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Fr. 511

April 21, 2014

Hassan Massoudy’s The Calligrapher’s Garden is developed as a collection of “garden calligraphies”. As distinct from others, these calligraphies are conceived by the author as an attempt to “sense the seasons and evoke them in…gestures and colours” (“Introduction, p. 6). As each calligraphy is paired with a proverb or a selection from a poem, there is to be found in each two-page spread some relation or interplay between the text on the left (accompanied by the translation of the text in Arabic plainscript) and the calligraphy on the right. What is the relation between the two? The introduction is more or less content to leave its explication at the following: Massoudy “captures in calligraphy what countless poets have wrought with words” (from the inside flap).

The question remains how Massoudy does so and how the calligraphies themselves are to be “read”. As the first element of a general reading strategy, it is reasonable to ask: “are the calligraphies to be understood as merely figurative or representative?”.

The willow
paints the wind
without a brush.
– Saryu     (image credit)

One natural way of answering this question consists in noting that, as each calligraphy is paired with a quotation, the text is illustrated in the brushstrokes, at least in indirect fashion. This owes in part to the choice of color with regards to the season and natural phenomena under consideration. In the example above, the green strokes in the background recall willow leaves, and the fade from white to blue or blue to white could easily stand in for the wind, itself otherwise unseen. The calligraphy itself only reinforces this impression as the composition centers on the word rih (wind).

Similarly, we might find in the case below the tree-shape and tree-color of the target quotation.

The seed carries the tree within.
– Herder (image credit)

We find below yet another testament to this more imagistic reading strategy in regards to quotation and calligraphy. Indeed, the quotation’s “sun” blazes about the calligraphy’s middle, and the backing text itself may be seen as either sun or tree. The sun, so to speak, shines through the choice of color, as well.

The sun frolics in the blossoming tree.
– Hugo (image credit)

Up to this point, it would be tempting to read the calligraphy as figurative or, within the confines of traditional text-image analysis, as illustrating via image the content of a text. Yet Massoudy subverts this would-be pattern in other places, particularly when he models the calligraphy more closely off the target quotation’s translation and transcription in Arabic text than any figuration of the quotation’s content.

To take an example, we might wonder where, if at all, the tree and its roots are to be found in the image below. Here, we can rely neither on the shape nor the color to guide us to a certain reading.

Without roots, a tree cannot stand.
– African proverb (image credit)

The question then becomes whether, in straying from the strictly figurative, Massoundy does nonetheless capture something of the representative in these. Simply, is there still not some figure to be sought in the decorative script? Should our reading of the pairing proceed from quotation to the script through the means of representation or from quotation to representation through the means of the script? In other words, if the end goal is the calligraphy’s script, then the representation of content, weak or strong, is secondary and only brings us closer to our end, i.e. to lend greater attention to the script’s form. If, on the other hand, the end goal is the representation of content, then the script’s form only serves to direct attention to the revelation of the content depicted therein.

This reading seems, however, to break down in the case of select examples, as below. For how would the representation of cherry blossoms at the level of color or form fit either of these schemes? If the former, the representation of cherry blossoms would direct our attention again to the script itself. Yet the script here seems to stand independently of any content depicted, for we are hard-pressed to find the blossoms in shape or color. Hence, the representation cannot be the means to deeper understanding of the script. That said, if the latter, the script itself would direct our attention to the representation. Again, this is hard to countenance when the script seems to have come apart from any representation potentially contained in the calligraphy but otherwise difficult to single out. In short, the script does not merely serve to reveal content.
A world of pain and sorrow
at the very time when cherry trees are blossoming.
– Kobayashi Issa (image credit)

This would seem to suggest that we need an alternative tack for approaching calligraphies at the level of text and script, content and image. Rather than read one as dependent on the other, as in our schemes above, it would perhaps be better to understand their relation to one another as some sort of text-image juxtaposition and not illustration or representation. Accordingly, there are four ways in which one might impinge on the other through the relationship established via juxtaposition.

1. Text and image do not affect or disrupt one another
2. Text affects or disrupts image
3. Text is affected or disrupted by image
4. Text and image affect or disrupt each other simultaneously

This four-part schematization in terms of of text and image is, however, immensely complicated in the case of Massoudy’s calligraphy. For, unlike Western texts in which this question appears, the text under consideration also appears calligraphied as elements within the image. So it is that the pictoral role of the script eats away at this dichotomy between text and image without falling into the ekphrastic, i.e. the mere description in text of an image. In the end, Massoudy’s calligraphies seem to hover in something of a netherrealm, between text and image, between figurative and abstract.

This leaves a final question, of lesser importance, as to whether Western texts themselves could inhabit this same between space, be in the form of calligraphies or ideograms. For instance, we could attempt to make of the word “tree” the image of a tree in heightening the “t” to an extreme or make of the word “wave” the image of a wave in stretching the “w” to either side to cradle the other letters in its troughs. A similar operation could easily be envisaged with the word mountain.

Yet it is unclear if this retains the figurative ambiguity to be found in Massoudy’s work. Can there be an “ought” question of this sort (namely, “ought Western scripts to inhabit this space?”) when Massoudy’s own practice seems itself to eclipse such a dilemma, as when he highlights a word from the transcription, evokes the seasons through color, or varies the quotient of straightforwardly representative or abstract in the figuration of a flower? In the end, it is difficult to see precisely how Westerns scripts could themselves both open up and make a home of this netherrealm of non-figurative figuring.

One Comment leave one →
  1. rblakslee permalink
    May 5, 2014 3:14 am

    Your questioning exploration of the relationship between text and image in the case of Massoudy’s calligraphy, and calligraphy in general, opened up for me a very interesting space for the comparison of meaning in fine art and in writing. I also think your blog does of a great job of combining your substantial engagements with individual texts with your own creative work. And so I’m nominating you for the Liebster Award, for which my and my friends’ blog was recently nominated. The purpose of the award is to generate “mutual acknowledgement and reciprocal promotion. It helps bloggers, and in particular newbies, to get noticed in the big blogosphere.” Take a look at the information on our blog to find more about what this entails: I hope you choose to participate! And thank you very much for your earnest and well-written posts! Best, Robert.

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