Discovering The Art Of Calligraphy

We Are Engaged In A Process Of Discovery: Rediscovering The Islamic Arts In General, And The Art Of Calligraphy In Particular. The Most Salient Indicator Of The Situation Is That The Annual Sales Volume Of Calligraphy, Which Was 50 Million Liras 5 Years Ago, Is Up To 200 Million Liras Today.

I talk with contemporary artist Haluk Akakçe as he produces one of his most recent works. As we speak of the link between past and future, which is outside our control, and how the past affects our present and future but the future also shapes our past, he suddenly asks, “Why does time flow in a straight line in the West? Have you ever thought about that?” adding, “In the East, in the Islamic concept of art, time is multifaceted…” Naturally, I have thought about the vast timeliness of the calligraphic art and the sense of eternity it conveys. To which he says, “I want to imbue my art with that sense from now on. I mean, like calligraphy, I don’t want it to be confined within a frame.” Then he adds, “But of course a person cannot forget. He surveys the universe with his 1.70-meter height, and he cannot forget how tiny he is amidst all that splendor…” With that conversation still fresh in my mind, I go to see Dr. Nazan Ölçer, Director of the Sakıp Sabancı Museum, to discuss the exhibition, Rembrandt and His Contemporaries: The Golden Age of Dutch Art. As we are talking about Rembrandt, The Girl with the Pearl Earring and Turkish-Dutch relations, the subject of how the museum is going to celebrate its 10th anniversary comes up. Ölçer says that the Sabancı family’s collection of Ottoman calligraphy is going to be exhibited as never before. “It’s a fabulous interactive system. Visitors will play with the old Arabic characters through animations created using enhanced reality technology. They will see the different writing techniques and the finer aspects of the art of the book and follow everything in detail with the help of an iPad.” As I listen to the details of the collection and exhibiting techniques, I am of course excited. But I am literally propelled into the air like a swing when Ölçer says they are going to show everybody what a modern, eternal and inspiring art calligraphy is. But then the swing rebounds, giving me pause. What brings a blush to my face is this: No matter how long I look or how hard I try, I simply cannot grasp the promised profundity! So Ölçer’s next comment is reassuring: “Whether you understand it or not, those characters, those lines, those curves throw open the horizon all the way to eternity in your brain.” And so, on May 9 the Sakıp Sabancı Museum opened up the Arts of the Book and Calligraphy Collection to visitors with the intention of keeping that horizon open, that sense of eternity alive. Before us are more than 200 works of Islamic art spanning a period from the 14th to the 20th century: manuscript copies of the Holy Quran, poems and collages, framed inscriptions, ‘hilye’ (descriptions of the Prophet Muhammad), imperial firmans and diplomas, rare manuscript books, and the tools used by calligraphers… And a documentary on the Arts of the Book, made in collaboration with Mimar Sinan University of the Fine Arts, explaining the finishing of the paper, mixing of the ink, illumination of the pages written in different calligraphic scripts, pulverization of the gold leaf, illustration of the texts, and, finally, binding of the book by stitching the pages together, in short, all the stages of book production. Whether we understand what the writing means and can penetrate the depths or not, this is an exhibition where we will learn and feel many things! But that’s not all, because there is another big museum on the way! Two of Turkey’s leading collectors, Demet and Cengiz Çetindoğan, are getting ready to present their collection in a major museum to open on the Golden Horn next year. And in a development in France, the Louvre Museum in Paris is going to put its 18,000-piece collection of Islamic works on exhibit in a modern building in the Visconti courtyard in the fall of 2012. The entire cultural development of Islamic civilization from the 7th to the 19th century can be surveyed in the new, 3,000-square-meter building that has been built to accommodate the museum’s growing collection of Islamic works. We are involved in a process of discovery: rediscovering the Islamic arts in general and the art of calligraphy in particular. The two big calligraphy exhibitions that opened at the Vatican and in London last year, and the awarding of one of Turkey’s 2011 Presidential Cultural and Art Grand Prizes to calligrapher Hasan Çelebi, are two key indicators of the situation. And of course there are the dazzling economic indicators as well: the annual sales volume of calligraphic art, which was 50 million liras five years ago, is up to 200 million liras today. Again, a calligraphic work that sold for 10,000 liras five years ago is going for 30,000 this year. And the sale of Kazasker Mustafa İzzet’s ‘hilye-i şerif’ for 1,150,000 liras in 2010 was another milestone. One of a handful of collectors of the traditional Islamic arts in Turkey, Mehmet Çebi has this to say about the situation: “For years calligraphy did not get the attention it deserves, but now the balance has tipped and collecting calligraphy is a symbol of prestige. Prices are going to rise significantly in the near future.” Serdar Gülgün, a connoisseur of Ottoman art, is of the same opinion: “Much higher prices are going to be bruited about in the next few years, because the Ottoman period calligraphy on the market is dwindling by the day.” Calligrapher Hasan Çelebi is pleased as well: “We waited for years for this art to be talked about on radio and in the magazines, in the media in general. We perked up our ears at any mention of art hoping maybe they would include calligraphy. They counted music, theater, painting and cartoons, but calligraphy was never mentioned. But all that has changed today. The art of calligraphy can’t regress now thanks to the new masters that are being trained and the interest shown by the people.” WHEN PURCHASING CALLIGRAPHY Three points to keep in mind when purchasing calligraphy according to connoisseur of the traditional Turkish arts Nilgün Şensoy 1. Calligraphy made with a reed pen is more valuable, more valuable even than that drawn in gold leaf. 2. Calligraphy that has been filled in with decorations may appear more ostentatious, but the valuable calligraphy is that drawn with a reed. 3. Calligraphy itself is unadorned. The illumination around it is what is important. But illumination added later reduces the price by one-third.