A world of hundreds of colors, with words in Arabic that seem to be leaping off the page. Reds and yellows, blues and blacks coalescing against a white backdrop, into what can be called painting and calligraphy all at once. A balance of silence and expression. It can be hard to categorize the work of Hassan Massoudy, calligraphy master, who has become renowned in both Europe and the Middle East for transcending the boundaries of Arabic calligraphy and revitalizing the form. For Massoudy, his vibrant works are the result of a deeply personal journey—one that lead him from the deserts of Iraq to Baghdad, to the Institute of Fine Arts in Paris, and finally to the heart of an unlikely modern renaissance in calligraphy. “I was searching to express something deep inside of me,” he said, “a feeling within me.”
I met Massoudy at his study along the river Seine in Paris, where we spoke at length about the unique combination of influences—both traditional and modern, Arab and European– that led to his body of work.
Born in Najaf Iraq in 1944, Massoudy remembers seeing calligraphy for the first time at the age of five. His uncle, who was deeply learned in Islam, was also an amateur calligrapher, and as a young boy Massoudy used to watch him as he worked. The image of his uncle quietly meditating before writing on paper would leave a profound impression on Massoudy. “I’m not able to describe in language what I saw,” he told me. “I remember my uncle, and the black ink, and the silence… it’s difficult to put into words what it was to see a man with such deep expression. He was like a mountain in front of me. But he wrote his calligraphy in silence, and when he finished, he smiled.”
This notion that calligraphy was not simply writing, but the act of making manifest an internal emotional experience is one that would stay with Massoudy for the rest of his life. He would soon learn about his own gift for calligraphy when he was ten years old, and his Arabic teacher pulled him aside and encouraged him to focus on his handwriting. “It was the first time I knew that I wrote beautifully,” he told me. Soon, word spread, and the principal asked him to write announcements for the school—his first commissioned work as a calligrapher.
At that time in Najaf, calligraphy was no longer thought of as an artistic trade, but as a practical one. Billboards, signs, and wedding announcements were all still done by hand: when someone required a message written beautifully, he would pay a calligrapher to do it—a more modern expression of the traditional role of the scribe. Massoudy began taking small jobs, and even worked writing announcements for an English language newspaper called The Duty. He didn’t know the rules of writing in the English language, and so he simply taught himself how to copy out the shapes.
In 1961, at the age of 17, Massoudy traveled to Baghdad hoping to become an artist. There, he apprenticed with local calligraphers and studied the trade “in the street,” as he puts it. “There were about 10 professional calligraphers in Baghdad at that time,” he said. “Among them were the great calligraphers, and I learned from them.”
Massoudy arrived in Baghdad in what would be a critical year in the modern history of Arabic calligraphy. Hashim al Baghdadi, considered among the greatest calligraphers in the world, had come to Baghdad to teach. That same year, he published his book The Methods of Arabic Calligraphy, which outlined the techniques for writing calligraphy in various styles, and which became the reference for calligraphers throughout the Arab world. Eventually, al-Baghdadi’s calligraphy would adorn mosques throughout Baghdad, as well as Iraqi banknotes. Massoudy credits al-Baghdadi for completely changing the atmosphere around calligraphy in Baghdad, reminding its practitioners that it was not only a trade, but above all, an art form.
“He revived calligraphy,” Massoudy said. “He was a great artist, but he was also a humble man. When he saw the people, he would speak to them, say hello, he would offer to write their names in Arabic calligraphy.”
Massoudy took to watching the master at work. “In that time, people were simple, and it was possible to go to where he worked, to say hello, to watch him, to drink tea.”
In 1969 Massoudy traveled to Paris to study at the Academy de Beaux Arts, convinced that the political situation in Iraq would make it impossible for him to fully express himself as an artist. He had 150 dinar in his pocket when he left, and he found work on the side doing calligraphy once a week for the journal of the Algerian Embassy. In the meantime, he discovered an entirely new world at the Academy: working in portraits, mosaics, tapestries, frescoes.
One day, in making frescoes, he experienced a transformative moment: he discovered color. Massoudy describes his first experiences with colors the way another man might talk about the first time he fell in love. “In Baghdad, they taught us how to use the color black,” he said. “Perhaps I was drawn to colors because I was born in Najaf, where there was so much sun—there was nothing there but daylight. The winter was over in a month. Sometimes in a year there would only be a day or two of clouds. The sun was harsh, and everything was colored. Maybe that’s the reason I wanted to use bold colors: red, yellow, blue, black…” When he learned to paint frescoes, he was required to mix his own paints every morning, a practice that would later become essential to his calligraphy, like “cooking in the kitchen.”
At the same time, he was meeting artists working in the movement of lyrical abstraction: abstract paintings using bold colors, often engaging with geometric patterns. The paintings were both radically new, and at the same time strangely reminiscent of the calligraphy he had grown up around in Najaf. He began to wonder if the art he was learning in Paris needed to be entirely separated from the calligraphy he had loved in Iraq. “I thought—maybe I can use calligraphy in an artistic way,” he said. Slowly, at home, he began to experiment, daring to approach a previously uncrossed line. He painted movements in color, and then wrote small sentences in calligraphy next to them.
Then one day, he painted calligraphy in color for the first time.
Today it may seem like a small act, but at the time it was an incredibly audacious one. Until then, calligraphy had been governed by strict rules. His decision to merge calligraphy with abstract painting and bold colors was nothing short of revolutionary.
Emboldened, he paired with friends who were artists, and they traveled throughout France as ambassadors of Arabic calligraphy. One man would read poetry. Massoudy would paint calligraphy, which would then be projected on an enormous screen for visitors to watch. Sometimes an Iraqi oud player would accompany them. Ten people would come to watch; or seven hundred. Now calligraphy was no longer even writing: it was performance, emotion, color. It was shared experience; an event.
Today, Massoudy is known for works of calligraphy executed in in vivid hues, often on large format backgrounds—words that seem to dance on the page. He still mixes his colors freshly every day that he works, fixing the color and pigments. His calligraphy still expresses the beauty of Islamic tradition—frequently quoting Ibn Arabi, Rumi, and other Sufi masters— but he also feels free to draw from other religious and secular traditions, translating phrases from Confucius, Kabir, and Rousseau into Arabic calligraphy. His paintings usually contain a quote written on the bottom in small letters, with one word from the quote enlarged at the center of the piece, a symbolic heart that pulls the viewer into the essence of the message.
“There, do you see that blue?” he asks me, pointing to a recent work. “It’s three different kinds of powder.” When he first arrived in Paris, it was easy to find powders to mix paints in Paris—in a combination of natural and synthetic dyes— but this, too is disappearing. He searches for colors all over the world, collecting them from Germany, France, Morocco, in a love affair with colors that has now extended over decades. “There are colors I’ve been saving for forty years,” he says.
An Unexpected Renaissance
In a moment in which so much cultural heritage in the Middle East has been disappearing, Arabic calligraphy is currently undergoing a revival, fueled in large part by graffiti artist El-Seed, the French Tunisian artist known for covering entire buildings and bridges with calligraphy in an act he calls “calligraffiti.” El Seed made headlines when he was asked to paint Tunisia’s tallest minaret with calligraffiti, in an act that showed that the work had finally been accepted as mainstream. El-Seed is well known for drawing his influences from a range of texts, and his bold use of colors are a direct result of the revolutionary techniques Massoudy brought to the art. In an interview with Qatar Today, Seed credited Massoudy with inspiring him. “Calligraphy is really restricted in terms of rules and stuff,” he said. “The work of Hassan Massoudy was totally out of anything I’ve seen from the way he shapes the letters to the colors he uses. He completely revolutionized the art of calligraphy.”
In the meantime, as calligraphy once again spreads throughout the Middle East, drawing new students in Egypt and the Gulf, Massoudy quietly continues working in Paris. Though his works are now in the permanent collections of several dozen museums throughout the world, including the British Museum and the Museum de Quai Branly in Paris, he still opens his gallery for visitors one Saturday a month in a practice that harkens back to his own master, Hashim al Baghdadi, and the world of his youth in Iraq. And with each work, he reminds us of the art that was only made possible when a young man from the desert became a master in his tradition in Baghdad, traveled to France, mastered French tradition, and had the ingenuity to bring the two together to make something new.