Claire Hsu reflects upon the dying art of the handwritten letter, its relationship to the archive, and invites graphologist Emily Hui to provide a new way to interpret five pieces of correspondence from the collection
When one is pleased, then the spirit is harmonious
and the characters are expansive.
When one is angry, the spirit is coarse and the characters are blocked.
When one is sad, the spirit is pent up and the characters are held back.
When one is joyous, the spirit is peaceful and the characters are beautiful.
—Chu Yun-Ming (1461–1527)
The records of handwritten letters always hold my attention when browsing our research collections. Is it is because we are looking from within a computer-generated contemporary? As a researcher scouring the archive for clues about individuals who have passed away, is there value within the presence of the words themselves?
In an essay for the catalogue The Embodied Image, Robert E. Harrist Jr. writes, "No theme in Chinese historical and critical writings on calligraphy has been articulated more often or through a wider range of metaphoric and rhetorical devices than the idea that calligraphy reveals the nature of a writer's personality and temperament." While the connection between one's writing and personality can be traced back to texts from the fourth century in China, this connection comes much later within the study of the written word in the West. Harrist speculates that this focus on the visual effects of the written word in fact predates (by hundreds of years) the idea of "art for art's sake" that emerged in nineteenth century Europe and "the autonomy of form" as advocated by the modernists of the twentieth century.
A cross-cultural study on abstract forms published in Psychology of Arts by Hans Kreitler and Shulamith Kreitler in 1972 reveals a consistent pattern of association amongst subjects when asked to describe moods associated with abstract patterns of line from "sad" to "merry." The difficulty in developing a scientifically sound theory to connect these associations, however, is one of the reasons that graphology, the analysis of handwriting to infer someone's personality or psychological state at the time of writing, is dismissed alongside astrology and palmistry. While modern graphology has lost the popularity it enjoyed in the nineteenth and twentieth century, it is still used widely today for assessing applicants for jobs, and can be studied in a number of schools across the western world.
In an attempt to further explore what a handwritten letter in the archive does, beyond the obvious value of its content, I have selected five handwritten correspondence from the collection (four from the research collections and one from a publication, all in English)—that of Bhupen Khakhar, Ahmed Parvez, Sadequain, Amrita Sher-Gil, and K.G. Subramanyan—and invited a graphologist to analyse them. (The letters are included below with their markups and a final report by Emily Hui, a former banker turned graphologist in Hong Kong who received her diploma in this art from the British Academy of Graphology.)
While the analyses are bound to illicit a range of responses from acquaintances and loved ones, this exercise is in no way intended to reduce these individuals to a list of character traits, but rather attempts to open up questions around the presence or absence of the written word in the archive and methods of interpretation themselves. As the way we write and communicate evolves at break neck speed, the reality is that it will be increasingly difficult to capture correspondence, let alone correspondence that is handwritten, in the future collections we digitise. Does reading someone's thoughts and records in their own handwriting give us a better sense of their character? Is an artist's penmanship in some way an extension of their art?
The owner of the spectacles is not there, but certainly I feel their presence through glasses.
In the series Between Visible and Invisible, Tomoko Yoneda photographs a significant document through the eye of its author's spectacles. The authors happen to be key figures from the twentieth century who have been crucial in shaping the world as we understand it today—Gandhi, Hesse, and Trotsky to name a few. While the focus of analysis in the introductory text is on the glasses as "memorial items with memories," it is in fact their juxtaposition with handwritten texts (mostly by their owners) that evoke a sense of stepping into someone else’s shoes when standing in front of the works.
Another work that comes to mind in thinking through the infinite layers of interpretation possible from a single letter is Sophie Calle's Take Care of Yourself. Upon receiving a break up email that ended with those words from her lover, Calle invited 107 women chosen for their profession or skills "To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it. Dissect it. Exhaust it." While the letter was not handwritten, and the project carefully orchestrated, by inviting in a range of experts—including a criminologist, researcher in Lexicometry, psychiatrist, comedian and mother—the work shows how anything can be interpreted, and that interpretation is always in the eye of the beholder. Nothing is ever quite as it may seem.
As custodians of the archive, how do we collect in a way that allows for multiple interpretations of the individuals that shape these histories? And as users trying to understand the archive at different moments in time, how do we make room for both the conscious and subconscious readings that the material offers us? As I sift through the handwritten letters in AAA's Collection, I can’t help but feel privileged to be able to connect on a deeply human level, dotted i's, curves, smudges, and all.
Claire Hsu is AAA Executive Director.
Calle, Sophie. Take Care of Yourself. Arles, France: Actes Sud, 2007.
Harrist, Jr, Robert E., and Wen C. Fong. The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection. Princeton, United States: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999.
Sundaram, Vivan. Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters & Writings. New Delhi, India: Tulika Books, 2010.
Yoneda, Tomoko. Between Visible. Tucson, United States: Nazraeli Press LLC, 2004.
- Collection Spotlight
- Mon, 29 May 2017
- Cite as
- Claire HSU, 徐文玠, Archive Five | What Handwritten Letters Reveal to the Contemporary Reader, Mon, 29 May 2017