Hassan Massoudy, Calligrapher of Emotions

In 2004, Hassan Massoudy published his autobiography Si loin de l’Euphrate: jeunesse d’artiste en Irak (Albin Michel) serving as the starting point of this interview conducted by Emma Redondo. In this dialogue, Hassan Massoudy discusses the place of calligraphy in society and the evolution of its practices, and his career.

“Travel, if you aspire to a certain value. It is by travelling through the heavens that the crescent becomes full moon” (Ibn Qalakis, 1137-1172)
© Hassan Massoudy

Hassan Massoudy was born in 1944 in Najaf (Iraq) and has lived in Paris since 1969. The striking visual aesthetic and humanistic aspect of his art makes him undoubtedly one of the most prominent painter-calligrapher artists of our time. Hassan Massoudy has dedicated most of his career to giving Arabic calligraphy and calligraphy masters the recognition they deserve. Through various research studies and publications, Hassan Massoudy has promoted a new facet of Arabic calligraphy which combines emotion, disruption, continuity, and innovation.


Emma Redondo. What was the place and status of calligraphers in Iraqi society in your youth? Were there differences within the country, between Najaf and Baghdad?

Hassan Massoudy. — In Najaf, my hometown, there was a calligrapher, Al-Tourjman, who owned a sign shop, and during religious festivals he turned to poetry and singing as a way of expressing his keen interest in literature. There was another calligrapher, Mohamed Saleh, who served as a school official and used to receive many demands and orders placed by the Najaf administration. In 1958, a year marking a major change of regime in the country, a group of four or five youth calligraphers emerged, and I was one of them. At this time, when I was asked to calligraph a sign, I was not really aware that it was a form of art, I saw it like any other job. As I moved to Baghdad in 1961, I noticed that there were about ten calligraphers producing signs for clients, so I knocked at their door and one of them hired me to work with him. This is where I found out that there were talented young people producing beautiful calligraphy and who were actually dreaming of a career in this field. At the time, I was not aiming to become a calligrapher, I wanted to be a painter. Calligraphy requires strong motivation and persistence and making a living out of it was very uncertain – it was not a safe pathway and made it more difficult to get married or buy a house by choosing such a career.

E. R.How do you think the profession of calligrapher has developed over time?

H. M. — I believe that nowadays there are many more calligraphers, including some who have formally studied the art. On the Internet, I can see that there are many individuals creating calligraphy content as well as international calligraphy conferences such as one that was recently being held in Egypt. A change has been occurring, this is for sure. I remember in 1980, I was on the search for a calligraphy master in Istanbul, Hamed Al-Amadi, but no one could tell me where to find him. One of the Topkapi palace’s halls was restored by Hamed Al-Amadi, so I managed to speak to the Topkapi palace’s director and asked him where I could find him, but he had no idea where he was. After some time, I eventually found him; he was in a tiny room that served as his office, and there was a bucket on the floor due to the washroom’s absence. I was very moved – how could this great calligrapher live in such misery? After the release of my book Calligraphie arabe vivante,1 in which Hamed Al-Amadi is mentioned, a new office was given to him and a year of tributes for his work was organised shortly after he passed away in 1982.

Hassan Massoudy in his last workshop, Al-Wathba square, in Baghdad (1968)
Hassan Massoudy in his last workshop, Al-Wathba square, in Baghdad (1968)
© Hassan Massoudy

E.R.What is the place of calligraphers’ emotions in their work? Can calligraphers express their emotions in their work, or must they create and pass on emotions external to their own?

H. M. — I see several ways to answer these questions. Classical calligraphers, who were taught by a calligraphy master from childhood, must imitate their master. The day the master sees that the calligrapher student has reached the required level of mastering one of the scripts, then the calligrapher is allowed to receive orders from clients, sign his work, and teach calligraphy. In my case, I am in the marginal category who do not align with classical calligraphy’s rules. The world of calligraphy is much the same as that of impressionist painters who were strongly rejected by the art audience at the time due to their disruption of classical art. In some cities or countries, there is a real separation between the classic and modern trend. There are two main aspects in calligraphy: the shape and the ink, and the emotion which elevates the produced work. To me, the meaning matters a lot in calligraphy. For instance, if we choose a word to be calligraphed that refers to a current war, then a strong and profound emotion should be passed on through the word; it must evoke in us the emotion of conflict. Obviously, it is difficult to define art with words.

E. R. What is your vision on the history and development of Arabic calligraphy?

H. M. — Over the last millennium, Arabic calligraphy has been through flourishing and difficult times. Between the 10th and 14th centuries, Arabic calligraphy was prosperous, at a time where the Abbasids developed a strong openness to the world and manufacturing embedded calligraphy became important. In the 10th century, Ibn Muqla became the first person to write text on the codification and geometric rules of writing, and later Ibn Bawwab pursued working on the writing’s structure and principles, including on its cursive aspect. Nevertheless, it is also noteworthy to look back at the 9th and 10th centuries because at that time there were remarkable kufi style productions; extremely beautiful Qurans written in an elongated style including only 4–5 words per page. Books at that time were in multiple volumes. As we take a closer look at the written texts, a simple and geometric construction is noticeable. It has been very insightful to me being able to analyze the historical use of geometry and letter construction. Around the 14th century until the 16th century, Central Asia integrated calligraphy into the construction of monuments at a time when it was very difficult to find calligraphers. Despite this, builders took clay to make bricks, after which they colored them into diverse colors and started to write words by using the bricks. This was a very innovative technique as calligraphy used to be defined by its downstrokes and upstrokes, whereas in this case, letters and words were produced with simple lines through bricks featuring an empty space of the same width. This inspired me to believe that I could also experiment to produce something innovative.

E. R.For many years you aspired to become a painter. What are the reasons that led you to go back to calligraphy?

H. M. — At the Beaux-Arts (National School of Fine Arts) I studied Western art to become a painter, and, in my spare time, I pursued my keen interest in Eastern art for its miniatures, architecture and calligraphy. As I left the Beaux-Arts, I went back to calligraphy as I had found what I was looking for in Western art and reached a stage where I was no longer deeply moved by this type of art. Calligraphy has always been around me, as if I was seeing it and not seeing it at the same time. Then, I realized that in order to bring an added value to humanity as an artist, you shouldn’t produce something that has already been done or copy others, but rather try bringing something new. So first, I thought it would be necessary to observe different styles of calligraphy and calligraphers. One day I saw a calligraphy that truly impressed me: the wa mirrored in the Bursa Mosque, in Turkey. I took a picture of it and documented it in my book “Calligraphie arabe vivante”. For my book’s release, I had a launching event organized with an Iraqi actor friend, Fawzi Al-Aidi, and the actor Guy Jacquet. It was a small-scale event, in Paris at the Centre Culturel du Marais, and was attended by an unexpectedly high number of people, which led to scheduling a second event. At this time, I started to be more aware of my personal feelings: indeed, some people do have an interest in calligraphy, and it could definitely bring an added value to society. I’d like to mention another story important to me. One day, a group of teachers originally from the Maghreb, who used to give classes to children of immigrants in France, approached me and said: “What is Arabic calligraphy? We have never seen anyone doing calligraphy!”. With from the teachers, I organized a lecture on the history and evolution of Arabic calligraphy, which included a demonstration. I was witnessing the lack of knowledge from the educated elite about this form of art because it is a forgotten art that is no longer practiced in the Arab and Islamic world or here, in the West. Calligraphy is only known by a small elite or small amateur circle who love beautiful writing, whereas there is so much potential and different aspects to explore in this art form in terms of composition, mediums, use of space, and energy! This is how I told myself I had to pursue what I was doing.

{The Perfume}
The Perfume
© Hassan Massoudy

E.R.In what ways have the collaborations you have conducted with other artists contributed to the development of your work?

H. M. — One day, my actor friend, Guy Jacquet, invited me to work with him in Nanterre, at the Maison de la Culture, to help him design posters. This is how our collaboration began and lasted for thirteen years, through creations and performances of shows. Guy recited poems in French and Arabic, and I calligraphed them. I kept pace with the poems’ rhythm; when I had a very limited time I reduced my calligraphy, but I kept doing my best to show the soul of the spoken sentence. Towards the end of our collaboration, I adopted and applied the actor’s method. An actor has to memorize their lines and when on stage, he adapts his performance to his audience, based on the energy or noise coming from the theater for instance. I applied the same method during my calligraphy performances. Over time, the stage fright and fear had decreased, and I ended up having better control of the situation. These experiences served as a guide and truly enabled me to innovate in the calligraphy field. When I look back at my first and last performances, there is a huge difference. I also collaborated with other artists and writers, including Michel Tournier who wrote a book, La Goutte d’Or,2 which resonates with me a lot.

E. R.What relationship do you have with each script?

H. M. — To produce calligraphy that projects into the future, I wanted my work to convey openness, movement, and joy. I also did close calligraphy depicting darker colors, when a tragic event would happen, although I tried to avoid doing that most of the time. I have used the diwani script3 a lot, as it has a moving aspect and is not strictly codified to the nearest millimeter, unlike the thuluth script4 which has a complexity not in line with my approach and work. I wanted to free myself from classic rules of calligraphy while remaining rooted in the work of traditional masters of calligraphy at the same time. I deconstructed calligraphy and used these deconstructed elements to rebuild. As it happens, I sometimes use the ruqaa script5, which was the script used by government services, and highly despised by old calligraphers! For a while, I have been using the kufi-kairouani script6 in the bottom lines of my large calligraphy, to build the ground, giving a sensation of heavy letters while providing some sort of stability, and conveying images that each of us can understand as they wish.

“Nothing is real other than dreams and love” (Anna de Noailles, 1876-1933)
“Nothing is real other than dreams and love” (Anna de Noailles, 1876-1933)
© Hassan Massoudy

E. R.In your autobiography, you mention that “calligraphy is a means to give life to one’s own images’’. To what extent calligraphy can be considered as figurative art?

H. M. — Everything I do, I see it as a landscape. I see desert and words as sculptures that emerge while being shaped and polished. To evoke the ground in my work, I used to write a gradient of the same word until the horizon, like the desert, after which I placed the word at the top, and then over time I reduced the gradient which now gives a single line in my large calligraphies. A word, I see it as a sculpture, a tree or even enigmatic vestiges. When I do calligraphy about nature, for instance, I think of the behavior of a steadfast tree, which keeps rising. There is a behavior for each plant. Calligraphic composition also has a musical dimension; letters are needed as well as what is next to these letters, meaning the white space and the non-letters – it is abstract. This is the artist’s role: to find a way to represent it.

1Flammarion, 1981.

2Gallimard, Poche, 1988.

3Cursive script developed during the Ottoman empire, 16th and 17th centuries. The [tughra – >] (calligraphic emblem of the sultan’s authority) of Suliman the Magnificent is a notable example of the diwani’s script complexity and use.

4The [thuluth script – >], invented by Ibn Muqla, features curved and oblique lines, in addition to thin and elongated diacritics. It is often used to write headings of surahs and decorate mosques.

5Script commonly used in daily life (reports, newspapers, commercials, etc.). Its [straight lines, simple curves – >], and short letters makes it clear and readable.

6The [Kufi Kairuani or Karuani script’s letters – >] are bold and angular, and well seated on a horizontal line. Vertical letters such as aleph (ا) and lam (ل) are perfectly perpendicular.