The Iranian art of calligraphy and its links with
the modern art

By Nasrin Pourhamrang


   This article intends to explicate the hypothesis that the art of calligraphy as an original and creative art has numerous capacities for obtaining a premier and sublime position among the modern arts. While preserving its original features, the art of calligraphy has the capacity to implement transformations in its compositional and formational structures which are two important features of the modern art and acquire a special position in the intellectual and social atmosphere of the contemporary Iranian society and international community as a modern art.

To be updated needs originality and creativity. Since it is a local art, calligraphy has originality and because of this important reason, it has the capacity to be modernized more than any other form of art. The calligrapher artist can reunite calligraphy with the contemporary needs of the society by putting into practice the aspects of his creativity while preserving the originality of this art.

Keywords: The art of calligraphy, modern art, composition, formation, symbolic relationship



   The modernism movement which encompassed the whole Europe since the second half of the 19th century and led to fundamental transformations in this continent reached the other parts of the world including Asian countries and Iran as a result of its progressive expansion. Since the acquaintance of Iranians with the manifestations of the modernity experience in the West which dates back to more than 100 years, several developments have taken place in this country, many transformations have happened and new mechanisms have become institutionalized. The results of some of these positive mechanisms have evoked widespread criticism. In enumerating the reasons of failures and deficits, many critics refer to the non-ethnicity of the experience of modernity and its material manifestation which is called modernism. Regardless of the experience of modernity which has its roots in the social political developments of the Western societies, modernity which means newness and novelty is an original need of the human societies which is not exclusive to any geographical direction but a necessity for the survival of every human society.

In order for the human societies to preserve their precious values, enrich it and add to its dimensions and depth, they should constantly undergo reconstruction and revision. As one of the most innovative Iranian arts, calligraphy enjoys the advantage of having the capacities necessary for revitalization in various dimensions. The originality of calligraphy means that its homeland is Iran and the continuation of its revitalization which is constant creation is plausible inside this land using the local experiences. Art is nothing but "creating" and this "creation" is not possible anywhere but in the riverbed which has the qualities and features of a motherland.

Material developments and the transformation of reflective insights have changed the aesthetic criteria in the Iranian society in line with the other human societies to a great extent. While respecting the traditional styles of calligraphy and emphasizing on the necessity of preserving and keeping on these styles as the essential and fundamental teachings of the classic art, the present article takes note of another necessity, which is employing the modern approaches in implementing the art of calligraphy and the capacities of this art for the realization of these approaches. However, prior to paying attention to this discussion, a brief discussion should be carried out about art and relation and also about the modern art.

A calligraphy artwork by Nasrin Pourhamrang

 First: Art, a symbolic relationship

   Although the term which the sociologists have devised in the recent years (1) and called the contemporary age the era of communication has become a prevalent term in the language and daily life of the people, one should not neglect the subtle point that in order to have a successful relationship, one should have subtle artistic insights. Albeit, it should not be interpreted as generalizing the artistic insights to the whole universe, rather it's a remembrance that the success of each relationship plays a certain role in the artistic insights. Therefore, if we are to call the contemporary age the "era of communication", we are almost alluding to the right thing.

Now, we should take into consideration the fact that the experience of creating and perceiving a work of art has a "communicative function" aside from all of the characteristics and interpretations which can be attributed to it. Perhaps attributing such a function might be considered as degradation; however, would it be still possible to overlook the communicative process which takes place between the work of art and the conscious or even the unconscious of the artist if in some cases the artist creates an artistic work simply for the sake of his personal satisfaction?

Not only in a degradative stance but even in a transcendentalist standpoint, we can attribute a communicative function to art. In such a situation, the communicative function of art would be connected with an aureole of mythology. In the explication of the communicative function of art, the communicative diagram of Roman Jakobson, the renowned Russian linguist, is frequently used:


Addresser -------------------------   Message       --------------------------- Addressee



 According to the Jakobson diagram, it's possible to draw the following diagram for the art


Artist -------------------------------- Work of art ------------------------------Addressee



 According to this communicative outlook, the context of the art of calligraphy returns to the historical and social circumstances under which the artist creates his works. You can find no artist who creates his work in an abstract space. The situation of every temporal and spatial stage influences the artistic works of that period. Each artistic work takes place in the mold of a semiological system. Symbols or codes in the semiological system of calligraphy are consisted of form, composition and context. Perhaps it can be asserted that in the modern art of calligraphy, color is also added to this semiological system.

The medium through which the artistic work is presented facilitates the connection of the two sides of the artistic work: the artist and the addressee. Tableau, book, poster and such artworks make possible this connection.

According to what has been said, art as a symbolic connection in an age which is known as the age of communication would have a more serious and complicated function. The complicatedness of the function is due to the fact that when an artistic view is turned into the problem-solving key of the establishment of every kind of connection, the artist will have a more difficult path to be traversed in order to establish a symbolic connection through the artwork.

This complicatedness also emanates from the fact that the artist should surpass the conventional outlooks and methods in order to make the artwork distinctive from the market commodity and consider the conventionality and pervasiveness of some outlooks as the taste of the majority of the addressees. Indifference to the taste of the majority of addressees sends the artist to isolation and oblivion in the entanglement of the lack of addressees.

The schema which was sketched according to the Jakobson diagram can help the calligrapher artist portray innovative perspectives in his work. Context, code, message and contact can equally determine the fundamentals in portraying these perspectives.

 Second: modern art, the defender of communicative wisdom

   As it was noted at the beginning of the present article, the experience of modernity transformed all of the spheres of social and intellectual life of the Western world since the second half of the nineteenth century and brought about new designs. A considerable part of the experience of modernity was dedicated to art. These experiences which mostly took place between the years 1890 to 1940 led to the evolution of the philosophy of contemporary art and aesthetics during their period of formation. Artistic schools such as cubism, surrealism, futurism and expressionism appeared in this period. However, it's interesting to know that the modern art, contrary to the modernism movement, does not defend the wisdom of modernity. Theodor Adorno, one of the thinkers of Frankfurt School believes that the modern art is a defender of human objectives which has risen against the instrumental wisdom of modernity (3).

Adorno as a radical critic of the modern instrumental wisdom, find his best ally among the modernist artists. "He thinks of the disasters of the modern human being as the consequence of modernity and stresses that the modern art is against these disasters and their source. Accurately, we can admit Adorno's stance that the modern thought and art are protesting slogans which express the self-alienation of the modern man and doesn't accept it" (4).

However, as Prof. Habermas believes, modern art actually defends another type of modern wisdom which is "communicative wisdom" (5). Like the classic art, modern art would be situated in the communicative position and presented to the addressee. However, what it presents is a new conception of the reality which is different from the ancient aesthetic understanding. The modern art escapes from visual habits and splits into its constituents the perspectives which were meaningful in their totality and considered to be beautiful. In the modern art, each of these constituents has an independent life.

According to the strong belief of the Russian formalists, when we evade the conventional and routine daily life and detach from our habits, it's the point where we enter the world of art (6).

According to the notes proposed, what is of high importance in the modern art is shape not the essence. Shape opens up a direct path towards the addressees to convey the feeling to him. By employing this method, the modern art involves the addressees in creating the meaning.

A calligraphy artwork by Nasrin Pourhamrang

 The last: the capacities of the art of calligraphy for modernization

   The renowned Iranian calligrapher Gholamhossein Amirkhani writes in his book "Adabolkhat": "Some [people] have maintained that the art of calligraphy and the fostering and promotion of the artists of this area has a limited circle and the frontiers of transcendence and improvement in calligraphy is restricted to scribing and writing and essentially there's little room for the manifestation of creativities for the calligraphers. They're, however, unaware of the fact that the endless expanse of the field of combination and the extensive and mysterious ground for the juxtaposition of letters and words which constitute the essence of this dignified art open up such a wide and broad horizon to the eyes and heart of the artists of this field which if accompanied with the essential spirit, perception, creative mind and divine blessing can bring into existence innovative and beautiful artworks that will shine on the high peaks of fine arts" (7).

From the viewpoint of form and invention of miscellaneous combinations which is of high importance in the modern art the art of calligraphy can result in extensive innovations in the mold of Siahmashq and Qat'eh (8). The employment of color can add to the symbolic functions of the artwork. Those artists who work in the field of calligraphy-painting have realized absorbing perspectives by using the colors and designing the inventive forms. Since what matters in the modern art is shape rather than the essence, the calligraphy artists can create works with inventions in the form, combination of words and letters to exalt the position of Iranian calligraphy in the international level and satisfy the modernistic appetite of the Iranians and specially the youths.



1- Refer to Castells, Manuel (2000), The Information Age, Economy, Society and Culture. The rise of the network society, Volume 1, Blackwell Publications

2- Sheldon, Raman and Widdowson, Peter (1993) A reader's guide to contemporary literary theory, Published by the University Press of Kentucky, p 47

3- Adorno,T.W.(1991) The Culture Industry, Tra.J.M.Bernstein,London

4- Ahmadi, Babak, 1999, Fact and Beauty, Tehran, Markaz publications, p 35

5- Ibid.

6- Selden, Raman and Widdowson, Peter (1993) A reader's guide to contemporary literary theory, pp 27-38

7- Amirkani, Gholamhossein, (1992), Adabolkhat (Calligraphy Methods), Tehran, Iran's Association of Calligraphers, p 42

8- Pourhamrang, Nasrin, (1994), The role of calligraphy in the modernism expanse, Negah-e-Nour Magazine, The First Countrywide Festival of Payame Noor University Students, pp 3-4