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Art Through Time: A Global View

Writing Compare: When It Comes to the Art of Writing, How Important Is Legibility?

Poems with Floral Decoration

Poems with Floral Decoration
Artist / Origin: Kojima Soshin (Japanese, 1580–ca. 1656)
Region: East Asia
Date: Edo period, 1652
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Handscroll; ink and color on gold-decorated paper
Medium: Calligraphy, Illumination, and Illustrated Books
Dimensions: H: 12 ½ in. (31.7 cm.), W: 25 ft. (765.6 cm.)
Location: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Credit: Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The Five Scrolls

The Five Scrolls
Artist / Origin: Aaron Wolf Herlingen (Austrian, ca. 1700–ca. 1757)
Region: Europe
Date: 1748
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Ink and gold leaf on paper
Medium: Calligraphy, Illumination, and Illustrated Books
Dimensions: H: 7 ½ in. (19.1 cm.), W: 6 in. (15 cm.)
Location: Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel
Credit: Courtesy of Bridgeman Art Library

When it comes to the art of writing, how important is legibility?

Although we tend to regard the primary function of text as the communication of content, throughout history we find art in which the aesthetic qualities of writing take precedence over legibility. Such art, rather than stripping away meaning from the words, changes the way those words communicate. In works like Kojima Soshin’s Poems and Herlingen’s Five Scrolls, the script is important not only for what it says, but also for the way in which it is presented.

Questions to Consider

  • The intended audiences for these works likely knew the content of the writing they contained without having to read it. Do you think these works are able to communicate to an audience that is not already familiar with the content? Discuss.
  • In both the Japanese scroll and the Jewish sheet, words are transformed into art. How does each work achieve this transformation? How do the textual elements of the art relate to the non-textual elements?
  • Do you think there is something intrinsically artistic about letters? Where do you draw the line between writing that functions as a practical means of communication and writing that is “art”? Why?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2