* W E S T E R N C A L L I G R A P H Y *
(some history and personal impressions by Andrew van der Merwe)
There was a time when calligraphy played a pivotal cultural and economic role. All signeage, documents, letters, maps, labels, inscriptions, grave stones, and books were written, painted, decorated, carved, engraved or bound by hand. But Western calligraphy, for better or for worse, carried with it the gene of its own mortality: the Poenecian-Greek system of writing consisted of a mere 26 select symbols which stood for speech sounds, not words, and as such it could easily be mechanised. In fact, while the invention of the steam engine and the Spinning Jenny can take a good deal of the credit for the industrial revolution, it is the mechanisation of writing which provided the energy and momentum to see it through to the digital age. Printed books led to mass education and the typewriter led to the Personal Computer (Bill Gates would probably still be fiddling in his mother’s garage if it weren’t for the typewriter!) The calligrapher’s hand which spawned all this progress was the first casualty and it seems as if no-one except William Morris noticed its demise. The invention of the printed book removed the heart from calligraphy and the invention of the typewriter left it almost useless to commerce. In a wonderful dance between formal book hand and informal document hand, calligraphy had evolved for centuries and spawned a great variety of styles. This dance came to an end without a bow.
At the height of the industrial revolution, William Morris, a leading figure of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain, played a pivotal role in the revival of many fine crafts, including calligraphy as written directly with a broad pen. These interested him for “their ability to express the humanity of the maker and the truth of the materials” (The Calligrapher’s Dictionary, Rose Folsom 1990) – a reaction to the effects of manning production lines and, no doubt, a degree of sentimental concern for the extinction of some great old traditions. Also, the industrial revolution provided the new middle class with the luxury of time and resources to pursue commercially redundant crafts for less functional reasons. So, thanks partly to William Morris and, ironically, the industrial revolution, calligraphy died as a craft and rose as an art. And I have little doubt that what gave the breath to this resurrection was the grace and beauty injected into their repetitive tasks by generations of scribes spending their lives bent over little pieces of paper writing other people’s words, for the benefit of the wealthy and the powerful.
Eastern writing traditions, where a unique symbol is used for each word, have been more difficult to mechanise and a much livelier, more functional and artistic calligraphy tradition has survived in these parts of the world. Master calligraphers are even revered. The Muslim calligraphy tradition too, has longer remained more a craft than an art and thus escaped the effects of the industrial revolution. I believe this is partly due to the tradition of not illustrating sacred writings. The writing itself took on much of the burden of decoration and, free from competition with art, carved a stronger role for itself. Also, the letter forms, in serving to illustrate, have been used with much greater flexibility and gesture – doubtless a strong barrier to mechanisation.
The industrial revolution did leave a few commercial applications for calligraphy – the occasional illuminated address, hand-painted sign or wordmark (logo). In fact, the latter has never really died. The unique identity that the hand gives a wordmark has helped it to maintain its position in this one commercially important place and indeed, the common availability of mass-produced typeface which has come with the PC, has strengthened its position as designers seek to brand new products in an “ownable” way. Also, unfazed by the effects of mechanisation, many calligraphers are forging ahead in the area of type-face design. As appreciation for hand lettering grows, calligraphers are finding more work in other design fields and computers, scanners and the internet are essential equipment here.
Other than doing some commercial design work, being a calligrapher is pretty much like being an artist, the difference being that calligraphers get urges to paint things people say. Drawing on thousands of years of various traditions, the modern calligrapher uses words as graphic metaphors employing everything from the restrained, self-contained yet architecturally perfect letters of the Greeks and Romans to the intense marching order of the Gothic hand and the light, flamboyant extravagance of the Italic. Like dance, the pleasure that calligraphy gives the eye lies in the excellence and aptness of its rythm and gesture. The aptness is critical because calligraphy is a shallow pursuit of lovely form if there is no involvement with the meaning of the written words. However, the revival of calligraphy has seen calligraphers celebrating their art for its own sake, giving rise to pieces which proclaim the virtues of calligraphy or consist of no more than a beautifully arranged alphabet.
The modern calligrapher is moved by many things but I am sure they are still pretty much the same as they were for the scribes of the past: sentiment for the great old tradition, appreciation of abstract form and symbol, a passion for the written word. This passion has to run deep; it takes at least as much time and discipline to become an accomplished calligrapher as it does to play the violin well. Perhaps such depth is easier to understand if one appreciates the connection that remains between calligraphy and the most important of all human inventions: writing is the air supply of human culture and technology. No amount of mechanisation will ever take this away from calligraphy and while calligraphy is a rare art, it remains unique in its cultural importance. The written word remains one of the most precious things a person can receive.
Western calligraphy draws strongly on the Eastern and Middle-Eastern traditions. No calligrapher’s repertoire is complete without these influences and since the calligrapher is now also an artist, he or she must also take a leaf out of Michaelangelo’s book and a splat of paint from Jackson Pollock’s can! Many of the pieces on display here may surprise by how ‘painterly’ they are.
Demographical changes in calligraphy are also worth noting. While in the past, calligraphy was almost exclusively the domain of men, the vast majority of the people attending calligraphy classes nowadays are middle-aged women. Apart from a few good men, it is they who now carry the torch for calligraphy.
-Andrew van der Merwe-