November 20, 2012

At The Met: Artful Words

Calligraphy by Hon'ami Koetsu, Poem by Kiyowara no Fukayabu; early 17th century; poem card mounted as a hanging scroll, ink on paper with mica. 

That words in themselves can be beautiful, and that calligraphy is practiced as a fine art, is very evident when looking at some of the work in the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art. These exciting scrolls, screens, and ceramics inspired me to write a blog post on calligraphy, and to return to the new Islamic wing, where I knew I'd find more examples of the aesthetic possibilities of words. I learned that the poem above was written in the "scattered writing" technique: we read first the center, the darkest characters, which mean "to die from love", and then read left, then right. The entire poem, translated by John T. Carpenter, reads
If I die of a broken heart,
no other name than yours
will be raised in blame,
but no doubt you'll just say,
"That's life: nothing lasts forever."

Calligraphy by Hon'ami Koetsu; section of a poem scroll; shortly after 1615; fragment of a hand scroll mounted as a hanging scroll; ink, silver, and gold on paper.

This work by the same artist shows his surprising shifts of weight and value in his brushstrokes. Three poems inscribed here were part of a 100 poem anthology from the 13th century. One of the poems, which especially touches me, is by Fun'ya no Asayasu (9th century) and translated by John T. Carpenter:
Glistening drops of dew,
scattered by the wind
across autumn plains,
appear like unstrung jewels
scattered everywhere. 

Konoe Nobutada, Poetry Screen: Six Poems by Women Poets; early 17th century; ink on paper. 

I found this screen as wonderful and moving to look at as the justly famous screen of irises, which you can see here. The energy and freshness of the brush made it seem as though this was a description of life itself. The poems here are all love poems, full of longing and loss; here is one by Lady Horikawa (12th century), translated by John T. Carpenter:
How can I be sure your heart
will remain forever constant,
since my own feelings of love
are as tangled as my black hair
as the day breaks. 

Ogata Kenzan, Ceramic Tiles with Poems by the Thirty-six Immortal Poets; early 18th century; glazed stoneware with enamels.

Lastly from the Japanese show, this charming tile, with its little flat-topped trees, looking like so many toadstools, enlivened by the flowing script.

Fragment with Arabic Inscription, Iran, late 9th century; earthenware, white slip with black slip decoration under transparent glaze. 

The quality of Islamic calligraphy is much more formal and decorative than the Japanese, and every bit as exciting for me. I love the drama of the simple design.

Ceramic Mosque Lamp, Egypt, 15th century; stonepaste, polychrome painted under transparent glaze. 

There is an extravagant grace in this calligraphy.

Tile from an Inscriptional Frieze, Iran, A.D. 1333-34; stonepaste, modeled, inglaze-painted in blue, luster-painted on opaque white glaze. 

Here the flowing lines of script are echoed by the arabesques of foliage.

Page of Calligraphy from an Anthology of Poetry by Sa'di an Hafiz; calligrapher: Sultan 'Ali Mashhadi; present day Afghanistan, late 15th century; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. 

Leaf of Calligraphy; calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Nur; Iran, early 16th century; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. 

This Arabic calligraphy has a fluid, yet controlled form that seems to me to be closer to medieval European manuscripts in its flavor than to the Japanese form.  

Folio from a Qur'an Manuscript; Syria, second half of 8th century; ink opaque watercolor, and gold on parchment. 

Folio from a Qur'an Manuscript; India, early 15th century; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. 

The very early Qur'an above, with its thick elongated letters, is very different from the more cursive script, called Bihari, in the later one from India. Looking at these reminds me of the many fonts that designers have come up with in the 20th and now 21st centuries, how never-endingly inventive artists can be with the simple material of 26 letters in the alphabet.

Hebrew Bible; Germany, about 1300; ink on parchment. 

The imagery on the front page of this bible is made up of tiny words, taken from the masorah, "a system of notes developed by medieval scribes and scholars to ensure the correct transmission of the Hebrew Bible"(from the wall label). The label also points out that this "micrography" is related to the Islamic calligraphic tradition, another instance of the closeness of these two cultures. Words as instruction, words as enlightenment, words as emotion, all enhanced by words as aesthetic forms.


  1. Beautiful. Funny, I've been reading one of Mo Yan's books and feel that the translation is rough in spots. It made me curious about the adequacy of translation in general. I came on this quote: “To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words.” Salman Rushdie-Shame
    Words reveal so much about a culture and what it holds dear. I have heard that Mo Yan often writes his stories by hand, with a brush. It must be quite something to watch. It makes me wonder how well the nuance of a Chinese character can be westernized, much less the flow of the story or poem. It is worth the effort, but I feel I should be humble in judgement.

    1. John, I recently read a review in the New York Review of Books that showed several different translations of the same Japanese poems; it was very interesting to see how each translator dealt with the challenge and how each was slightly different in feel and emphasis.
      As for words and culture, we of course have been told how many words there are for snow in the Eskimo language; words show us what's important.