was fascinating to see the skill, craftsmanship, and beauty of these works. In the end, however, what interested me most was how a calligrapher's skill and talent superseded the ability to read the texts themselves. The art of writing was based on aesthetics, and it was beauty that came to represent an idea. What a concept...using beautiful handwriting to convey ideas about spirituality and life itself. It makes me want to stop typing and write with a fountain pen in my journal.

1 comment:

paulran said...

I, too, am fascinated by calligraphy--it's something I emphasize when teaching Islamic art (I mostly focus on architecture and its decoration, which is either of calligraphy or abstract patterns). I know much less than you about it, and about East Asian scripts, but there is something inspiring about seeing the written word expressed so beautifully.