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|art lesson: the history of calligraphy
Calligraphy, derived from the Greek word "kalli," for beautiful, and "graphia," for writing, illustrates the age-old desire to adorn words with an aestheticism that transcends mere practicality. The practice of calligraphy that thrives today developed in both Europe and in Asia, independent of each other.
The origin of the Chinese script dates back some 4,500 years, appearing in ancient tombs in Shandon Province. In 213 B.C., the Chinese Prime Minister Li Szu created an official index of characters, and unified the written form for use by scholars. This index is known as "chuan-shu," and contained more than 3,000 characters. Calligraphy developed when the Chinese began using brush and ink to produce this script of characters. Over time, the Chinese came to appreciate calligraphy as the most abstract and sublime art form. Though characters are the vehicles for a calligrapher's expression, understanding their literal meaning is not integral to appreciating their beauty. By varying the amount of ink, thickness of paper, and flexibility of brush, each work of calligraphy reveals the artist's individual style. Also see Sumi-e Background & Instruction.
Japan adopted calligraphy from the Chinese by the 7th century A.D. For the Japanese, imperfections are as much a part of the artistic value as is technical expertise. Traditional Japanese calligraphy even lays out rules regarding the amount and placement of blotted and dry strokes in a piece.
In Europe, calligraphy flourished in the 6th century A.D., in the monastic scriptoriums. The increasingly prominent role of the Church during the Middle Ages stimulated a high demand for religious texts. Despite improvements in paper production that made paper more accessible, the printing press had not yet been invented. Monks had to manually copy thousands of texts, and used calligraphy in order to acquire a consistent look. Elders in the monasteries painstakingly proofed the scribes' work and maintained a quiet working environment, free of distractions. The resulting manuscripts from this period are noted for their richly illuminated pages and beautiful calligraphy.
During this expansive period, myriad styles of calligraphy developed thorought Europe. The Gothic style, featuring narrower, closely spaced letters, arose out of the need to save space. During early Renaissance England and Holland, a more legible and efficient hand, known as the Bastarda lettering style, evolved out of the rigid and ornate gothic script. The expanding middle classes possessed a relatively high literacy rate and consumed more texts. With the efficient new Bastarda style, scribes could write faster and produce more books to satisfy this growing demand.
Though the printing press significantly reduced the need for calligraphers, the script survived and re-established itself as a contemporary art form. Experts attribute the revival of calligraphy in America to Edward Johnston, who studied the art in the early 20th century. He redefined the use of the edged pen, and taught both his own styles and established ones to a new generation of scribes.
Today, calligraphy continues to play a significant role in the art and design of contemporary societies, touching our lives in small or significant ways. In the the West, calligraphy appears on presentation addresses, diplomas and awards, as well as in media and advertising. In Taiwan and China, elementary school children continue to learn how to paint their characters. In Japan, the government even has a special Bureau of Decoration, consisting of four master calligraphers whose jobs are to adorn award certificates with their elaborate script.
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