Many Letters

Velimir Moist

The International Exhibition of Calligraphy in Veliky Novgorod was memorable for its Sacred Mantra carved in stone, the Ten Commandments with a matzoth cover, the handwritten copy of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, Calligraphy On a Wing Of a Fly, and other rarities from around the world.

If a Tibetan monk’s self-concentration is joined with a romantic poet’s emotionality and a little bit of a janizary’s hand steadiness multiplied by selfless devotion to calligraphy of Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich, we will obtain an almost perfect image of the calligrapher. This art has always been considered elitist and nowadays seems altogether exotic. However, even today the fellowship of calligraphers is numerous, though their works rarely catch the limelight.

The 3rd International Exhibition of Calligraphy has become one of the main opportunities for basking in this limelight. It is no wonder Veliky Novgorod was chosen to be a host city after St. Petersburg and Moscow. An ancient Volkhov river-situated city traditionally challenged the title of the cradle of the Russian writing, whereas the number of artifacts discovered in Novgorod far exceeds its rivals. This summer, archeologists have excavated the anniversary thousandth birch bark.

Therefore, Veliky Novgorod can also be called the nation’s calligraphy cradle with the evidence presented at the exhibition in the local Kremlin timed to coincide with the main event. The Novgorod State Museum-Reserve displayed hand-written prayer books, notes in hook system, samples of business correspondence and birch barks. One of them ran as follows, “From Dobroshka to Proksha. Send me a grivna, for Davyd failed to give it to me, said to take it from the tanners.”

A beautiful rare hand-written denunciation of a Cyrillo-Novozersky Monastery Father Superior by a certain Isidorka addressed to Tsar Alexis Mikhalovich of Russia also survived to this day. Delighted overseas calligraphers who attended the opening day carefully examined the local Half-uncial Cyrillic Book Hand and Cyrillic Cursive Handwriting.

The main exhibition was held on the other side of the river in a giant pavilion at the so-called Yaroslav’s Court. About four hundred exhibits from the Moscow Contemporary Museum of Calligraphy, the organizer of the project, were displayed. The abovementioned up-to-dateness is due to the fact that almost all the masterpieces have been created during recent decades. However, thematically and stylistically they are mostly related to the old traditions as in this field innovations are impossible without reliance on the classics. Orthodox troparia, surahs of the Qur’an, fragments of the Torah and Buddhist mantras are written or drawn using the same age-old emotion and technology.

However, there is not a rule without exceptions.

For example, Mikhail Kopylkov created a very unusual Decalogue on dark Egyptian papyrus translated into several languages and covered with a matzoth texture. Sven Plamper from Germany engraved the Sacred Mantra on a sandstone slab covered with a gold leaf inscription, “Power of compassion of all Buddhas, act through me.” Avraham Borshevsky created the world’s largest (94x76 centimeters) mezuzah (a Jewish scroll protective charm in a case). Pyotr Chobitko copied diligently and gracefully all the articles of the Constitution of the Russian Federation.
The last example is hard evidence that contemporary calligraphers are inspired not only by religious sources.

Sometimes you can encounter works with a definite erotic bend or an abstract and expressionist aspect. Artistic thought is ever changing, spawning original deviations from the canon. Even the ink-on-rice-paper written in Far Eastern characters is considered to be little variable, are sometimes subject to change. Nonetheless the classic keeps on being effective and relevant e.g. Kim Jong Chil, a famous artist from South Korea conquered the audience with an age-old tradition during his master class. By the way, he was my fellow traveler on the way back home, and I’m so proud of it.

The citizens were rather embarrassed with this calligraphic intervention at first but soon they came to really like it. People flocked to the exhibition with a child's inquisitiveness. The elitist calligraphy turned out to be hilarious and quite easy after the masters launched interactive entertainment. However, such easiness and fluency is but an illusion for a more sophisticated art can hardly be found. Nevertheless, calligraphy’s inherent secretiveness works against it as the absence of the interested public forces the art to languish and degenerate into an insignificant cult. Contemporary calligraphers are determined to break through to the audience.