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Traditional Calligraphy vs. Expressive Calligraphy

By Silvina Viola / sviola@caligrafiar.com.ar

When two factors are opposite, as black and white, tall and short, big and small, left and right, to mention a few, there is an inevitable confrontation of “sides”. A constant, clear separation that make us choose one side or the other.
Opposites also exist in Art: Impressionism and Surrealism, Baroque and Minimalist, Harmonic and Dissonant, etc. Calligraphy is no exception.

So, what about calligraphy?
At present, in the Artistic-Latin calligraphy world of artists the first big confrontation is apparently between the “traditional way of writing”, which reproduces the different ancient styles of writing, and the “interpretative, expressive way of writing”, also known as ‘contemporaneous’.
And I say ‘apparently’ because with just a little more profound analysis we could probably prove that the interpretative, expressive, artistic calligraphy has its roots the ‘ancient, traditional’ ways of writing. Let me explain why.

Let’s begin by analyzing the traditional calligraphy
Paleographical speaking, the style and way of writing had evolved across history into a new discipline, “Calligraphy Pedagogy”.
When students are exposed to a calligraphic ‘writing piece’, which is usually the result of the extensive research and experience that the Calligrapher had on originals manuscripts, they –the students- have to know the technique.
By Technique, we mean the angle of the pen, the posture of the hand, the harmony of the movement to create or re-create an outline…
The first rule is that every student of calligraphy must master the basics of almost every traditional style and calligraphic alphabet. This subtle point makes a huge difference between a ‘copyist’ and a calligrapher.

When a calligrapher develops a new piece of work, he or she is just not ‘using’ one or more of the traditional calligraphy styles he has learned. He is also adding his own personal seal, his feelings to each one of his outlines. Then, a traditional Uncial could be named after the Xxxx Xxxx’s Uncial.
The calligrapher could then turn a letter, a drawing, an image, and something so abstract as a sound, into something UNIQUE.
The more the calligrapher masters the technique of traditional calligraphy, the fewer frontiers he/she will have to create. Add a little bit of curiosity to explore new horizons and creativity is endless.
Conversely, when traditional calligraphy and techniques are not utilized, the calligrapher´s horizon of creativity narrows significantly.

Let’s go now to the artistic, expressive, calligraphy
If you ask me why traditional calligraphy came first, the answer is simple: I am firmly convinced that “to break a rule, it is necessary to know the rule”.
In other words, we have to be ‘conscious’ that we are transforming something that has meaning to exist the way it is.
When a calligrapher who masters the rules of traditional calligraphy chooses to break those rules by altering the letterform into a profusion of lines or spots of color, he demonstrates a new significance to his calligraphic piece of writing.
Art could define traditional calligraphy as Figurative, while artistic, expressive calligraphy could be called Abstract.
To master the art of expressive, artistic calligraphy, the calligrapher must deeply know the basics. As Pablo Picasso said, to draw a bull using only four lines, first learn to draw the bull in full.
Artistic, expressive calligraphy is like an explosive freedom of creativity… Letterform becomes the excuse (or the reason) to create something new, something different. Words almost lose meaning. What matters is the general composition of the artwork, especially what it has to express, to say.

Expressive, artistic calligraphy can be legible or not, this is not the point. It could be written in a language we do not understand. Or in our own language. Personality and spontaneity prevails over “text”: that IS the point.

Expressive artistic calligraphy is not improvisation. In every “free” outline, is the the calligrapher who takes control using traditional calligraphy techniques as his mains tools. The hand holding the pen doesn’t go “with the wind”, it goes where the artist want´s it to go.
And to master this… it is necessary to have really mastered traditional writing.

Is it necessary to choose?
I believe we do not have to choose between traditional or artistic calligraphy.
If we do so, we will be losing one or the other, when we can enjoy having the pleasure of both.
It is the calligrapher as an artist who is extemporaneous and leaves his personal seal on the calligraphic piece of work.

If there is something to choose, I prefer calligraphic works that express emotions and feelings, not only beautiful well-done outlines. I choose works that perhaps are not technically perfect but those works which allow me to offer my maximum expression of the human passion.