Calligraphy in modern painting
The widespread practice of introducing Arabic calligraphy into a modern painting does not arabize the painting, nor modernize the calligraphy
The art of our heritage, and our age!
Once, many years ago, I went with a colleague, to visit the Kuwaiti ambassador in Beirut in order to invite him to participate in an activity organized by the Arab Cultural Club. Arriving a little late, the ambassador started by saying that he had just returned from a painting exhibition. The exhibition was for a celebrated Lebanese painter, who used to fill his works with Arabic calligraphic formations. And looking a bit puzzled, he made what I thought was an astonishing remark. He said that in Arab tradition, calligraphy was surrounded by ornament, but in this painter’s work the ornament is surrounded by calligraphy. In the first case, the whole purpose was to honor and beautify the words of God, but in this case he felt the situation is reversed, and the whole intention is all but lost.
The remark I heard from the Kuwaiti ambassador, falls very well into a category of intriguing coincidences. To me his remark, was probably more enlightening than any I ever heard from an art critic. It never left my mind since, and together with other thoughts and impressions, made me start looking at this trend of introducing Arabic lettering into paintings, be it in the form of simple detached letters or complete words in traditional calligraphy, with a degree of critical suspicion. And with time I reached a definite conclusion, namely that such practice neither ‘Arabizes’ a modern painting, nor modernizes traditional calligraphy.
Calligraphy, within context
Arab classic calligraphic formations belong to an age, and reflect a sublime feeling to the words that were written in them, that can be hardly duplicated today. So, in as much as merely including classical calligraphic compositions in paintings does not make a painting belong to Arab art, in any significant way, if that was the one intention, similarly it does not make the calligraphy modern, if this was the other.
For the well being of our modern cultural life, the fine calligraphic and art heritage ought in no way be reduced to poorer, flimsy substitutes, or even to what could often be considered a superficial genre of Arabism in art. We started seeing more and more of such works during recent years, and became so widespread, without any thorough assessment or genuine evaluation. Even if it was done with all good intention, or zeal for capturing a cultural identity, at the end that might be taken as a somehow culturally defensive attempt to compensate an absence of an Arab modern art, that has cultural recognizable traits.
And whoever has been observing this trend throughout the years, cannot fail but notice that by and large it was in one way or another encouraged by certain milieus; some from among westernized Arab bourgeois circles, or even outright western fans. Many of whom you will not be surprised to find are ardent supporters of Arab causes! And what completes the picture is the enthusiasm of art market dealers.
I need here make a clear differentiation, between two trends or inclinations, namely that which tries to preserve calligraphic art within its own domain, and close to realm of graphics, and that, which tries to merge it with painting and plastic arts. The case in question here belongs more to the latter trend. And having half its name in graphic is in itself a clue to which is the better choice. The beauty of calligraphy is always a graphic beauty.
So as not to sound like making a general negative evaluation, it goes without saying that the value of every work of art surely varies from one to another. And certainly many of those works do result in esthetically beautiful visual composition, that people would like to hang in their living rooms, or city halls, or get installed in parks and roundabouts. To many, that’s good enough. And it might very well be. So with all this is mind, the whole argument here is not made to conclude that there is no, nor can there be, contemporary calligraphic art in the Arab world. To the contrary. A lot of it existed, and continues to do so in countless places, some by artists that deservingly gained high esteem, others by much less well-known calligraphists. Just look around and you will find this to be true. Arabic calligraphy can and should have modern forms of expression. In our design house we have been doing it for many decades. And so were many others too.
Words are their meaning
But all of a sudden we started seeing large oil paintings in traditional calligraphy, such as Diwani or Farsi styles, using oil paint or acrylic, substances that I find totally alien to calligraphic art, which I, like most people, hold in great adoration. Classical calligraphy was born of ink and paper, with a bit of added color or gold illuminations. Rendering it in thickly multicolor oil paint would hardly engender the beauty of the calligraphic works of past ages, or even more modern times.
The moment you look at the work you get an immediate feeling that it is overloaded with what it does not need. But paint and color or not, what is mostly to blame for the unpleasant result is that the whole process looks artificial and forced. In principle calligraphy is the art of writing a word, or a name beautifully. Sometimes writing it in the simplest manner is enough to let it express a moment of true feeling.
What is true of calligraphic formation is also true and even more so in regard to introducing detached lettering into the oil painting. And it similarly needs little proof to assume that integrating such detached letters into a painting, is not enough to make it belong to an Arab heritage or Arab modern art. In a painting such letters could be little more than geometric shapes any artist can fancy to use, Arab or even non-Arab. I don’t think it would even make a big difference, in the basic artistic character of the painting, if those letters were even Latin.
Letters or words being tools of language need to express or reveal the artist’s inner speech, in his relation to them. Which is rarely the case. And what is seen are just intricate formations of shape and color. And those swings of visual formations do not really end up in a genuine art creation, though could be visually pleasant to look at and decoratively inviting.
A Cultural DNA
A painting or any work of art needs no Arabic letters to become art, or Arab art.
Arabesque did not. In order to carry an Arab cultural artistic trait, the only rule is that an Arab artist works with genuine honest feeling. His works, in ways unknown, would carry what he as a descendant of a cultural heritage carries spontaneously in his inner self. And would similarly reflect his belonging to the modern age. His work to be honest and genuine, should have both or neither.
We, the living descendants, are our heritage, simply meaning we, like any other nation, ought to be carrying the cultural DNA, if you wish, of our cultural history. So when any Arab artist does art with the expected genuineness, whether this art had Arab lettering or not, will surely be, in one-way or another, modern Arab art.
And as we are the gateway to our heritage and its understanding, also, at one and the same time, we are the gateway to our future. So we are our heritage, but we are also our present, the children of this age. Any meaningful work we do must carry both, our heritage on the one hand, and a genuine belonging to the modern age on the other. Both, or none. And whoever is recruiting double agents for both the living cultural heritage on the one hand, and the modern visual arts on the other, real artists and designers ought to be among the best contenders.
” beauty of calligraphy is always graphic”.
Graphical calligraphy in oil painting