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Purty Words 

If you're going to illustrate text, better make it something worth reading

Wednesday, Jun 25 2003
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Some of the most beautiful murders and tortures I've ever seen are on display at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. In one image, a bearded man in a rich green tunic takes a tool that looks like sharpened fireplace tongs to the bare right breast of an unflinching, golden-haloed St. Agatha. In another, three men peel St. Bartholomew -- one stripping the pale skin near the shoulder of his right arm, one at his left wrist, a third at the top of his right thigh; in the picture's other panel, Bartholomew's loose skin drapes over his beheaded body like an afghan. A third depicts, on a gloriously red background, an armored soldier cleaving St. Peter's head with a sword.

"Treasures of a Lost Art" is a collection of Italian manuscript paintings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and despite my fascination with its exquisite horrors, it is mostly devoted to the elaborately decorated letters at the start of biblical passages that aren't quite so violent. Most of the pieces in the show are small cuttings taken from the parchment pages of Catholic choir books -- the gilded paintings acted as extravagant bookmarks, helping the singers and the priest follow the passages. But they also served a larger purpose: to reveal the "light" of the text from the inside, to express the deeper truth of God's words. This is the kind of intimate show that can absorb me for hours; every piece expresses such passion and devotion -- not to mention artistic virtuosity -- that I often found myself shaking my head in wonder.

Another local show explores art and text in a similar way, but it left me shaking my head for a different reason. "Kalligraphia X: An Exhibition by Members of the Friends of Calligraphy" at the Main Library features work by 71 practitioners of beautiful handwriting. The pieces range from the fanciful to the philosophical, and include everything from a recipe for lemon meringue pie (in yellow ink on black ground, the writing forming the shape of a lemon) to a quote from the Dalai Lama. As a longtime fan of calligraphy -- I took lessons as a preteen and a refresher course last year -- I was excited to see the variety of techniques and talent on display. But I was dismayed by several artists' choices of subject matter: quotes from Emily Post's Weddings, Barbara Kingsolver, John Lennon, even the TV show Northern Exposure, and far too much bad Emily Dickinson. Though I'm sure many of the calligraphers chose texts that meant something to them, in the viewing they fell as flat as the pages they merely decorate, rather than enhance.


Most of the illuminations created throughout the world were made for religious purposes. Before Johann Gutenberg began using movable type in the 1400s, church texts were hand-copied as a means of distribution. Scribes worked in scriptoria, rooms within monasteries dedicated specifically to the copying and decorating of manuscripts. They created illuminations -- detailed initial letters filled with miniature paintings that explain the stories that follow -- using pigments made from natural substances, including poisons (arsenic produced yellow), gems (blue came from azurite and lapis lazuli), and spices (saffron resulted in a rich orange-yellow). Glittering, fluid-looking gold leaf featured prominently in haloes and border embellishments; when natural sources of it became scarce due to geopolitical upheaval, suppliers took to beating gold coins between sheets of parchment. The work was hard from start to finish, and the pieces in "Treasures of a Lost Art" bear witness to the effort.

"This is demanding looking," explains Dr. Lynn Orr, the show's local curator. It's impossible to pass quickly through the exhibition: Each cutting is a small masterpiece, with minute details that require close viewing and bring out the biblical tales -- a tiny castle in the far distance here, a muted devil with a pitchfork prodding sinners into the flames there. In one piece, St. Francis kneels on a lush green hillside as he receives his stigmata -- in the form of sharp beams of light that fire down from a royal blue sky, piercing his hands, feet, and chest in petite bursts of yellow energy. Because the images were originally bound between book covers, their colors remain almost impossibly vibrant. Two letters by the same artist, for example, use secondary shades (orange, green, and purple) instead of the usual primaries, resulting in paintings that feel modern despite having been made in the early 15th century. One creates the letter "A" by picturing two slim, salmon-tinted dragons standing on their tails, their necks twined and their heads facing in opposite directions to form the bar across the middle; the other shows a rather middle-aged-looking Christ wearing a magenta robe within a violet "B" against a seafoam backdrop, its colors reminiscent of the latest trends in eye shadow.

Those Catholic scribes didn't choose what to illustrate. Their monasteries accepted commissions from church superiors, rich patrons, and kings, among others, and they were assigned to illuminate specific biblical passages. As a result, the work speaks little of ego. The artists poured their faith into the images, sometimes adding illustrative border designs or circular medallions showing further explanatory scenes -- "providing," the show's catalog explains, "an elaborate, visual commentary on the day's lesson beyond the sung text." Their efforts resonate, perhaps because the motivation behind them -- to enlighten and express religious passion -- seems more profound than the motivation behind the calligraphy.

The artists of "Kalligraphia X" chose what words to beautify, presumably because they liked the words and perhaps because they thought they'd look good illustrated. Some of the selections seem like little more than ads -- "If I can do this with a few nonsense words, imagine what I can do with your party invitation!" -- and others mar thoughtful meditations with excessive designs. For example, a collaborative installation organized by Thomas Ingmire gathered phrases on the subjects of "war, fear, and peace" written by more than 750 people from around the world into a series of lanterns that hang from the ceiling. It's a powerful idea, but in execution it looks like spinning racks covered with bumper stickers. Where the "Treasures" images haunt me, the "Kalligraphia" pieces left my head as soon as I left the gallery.

It's sometimes said that true artists don't choose their subjects; their subjects choose them. A didactic section in "Treasures" illustrates this idea for me. It features the work of modern-day scribe Mel Ahlborn, who spent 15 to 20 hours in her studio in Moraga creating a copy of a cutting to demonstrate the stages of an illumination. Here is a woman who studied archaeology, who worked in laser vision systems for Hughes, who creates layouts and designs on a computer, making her living in an ancient form she'd always been drawn to. What lured her to this lost art? "I always wondered," she told me, "what was so important about those words that [scribes] would spend so much time decorating them?" Ahlborn has a piece in "Kalligraphia," too, one she created for pleasure: It looks like it was carved out of marble, and its text is the short prayer of grace.

It may be that none of the language we produce these days has the power to require illumination. What would we illuminate -- State of the Union speeches? Eminem song lyrics? Dave Eggers' books? We're so bombarded with words, most of them meaningless, that even the slightest bit of intelligence begins to sound profound. But "Kalligraphia X" isn't profound. Its artists use words in the service of pretty paintings; in the illumination show, the artists used paintings in the service of the words, creating something larger and deeper. The calligraphy show is mere decoration; the illumination show is art, fashioned to glorify the words of God. "Treasures of a Lost Art" reminds us of a time when men toiling in a small room with crushed gemstones and parchment could make the word flesh for the faithful around them.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher

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