On display: the art of writing instruments

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Carol Sorgen

Throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the art of writing long served as a hallmark of the literate and cultured classes. Hence every culture that has valued the written word has found ways to reflect the prestige and pleasure of writing.

For those who made writing their primary occupation, such as calligraphers and poets, or their avocation, including wealthy merchants and women of fashion, writing tools were cherished objects that reflected their education, refinement and political power.

Today, in contrast, technology is seeking to render traditional writing objects unnecessary, replacing pens and writing desks with iPhones, computer keyboards and tablets.

And so it was as I was leaving the Walters after viewing the exhibit, “The Art of the Writing Instrument from Paris to Persia,” that I realized I had not written a single word, at least not with pen and paper. Instead, I had collected my thoughts on my smartphone. Talk about irony. 

Form and function on display

The Walters’ small, but fascinating, exhibition features approximately 25 writing instruments produced in cosmopolitan centers such as Paris, Isfahan and Kyoto.

As the objects on display demonstrate, design was an important element, and many such items were constructed with the objective of delighting the user, either through the level of comfort in the hand or by technological innovation. Enjoyment in holding and using these instruments was believed to inspire the writer and give him or her pleasure.

In fact, the exhibition makes the point that the writing instrument historically was not simply the everyday household item it is today (or was, anyway). These implements were personal objects used by individuals empowered with the skill to inscribe.

And since that made them precious, the associated implements themselves, including pens, knives and scissors, as well as storage chests, pen-cases and writing desks, were often fashioned with precious materials: mother of pearl, gems, imported woods, gold and silver.

Included among the eye-catching objects on display are an Ottoman Turkish penbox and penholder, a lady’s desk from late 18th-century master cabinetmaker Maurice-Bernand Evalde, and a writing-box (suzuri-bako) from Edo Japan.

“These objects are quite exquisite and are rarely on display,” said Amy Landau, associate curator of Islamic Art and Manuscripts, adding that the response to the exhibit has been very favorable.

“People are really thinking about how they communicate these days, and how the tools they communicate with have changed,” she said. Even with texts and emails, Landau observed, most people really appreciate when others take the time to send a written note.

How we communicate

Not part of the exhibit itself but certainly an interesting accompaniment is the permanent display in the adjacent Learning Center. It depicts the timeline of communicating through images and words — from pictograms, to hieroglyphs, alphabets, parchment, paper, books, printing and digital means.

An interactive display also explores the construction of books from the time of the Middle Ages when all books were made by hand.

The scribes who wrote these books were not authors but usually copyists, who worked from existing texts to produce manuscripts often accompanied by decoration (known as illuminations), which were painted by specially trained artists.

Whether you’ve come to rely more on technology for everything from correspondence to grocery lists, or you’re a die-hard Luddite, or somewhere in the middle (or, as I am, just a pen fancier), this small gem of an exhibit is well worth a visit.

The Walters Art Museum is located at 600 N. Charles St. Hours are Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Admission is free. For general museum information, call (410) 547-9000 or visit www.thewalters.org