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Review: Letters in Gold

REVIEW: Letters in Gold: Ottoman Calligraphy from the Sakip Sabanci
Collection, Istanbul. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 81st
Street, New York. September 11-December 13.

As far as I know this is the first time a show of calligraphy has occupied
the galleries reserved for major exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of
Art. The presentation is elegant, uncrowded, verging on but not quite
reaching the level of the intrusive. As in all major exhibitions at the
Met, there is an area where copies of the catalog are available for
perusal. Does the show meet its expectations?

Well, knowing this is a show of Ottoman (Turkish) Calligraphy (fifteenth
to twentieth century), one can expect that it will have the strengths and
weaknesses of Ottoman crafts in general: a very high level of technical
achievement coupled with a tendency to shy away from innovation. The first
galleries prove the point: a series of berats (title deeds), each one
surmounted by a large tugra (the sultan's "signature"), but all pretty
much the same, with the same beautifully slanting celi divani (official)
script, and each a study in spacing and balance.

The works that follow are inevitably pleasing and harmonious, with the
kind of sharp-edged elegance that will appeal to more traditional
Westernized calligraphers. The murakkaa, or calligraphic display-books,
are of particular interest, and several of them have their nib-heights
indicated. Typically, one of these, by Mehmed Sevki Efendi (1829-1887),
begins: "Oh Lord, make things easy and do not make them difficult! Oh
Lord, make everything come out well!" Whether the sentiment is
praiseworthy or not the reader can decide. There is a large-scale Quranic
inscription (levha) by the Sultan Mahmoud II (1785-1839), and we are told
by the label that this is one of the few works by the Sultan that are
unsullied by the corrections of his calligraphy teacher. I would have
preferred something a bit more sullied. Perhaps the most moving piece is
by Mehmed Hulusi Yazgan, who taught at the Calligraphic College until the
Roman alphabet was adopted by the Turkish Republic in 1928 and the college
was closed down. The artist was eventually buried in an unmarked grave.
His murakkaa over wispy marbling has a fragility that betrays for once the
movement of the hand, instead of betraying the work to the pleasure of the

The exhibition is preceded by a display of reeds, a pen-case, knives a
lining board and a pen-cutting slab, all of great interest. The catalog
($35.00, softcover, $50.00 hardbound) has an excellent introduction to the
practice of Ottoman calligraphy and illumination. The color reproductions
are not terribly accurate; the fact that this is not bothersome says a lot
about the virtues and drawbacks of this major calligraphic exhibition.

Paul Werner, New York City

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