Sunday, July 14, 2019

Visually Speaking

Crisp. Compact. Chic. Composed. Silken. Spartan. Taut. Trim.  

Try 4C.2S.2T. But to what do these adjectives refer?

Before answering the question, first let me admit my ignorance but abiding fascination with an East Asian puzzle. To an untrained ear, hearing Mandarin or Cantonese spoken, say on TV, is always riveting. In print, the script is even more impenetrable.

Yet, on the few occasions when I have peered closely at the Chinese language script, instinctively I had a sense o4C.2S.2T. Really?? Honestly, I have never failed to admire its artistic flair, sphinx-like starkness, and beautiful brush strokes. Baldly stated, the ancient art of calligraphy largely credited to the Chinese has never lost its lustre. Aesthetically, I could not help but marvel at the luminous spacing, high density, and harmonious rendition of the characters, written from top to bottom, right to left, as if deliberately conceived to leave a Western-schooled mind permanently befuddled.

Representative of an ancient civilisation with a strong gravitational pull around the Pacific Rim, classical Chinese calligraphy was both a communication medium and an art form, which would later spread and influence Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese cultures. Written Chinese is made up of thousands of logographic characters (logograms) composed of parts that represent physical objects, abstractions, and syllables of spoken Chinese. Before the invention of paper, these symbols were engraved onto bone, shells and wood, and subsequently on silk, thus giving the medium very limited coverage.

To people unfamiliar with Far Eastern culture, thousands of years have barely diminished the scope of the Chart of Common Characters of Modern Chinese, which features about 3,500 logograms. Even today, Chinese students have to study and memorise as many as 2,500 characters to achieve basic literacy. In comparison, the Greek language has 24 alphabets, classical Latin 23, Arabic 28, Hebrew 22, modern English 26, and the Eurasian Cyrillic script 33. To be sure, although an English writer, for instance, has to learn only 26 letters, there are thousands of words that must be mastered to become truly proficient.

The degree to which classical Chinese calligraphy has influenced its Western sub-genre is open to conjecture. And while Chinese and Western languages are literally worlds apart syntactically and structurally, calligraphy as an artistic expression became a global phenomenon. As writing substrates evolved from tablets, scrolls, papyrus, and parchment to paper, Western calligraphers morphed into creative illustrators. Back then, only the powerful and wealthy could commission hand-bound illuminated manuscripts which, on average, took years to produce, not least because of the cost and effort required to acquire the ink and writing materials.

In medieval times, the Roman Catholic Church exercised enormous political power and controlled the production and dissemination of religious codices in a highly hierarchical manner. Subsequently, the invention of the printing press facilitated a network of book publishers which led to the democratisation of the printed word. Not all calligraphers were replaced by professional typesetters because a related craft emerged, which required the skill sets of typeface designers.

As printed books fostered the spread of formal education, typography became a specialised occupation within the publishing industry. In time, calligraphy was mainly associated with the creation of expressive inscriptions and ornate hand-lettering, and found application in the design of testimonials, event invitations, certificates, religious art, logos, and maps.

Calligraphy would continue to resonate in the fields of font design and graphic arts due to the outsized influence of the late co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs. Somewhat fortuitously, legend has it that Jobs attended a calligraphy course offered by a former Catholic monk and academic, Robert Palladino, at Reed College. Jobs later said that, “It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.” Had Jobs not been an inveterate perfectionist and visionary, Microsoft might well have foisted Times New Roman, Sans Serif, and a couple of generic fonts on us all.

Coming full circle from antiquity to now, calligraphy has provided the artistic inspiration for a lattice of beguiling typefaces in the digital age. To soothe today's harried souls, old-fashioned calligraphy perhaps offers a mode of 4C.2S.2T-induced therapy for anyone willing to practise a timeless craft, requiring nothing more than a dip pen, writing ink, paper, and stillness in the limbs.   


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