Khat Naqsh
in the work of three Iranian calligraphers.

© Mamoun Sakkal 2001

After a period of loosing interest in the art of calligraphy in many Muslim countries as a result of European hegemony during the past two centuries, we are witnessing a renewed fascination in this art, not only in its traditional forms, but also in new and innovative ways. The new works of art that use calligraphy as the medium of expression range in approach, style, and technique, but share a reverence for the visual qualities of the written word as inherited from many centuries of tradition, or as reinvented by modern artists. This trend is gaining acceptance and vigor in all Islamic countries. It is bound to grow even stronger as evidenced by the many excellent and promising works of art one sees in almost every group art show around the world, and ones completely dedicated to calligraphic work as well.

Iran is not different in this regard. Its modern calligraphic art is called Khat Naqsh which can be translated as "painted calligraphy" or "calligraphic painting." Its artists and calligraphers share many qualities of innovation and diversity with their fellow artists in other countries, but also display some qualities unique to their local visual heritage. By reviewing the work of three Iranian calligraphy artists I will try to detect some of these qualities.

Reza Mafi. Satr Navisi 1982
Reza Mafi. Satr Navisi 1979
Reza Mafi. Naqshi Khat 1975

Reza Mafi stays very close to calligraphic traditions of Iran by using elegant Nastaliq and Shikasteh Nastaliq in his finished pieces (Qit’as) and less formal pieces (Siah Mashq). But he also explores new effects by writing on textured and metallic backgrounds as in his works “Satr navisi ” of 1979 written with ink on colored background and of 1982 written with ink on gold sheet. But he also ventures into more radical realms as in his work of 1975 “Naqashi khat” which is executed in cement relief on wood. His work displays grace and elegance combined with the utter delight of simple compositions of exquisite calligraphy.

Reza Mafi was born in mashad in 1943. After apprenticeship under the calligrapher E’tezadi, he came to Teheran where he studied under Seid Hossein Mirkhani and finished the four year courses in three years. He died in 1982 [1].

Mahdi Fallah, Persian poetry    

Mahdi Fallah also stays close to the traditions of calligraphy in Iran, but combines it with elements drawn from manuscript miniature painting and decoration in his exuberant works. He often mixes Nastaliq with Shikasteh Nastaliq in the same work, and varies the location and size of the different calligraphic parts of his work in inventive compositions. He usually chooses a phrase to write in black ink in a large, highly stylized composition, then distributes other elements around in various sizes, styles and colors.

But in addition to calligraphy, he uses frames, arabesque patterns, and especially marbleizing to impart a playful, engaging quality to his calligraphic pieces. These additional decorations are often performed by other artists, such as Muhammad Tarikati and Muhammad Baqer Aghamiri [2].

Fallah’s work is distinguished by its subtle colorations of the background treatments, and bold colorations used for the calligraphy. Many display a tender elegance combined with vivacious waves of marbleized paper colors and twirling arabesque leaves.

Jawad Bakhtiari,
Akher Shahnameh
Jawad Bakhtiari,
Jawad Bakhtiari,

While these two artist calligraphers remain very true to Iranian traditions in calligraphy and manuscript illumination, Jawad Bakhtiari wants to explore new avenue by combining painting in the European sense with Nastaliq calligraphy. This he does by adding realistically rendered objects to calligraphic compositions, or by adding calligraphy to a painted seen. For example in his work "Akher Shahnameh (the end of the Shahnameh)" he painted a candle standing in front of a wall mounted paper, on which he rendered classic calligraphy [3].

To me his most successful pieces are those where he uses more traditional elements of calligraphy and illumination, such as "Hijran (Abandonment)", a poem of Hafiz. Less successful are his works that ignore the delicate quality of Nastaliq, and render it in three dimensional treatments which turn it into a heavy and contrived element in the painting, such as in his untitled work of 1369 AH in which he painted word as a masonry window screen [4].

Since calligraphic pieces of artwork incorporate words, one has to analyze the text in these works, in addition to the images, to completely appreciate their value and understand their aims. Unfortunately, I am not able to perform this task yet because of my language limitations, not because I don’t consider the text an essential part of the calligraphic work.

We have found that these artists all use different variations of Nastaliq in their artwork. They often combine illumination and miniature painting elements with their calligraphy. These are Iranian artistic traditions that go back at least to the fourteenth century. However, each artist calligrapher in his own unique way tries to advance this tradition, either by working from within its boundaries or by borrowing from European sources, in order to make this art work more relevant to modern tastes and life conditions, and to insure its continued growth as a vital way to record and express human and aesthetic experiences.

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