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Between Font and Image: The Role of Typography as Exemplified by Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes

Where is the border between writing and image and where does the written word end? When does our perceptual apparatus recognize an image as such? This question was asked by the French poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) before he turned his attention to the visual representation of his poems he wrote during World War l, called ‘Calligrams.’ A calligram is an object of perception that’s intended to be grasped visually with its own level of meaning; combining both writing and imagery.

The first approaches to figurative poetry can be found in Greek antiquity, which were taken up again in the baroque aesthetics of imitation. In contrast to the strict verse meter of the Baroque, Apollinaire wrote freely and triggered a veritable boom with his publication, which culminated in avant-garde typography with Dadaists Kurt Schwitters and Hugo Ball.

After a long period of abstinence, the first digital calligraphy appeared on the screen at the start of digital communications in the 1980s. On September 19, 1982, Scott Fahlman, a scientist and later professor of computer science, suggested that a colon, a minus, and closed parenthesis all subtly indicate sarcasm in written communication. Thus, the first emoticon was born.

Today, the question arises as to whether the emoji can be seen as the digital legacy of twentieth century figure poetry. Compared to the early emoticons, emojis have a much higher visual content, but its written origin cannot be denied.


Caroline Knoch