Observing the Letter

International Exhibition of Calligraphy is being launched in Russia. Apart from numerous commercial exhibitions its initiator, MVK International Exhibition Company, realizes unusual cultural projects. In 2007 the Portable Polar Museum set up by MVK was exhibited at the North Pole. In 2006 the company held the exhibition at the Eiffel Tower. And now it’s time for a new project aimed at restoring the traditions of calligraphy in Russia. The best calligraphers from the former USSR, Japan, Israel and USA were invited to participate in the exhibition. On September 16-21 their works will be exhibited at the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and after that they will tour Russia.

In the run-up to the show the KP correspondent met a calligrapher Evgeniy Dobrovinsky.

• Evgeniy Maksovich, don’t you think that in the era of global computerization it is almost impossible to restore the art of calligraphy?

Evgeniy Dobrovinsky: Surely, it is impossible to introduce fountain pens and course of penmanship at the universities. However, it is quite possible to remind people of the fine art of calligraphy. This idea is very close to my opinion. For me calligraphy is an art improvisation and not a mere designer’s method.

• I am surprised to hear this from a person who used to be the leading expert of typography in the Soviet period…

Evgeniy Dobrovinsky: I have always been a free artist, though for 10 years I have worked at Promgrafika Art Committee (the first art association in the USSR dealing with corporate style). There are artists who design artificial scripts, and those who write freely. Well, I am the latter. Calligraphy is a sort of easel painting. It addresses to the inner world of a human being and expresses his individuality.

• Why did you take up typography?

Evgeniy Dobrovinsky: When a student at the Polygraphic Institute, I was bad at academic drawing. I sketched and often disproportioned my drawings. And Social Realism was a quality standard of the time. My sketches did not meet the standard. That is why I took up typography which didn’t require standing by Social Realism.

• You became famous in 1974 after winning the international banner contest in Brno. Besides, you sent your works to the contest omitting all the organizations. How did you do it?

Evgeniy Dobrovinsky: I sent them because I didn’t count on victory. It was my diploma project, a series of banners for philharmonic departments of musical theatres. The banners included fonts only. After studying Shostakovich’s manuscripts I created a space structure: the notes were turning into the Universe.  I still feel proud for those banners. Since then I handwrite my fonts, and this is the basis for my typographic art. Only after mastering them one can make something outstanding with the Cyrillic font.  Now Cyrillic font still drags behind Latin.

• Why?

Evgeniy Dobrovinsky: There is a difference between Latin and Cyrillic fonts: Latin one is an absolutely perfect system. It was not intentionally interfered; it was developing from Ancient Greece (or even Phoenicia) till the 15th century when book printing was invented. Latin script is comfortable for writing, beautiful and logical.
Cyril and Methodius implemented Greek alphabet in Russia, which means we initially imitated the foreign script. However, if the system counted a thousand of years, Cyrillic font would be no worse than Latin. But it was Peter the Great who introduced European culture in Russia. Cyrillic alphabet was several times adapted to Latin standards. And in 1990’s with the development of computer projecting, new Cyrillic fonts were in demand. They were created on a Latin basis with some specific Russian letters added.

• How can we save Cyrillic script?

Evgeniy Dobrovinsky: I am not sure we should save it. We should switch to Latin font, I believe. We can add some advantages of Russian alphabet, adequate interrelation of letter and sound, for instance. I have worked out a project of switching to Latin alphabet in accordance with Polish, Czech, Serbian and Croatian experience.

• Some of your master classes are mentioned on Internet. Could you be more specific about them?

Evgeniy Dobrovinsky: Nowadays students of design universities start projecting fonts on a computer having no drawing skills. 95% of information around us, advertisement, mass media, labels and packaging are of very low quality made by craftsmen. The thing is that all plastic arts including advertisement, book and font design are based on ability to draw. I teach people to draw and draw fonts in particular. So that people realized a letter is a historic artifact developing for centuries. If a designer treats his profession as art he must take at least a brief course of drawing. I wouldn’t say other calligraphers back me here, I am in a minority if not alone. But I have some devoted students who support my method of work and teaching.

• What is so specific about your method?

Evgeniy Dobrovinsky: I never show ready works on the screen. As far as I am very good at calligraphy (from medieval to Chinese) I put a pile of paper sheets on an easel and draw. Meanwhile I tell the audience about the letter and they can see its birth. The lessons take a week during which we spend 8-10 hours a day together drawing, talking, discussing works. The process is very emotional.
• Can such art courses help the designers in their routine craftwork as you put it?

Evgeniy Dobrovinsky: The master classes are aimed at this. Now the artists work with wide range of fonts which makes choosing even more difficult.  And in Soviet times we had only three types of fonts: literature, journalistic and common.  And we thought it was awful. And now we have 300 font types. Whenever one starts looking for a proper one, he can’t choose it. They often ask me: how can one choose a font?  One should first learn to draw letters and understand their structure. A font should have proper rhythm, size and be readable. Typography is a delicate matter.

Source: Kak Potratit, a newspaper supplement to Vedomosti (No 61, June 16, 2008)