by Sukanya DebAug 04, 2022
Mohammad Ehsaei (1939) is a distinguished Iranian calligrapher, graphic designer, and painter. His mastery of Persian calligraphy, as well as brilliant contemporary artistic practice, has gained him international acknowledgement and his works are acquired by institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met). Behzad Hatam (1949) is a prominent Iranian graphic designer, art critic, curator and collector. In his latest endeavour, he curated a show from the works of Ehsaei, accompanied by a book.
What distinguishes this exhibition and publication is that the works were chosen not from the master’s paintings or refined calligraphy works but from his practice sheets, that were carried out during the lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic. A collection of astonishing aesthetics, these sloppy sheets known in Persian as Siyah Mashq - literary 'black practice' - shine a light on a different aspect of calligraphy and more than half a century of Ehsaei’s life as an artist. The close friendship between Ehsaei and Hatam gave us an opportunity to sit with them for a chat about Persian calligraphy, its tradition, its place in contemporary art, graphic design and the future.
Afra Safa: Could you tell us a bit about Naste’aliq style and its importance in the Iranian culture?
Mohammad Ehsaei: Naste’aliq is a style of calligraphy that began in 14th century in Iran and reached its epitome of beauty in the 18th century. Naste’aliq is a developed version of Ta’liq, which is the first entirely Iranian style created in the 10th century due to Persian patriotic sentiments rising after the Arab conquest of the Persian Empire. It strived to create a Persian style of writing distinguished from the Arabic calligraphic systems. Therefore, Ta’liq and Naste’aliq styles are exclusive to Iran unlike other styles like Muhaqaq.
Naste’aliq is the result of Iranian ingenuity and according to calligraphy scholars of the world, it’s the most beautiful style. The Chinese calligraphy is also very beautiful, but since it’s written with a brush, it gives free flow to the artist, so the expression of emotions happens easier. Our Naste’aliq style is written by a reed made of hardwood that limits the movement. Therefore it’s much harder to achieve a piece that would astonish the audience and shake their emotions. It’s a daunting task to show all the feelings, genius and love that circulates the Persian culture with this rigid tool.
Afra: How do you find the experience of carrying the burden of an ancient art and keeping up with the pace of the contemporary while avoiding kitsch?
Ehsaei: Prior to painting my expertise was in Naste’aliq calligraphy. I also loved writing Muhaqaq style which is used mainly for writing the Quran, because I come from a religious background and grew up in Qazvin where there is a mosque and a school that are a festival of Kufic and Islamic calligraphy.
But when I managed to reach an agreeable standard in calligraphy, I went to the Tehran University to study painting. This was simultaneous to the modernisation of Iran at the height of western influence in the arts. All our tutors were educated in Europe and naturally they transferred to the students what they had learnt. The problem was that they had jumped on this train midway. We forget that western artists come from a long background. But we never explored the source. We just wanted in on modernism!
I am the result of this weird time but I was lucky to have a solid traditional foothold. I also had the chance to travel to Europe and USA in my critical years and explore the art and the museums. Moreover, as a painter, in my own culture, I had an ocean of aesthetic resources that I did not need to bring myself a bucket from the West. However, what I learned from Europe was the western world view; the way Europeans observe their surroundings and their habit of research, curiosity and experience.
Thus, for instance my Allah series, are celestial words but, in their essence, they are paintings. It must be looked at, not read. The script which is the tool to transfer and keep knowledge and news has been stripped of its function, turned it into something useless. And art is not supposed to have a use or function.
Behzad Hatam: In my opinion the reason that Master Ehsaei’s work avoids becoming kitsch and the significant difference it has from the works of other calligraphers or calligraphic painters is that Ehsaei owns the knowledge of contemporary art and, also owns the culture and knowledge of the traditional Iranian calligraphy and the Persian culture. And the merging of all these in him has created this exceptional individual.
Afra: Mr. Ehsaei has written a collection of Hafez poetry (14th century cherished Persian lyric poet, whose diwan is the pinnacle of Persian literature) in Naste’aliq and also a Quran in Muhaqaq style. In your book you have written that “Ehsaei’s Quran is modern”. This is a Quran written in Muhaqaq, how can it be modern?
Behzad: Because the Muhaqaq style that Ehsaei writes is different from the Muhaqaq written by someone who lacks the knowledge of modern art. When an individual is immersed in culture, that culture is not only the backup for his artistic career and creativity but also it shows itself in his method and the smallest gestures of his hand.
Ehsaei: From a visual point of view Muhaqaq is the best style for the word of God. It’s a very rigorous script. I wanted this Quran to be an official one, so I obeyed all the rules of the style. I had to somewhat limit myself. Yet still I did a little mischief here and there. I made some changes in the letters and interesting compositions happened in the layout of the pages and lines.
Behzad: Those are gorgeous! When you look at any long piece of calligraphy like Hafez or Quran you are encountering a piece of visual music. The difference between Hafez diwan and Quran is the same as two different genres of music. The rhythms that reveals itself in the calligraphy of Ehsaei’s Hafez sounds like an Iranian Dastgah music, and his Quran in my opinion sounds exactly like listening to Jazz improvisation. And since this calligrapher sees Hafez or Quran in a global context, the Hafez Ehsaei writes sounds like listening to the poems of Hafez. There is music inside the curves that sounds like Hafez. This is beyond calligraphy. It’s beyond writing beautiful letters.
Afra: From Mr. Ehsaei you picture an artist that is always walking on the sharp edge between art/craft, freedom/control, and modernism/tradition. How can he keep his balance?
Behzad: Because he’s gone through the traditional tutorship and all the painstaking practice of a traditional calligrapher; but it’s the modern culture and point of view that stops him from falling into the pit that other calligraphers have fallen in the contemporary time.
Afra: What is Ehsaei’s effect on Iranian graphic design?
Behzad: This is a very interesting question. Calligraphy in Iran encounters the same issue that happened to it in the West with the invention of the print machine. There’s no more need for calligraphers to make books. So, Ehsaei’s students now are using their knowledge in the area of font design. Thus, calligraphy returns to print in the form of readymade styles. Aesthetics in general shows where a person stands in place and time. What he’s witnessed. What the collection of his culture is. Aesthetics is an individual’s taste. Ehsaei’s calligraphy has the post-print era aesthetics and this is what is absent in the works of contemporary calligraphers. In his work text has been analysed into a very specific image which is the base for creativity. This is the effect of Ehsaei on Iranian graphic design. When you look at Ehsaei’s Hafez diwan you can’t find a single fault in it; the faults that you could find even in the works of old masters. The ratio of the letters and the lines with each other and the layout shows us an artist who’s mastered graphic design and composition.
Afra: Can we compare your paintings with abstract expressionism?
Ehsaei: Expressionists come from the renaissance and thus individuality is the core value of their work and life. Their reactions are individual and not from collective culture. Pollock for example, is an individual exposed to his environment. But, I am not an individual; I am a community. Perhaps the look of my works is similar to them, but I am from the East. And we are different.
Behzad: I think your Allah series are expressionist paintings. I have three of them and I hung them upside down. Because it’s not important to read them.
Ehsaei: To see my works as expressionist paintings you need to first move on from calligraphy and only look at them. In that sense they are expressive paintings. I write with acrylic or gauche on the canvas, then I apply a substance over it before applying the background colour. Then with a sharp tool I take off the colour where the word is hidden. What gives me pleasure is finding that lost word. And when it’s revealed, you can only love it or hate it. No in between. But since it’s not about my pride, there’s no painterly deceit in this gesture, and it’s been stripped of all technique and method; it’s pure art.
Afra: Let’s get to the book. It’s the collection of your practices. What is the significance of Siyah Mashq (or Black Practice) in this field?
Ehsaei: Calligraphy needs to grow under the supervision of a master or a tutor. The pupil needs to copy the master numerous times. This process needs practice. In the old times that the papers were made by hand and they were rare, the pupils had to practice on one piece until the sheet was completely blackened by ink. This was called Siyah Mashq or Black Practice. Historically we have few Siyah Mashqs left, because these papers were then used to make book covers. So not many Black Practices were kept, neither from Iranian nor from the Indian calligraphers. But as the connection with the West developed in the 18th century and many western envoys came to Iran, they found Naste’aliq style very intriguing, and they regarded the Black Practices as paintings. The downfall of contemporary calligraphers is caused by not doing Black Practice. We have to reflect on both aspects of Black Practice; one is a practice to warm up the hand and the other is a completely private art creation. In truth, Black Practice is not supposed to be read. The Black Practice we have today are paintings.
Behzad Hatam: Black Practices are very private actions, so they come from the depth of the artist’s subconscious and have a sort of purity that makes it a very high art. This is what makes them so valuable. It’s so private that Ehsaei writes down his state of mind and body on the margins. This is what makes it significant. We are watching the calligrapher in his most vulnerable state.
Afra: You worked on these Black Practices during the COVID-19 lockdown. Was the feeling different?
Ehsaei: I was bound to my home in Tehran with no supplies. A year before I had finished the Quran I had been working on for nine years. And for nine years I had to avoid Naste’aliq. I missed Naste’aliq very much. So one night I brought some notebooks and a reed and began curing this sense of nostalgia. This was the beginning. This is writing for the sake of writing. It’s useless. Although, some of the texts that I chose were deliberate like the one from Golestan (landmark of Persian literature in prose by Sa’adi).
Afra: How did you choose the material of the texts?
Ehsaei: From memory. Sa’adi’s text was my own reaction to the problems we face in our society today. This is a demonstration of dissatisfaction from our current conditions. Whenever I write, in my subconscious there are poems from Khayam or Rumi, or Sa’adi. These poems are all present in me. It’s also important to show the humbleness of an old man who’s known for brilliant calligraphy. It’s important that when I am only a few steps away from the grave and whatever I create is priceless, I sit and Black Practice.
Behzad: Like a child doing his homework.
Ehsaei: When I look at these, I see the outcome of all I have witnessed and learned and loved. It has a message for those who respect their traditions and identity. When I see a pot from Neyshabour; ornate with that high Kufic calligraphy, I have to be able to say that I was raised in this land. These are the epitome of humility and love towards the culture, the language, and the script.
Afra: Calligraphy is popular among foreign buyers, and many find it attractive because of its exoticness. Can this harm the aesthetics of calligraphy?
Behzad: I think this has already happened. Many of those who are working on calligraphic paintings are doing it because of the high prices and foreign attention. But this reminded me of an article I read in 2010 in a German art magazine titled Return of Beauty to the Art. It claimed that due to the beauty in the works of Eastern artists, Western artists are now rediscovering beauty in their works. And the examples were Mr. Ehsaei and Ms. Monir Farmanfarmayan and another artist I can’t remember. What I wish to say is that although that harm coming from western attention is there, but a quality art like Mr. Ehsaei’s can reverse it.
Ehsaei: Before, the people who could buy art were the elite who had the knowledge of it. Now many people can buy art while the culture and taste has deteriorated. There’s no time for high art anymore. This includes calligraphy.
Afra: What is the future of calligraphy?
Ehsaei: Since the political and societal system in Iran is very abnormal, one cannot have hope in the normal sense. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Calligraphy can completely perish, or go down a different path. But as we see it now, new calligraphers - my pupils included - are rediscovering the golden age of calligraphy. When their tastes are augmented this is reflected in one’s work and then it’s transferred to their audience.
Behzad: But I am not optimistic about pure calligraphy. A successful calligrapher today needs to be someone like you with the same mixture of contemporary aesthetics and traditional consistency in practice. I don’t see these characteristics in anyone. I think you are the last.
Ehsaei: All the characteristics need to collect in one person, and they need to gather at the right time. Above all, that person needs to be chosen by the Lord to take this burden.
This interview was initially done in Persian and then translated to English. The unfamiliar terms are briefly described in the text.