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The Intelligent Hand: Ana Hatherly |/ Asemic Writing |/ Visualizing the Creative Act |/    

Como mulher louca,

andem as mãos

e cale-se a boca.

(“With a foolish woman, let the hands move and the mouth stay shut,” Portuguese proverb)

Rain in Lisbon often made me think of notation, of glyphs and dashes inscribing a page |/. I know this sounds too romantic, too neat, particularly for a rain that would often fall in unruly sheets, dislodging cobbles, stripping trees, and running thick with dirt and debris. There was something in the geometry of its fall, however, oblique strokes driven by Atlantic winds that would swing in an arc of directions, backlit by the amber lamplight. Each long strip of water was visible, and, in the labored rate of its fall, traceable. They were marks made along a stave, playing havoc with the tension of laundry lines |/ iron fretwork |/ squared tiling |/. Perhaps I had begun to see strikethroughs everywhere, head full of living my days in a new language, or perhaps it is all too tempting to see the flow of water in the unreadable (fig. 1). The attempt to make out that which runs aslant of meaning is to think in branching lines; as a critical pose oriented towards the imprecision of acts of writing, it is necessarily tentative |/ notional |/ associative |/. Committing a sense of the indecipherable to paper demands a wavering pace |/ a faltering line |/ an outpouring |/.

Ana Hatherly, “Escrita Descendente” [Descending Writing] (1979).
Figure 1. Ana Hatherly, “Escrita Descendente” [Descending Writing] (1979). Indian ink on paper, 10.4 x 14.6cm, Inv. 04DP2001. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon – Modern Art Center. Photograph: Paulo Costa

“Asemic” writing was not named by its women. Two visual poets, Tim Gaze and Jim Leftwich, adopted the term in 1997 to draw a line around a field of artistic practice “involved with units of language for reasons other than producing meaning.”[1] Visually its graphic components exist on the edges of illegibility; it is “a shadow, impression and abstraction of conventional writing” that is comprehensible insofar as its significance may be intuited as opposed to its exact meaning understood.[2] The modern history of asemic writing has long been placed squarely in the hands of male practitioners and theorists: Roland Barthes, Xu Bing, Jacques Derrida, Christian Dotremont, Robert Grenier, Isidore Isou, Henri Michaux, Luigi Serafini, Morita Shiryū, Cy Twombly, Gu Wenda.[3] Blots |/ lines |/ curves |/ strokes |/ points |/ scribbles |/ scratches |/ ellipses |/ codes |/ are all marked by the impression of the action behind their making, as a chirographic practice that alludes to the physical gesture from which it derives at the same time as it exacts, in Roland Barthes’s words, “the indetermined and inexhaustible sum of motives, pulsations and lassitudes that surround the act with an atmosphere.”[4] For Barthes and other asemic practitioners, writing is a paradoxical site of secrecy and disclosure, impulse and deliberation. Asemic writing emerged in the early twentieth century from a climate of growing mistrust in the possibility of decoding the sign and its meaning. This was also a period in which linguistic models loomed large in the imaginations of those­­—anthropologists, artists, philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists—eager to circumscribe communications networks and fix ways of perceiving the world (fig. 2).

Ana Hatherly, “Pesquiza textual” [Textual search] (1965).
Figure 2. Ana Hatherly, “Pesquiza textual” [Textual Search] (1965). Felt-tip pen, graphite and gouache on paper, 30.7 x 21.7cm, Inv. DP 1708. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon – Modern Art Center. Photograph: Paulo Costa

However, for women the gestural, indecipherable, or encoded offered the opportunity to challenge not only language’s monopoly on expression, but also the patriarchy’s monopoly on meaning. Throughout history and across cultures and continents, women had developed writing systems for their own use; often excluded from educational regimes designed for men, women turned to expressive registers to devise their own, individual or collective, and often secret, means of communication. In the decades following the First World War, artists such as Carla Accardi |/ Tomaso Binga |/ Irma Blank |/ Betty Danon |/ Aloïse Corbaz |/ Mirtha Dermisache |/ Fernanda Fedi |/ Madge Gill |/ Ana Hatherly |/ Susan Hiller |/ Maria Lai |/ Madiha Umar |/ Judit Reigl |/ Mira Schendel |/ Hélène Smith |/ Jeanne Tripier |/ Ana María Uribe |/ took possession of an asemic mode that made particular demands on expressive forms, breaking contract with patriarchal notions of history, language, knowledge, power and truth. Blank’s “semantic zero” |/ Dermisache’s “illegible writings” |/ Umar’s “abstract calligraphy” |/ Schendel’s “constellated alphabets” |/ Hatherly’s “drawing–writings” |/ subverted and transformed the apparent stability of the word to shatter the notion of its absolute authority over identity, experience, and expression (fig. 3).

Ana Hatherly, “O mar que se quebra” [The sea that breaks] (1998).
Figure 3. Ana Hatherly, “O mar que se quebra” [The Sea that Breaks] (1998). Indian ink on paper, 15 x 21cm, Inv. DP1769. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon – Modern Art Center. Photograph: Paulo Costa

Not all writing apparatuses afforded the same freedoms, but women held in their hands the implements—pens |/ pencils |/ brushes |/ knives |/ needles |/ typewriters—capable of reducing their sense of alienation from their cultural, social and political environments. The gestural force and affective labor of women’s hands is a significant line of argumentation in this forum: as metonyms for artistic power in “New Hands on Old Papers” and in the radical potential of the handmade and the hand-me-down in “Handiwork”. Amy E. Elkins and Glenn Adamson also foreground the importance of the typing hand to cultural production in “Typestruck”; as they suggest, although the woman typist of the early twentieth century was often cast as a “passive transcriber,” many found new literary freedoms in the typewriter. The alchemical promise of abedecaries |/ calligraphies |/ ciphers |/ hieroglyphics |/ iconographics |/ inscriptions |/ locutions |/ motifs |/ transcriptions |/ allowed these artists, designers and writers to “wrench” words free of their fastenings, as Ana Hatherly repeatedly put it, emancipating them from the petrified façade of established discourse and the vast field of signifying media to craft new alliances between body, world, and word (fig. 4).

Ana Hatherly, “Fortitude” (1971).
Figure 4. Ana Hatherly, “Fortitude” (1971). Felt-tip pen, Indian ink, a definir and collage on paper, 19 x 10cm, Inv. DP1995. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon – Modern Art Center. Photograph: Paulo Costa

Ana Hatherly (1929­–2015), the Portuguese artist, poet, and scholar, frequently turned to the verb arrancar, “to wrench,” when describing her attitude towards language and writing in the wake of the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974, a landmark moment in the history of modern Portugal.[5] In her earliest publications, language was constructive—an inventory of marks that were available to the poet or artist in the building of new communicative structures. Hatherly was the only female member of the PO-EX group (po abbreviated from poesia [poetry] and ex from experimental), the Portuguese branch of the international concrete poetry movement, and as early as 1959 she began working to create a basis for concrete and experimental poetry in Portugal. Alongside poets such as António Aragão, Herberto Helder, and E. M. de Melo e Castro, she crafted and contributed to some of the founding critical texts and works of visual poetry. PO-EX works and publications attested to a “new ambiguous energy” in Portuguese culture: as outlined in 1966 by Helder in the first of the group’s pamphlet publications, Poesia Experimental, if language did not conform to the “ambiguity, indefinability and polyvalency” of contemporary reality, it was at risk of becoming “inadequate and invalid.”[6]

In essays such as “A New Lyricism” (1959), “A Neo-dadaist Manifesto” (1965), and “Structure, Code, Message” (1967), Hatherly defined and advanced the notion of conceptual writing in Portuguese, employing geometric diagrams or configurations and expanding into graphic space to develop “open” and “closed” texts that would disrupt the hierarchies established by grammar, genre and the page. The artist now took on, Hatherly said, the “vital role of both codifier and decoder.”[7] Her abedecaries “Ideograma Estrutural” (1966) and “Alfabeto Estrutural” (1967) take a systematic approach to language, puzzling out new, generative mathematical arrangements in answer to the group’s “polygonal sense” of literary composition. This architectonic appreciation of language had also taken shape in Hatherly’s scholarly work on Baroque art and letters, informing a particular fascination with the maze and the labyrinth that would linger throughout her life (fig. 5).[8]

Ana Hatherly, “s/título” [untitled] (1964).
Figure 5. Ana Hatherly, “s/título” [untitled] (1964). Felt-tip pen on paper, 13.2 x 8.9cm, Inv. 04DP1999. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon – Modern Art Center. Photograph: Paulo Costa

However, in the years following the 1974 revolution, Hatherly’s contract with semiotic and structural procedures—with language as a set of clearly definable, classifiable, and connected elements—was in tatters. In this shadowy and uncertain period of economic reconstruction, Hatherly pledged to “live intensely each moment as it occurs” and to channel this impulsiveness into her work. She sought an immediacy of representation with the hands, locating her efforts in cursive scripts to conjure impressions of the creative act. Books such as a reinvenção de leitura (the reinvention of reading, 1975) and o escritor (the writer) of the same year, alongside radical performances such as “poema d’entro” (“entering poem,” 1976) and “rotura” (“rupture,” 1977), staged the hand as disruptive (fig. 6). Her writing spun into dark vortices |/ her hand slashed through sheets of suspended paper |/ pasted letters cascaded from open mouths |/.

Ana Hatherly, o escritor [the writer] (Lisboa: Moraes editores, 1975).
Figure 6. Ana Hatherly, o escritor [the writer] (Lisboa: Moraes editores, 1975). Indian ink on paper, Inv. 04DP2003. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon – Modern Art Center. Photograph: Paulo Costa

Hatherly’s practice was guided by what she referred to as the “mão inteligente,” the intelligent hand. The hand could be trained to reproduce fathomless communicative forms—across regions, across cultures, across time—and in its learning come to acquire for itself “the knowledge of the creative act and the gratuitous gesture.”[9] Throughout the history of writing, the image of the inquisitive hand has appeared in a range of illusory ways, often betraying the contrivances of the artist/author, or the reader. Assyrian clay hands from the ninth century BC bear descriptions of their owners in cuneiform etched along each of their five digits; in medieval and renaissance manuscripts, Manicules beckon or point from the margins to particular words or passages in a text; in the seventeenth century, scriptorium diagrams detailed the correct comportment of the hand prior to penmanship or detailed the “natural language of the hand”; and the flaming hand in André Breton’s Nadja (1928) prophesies the act of writing.

As a scholar of ancient, classical, early modern, and modern writing systems, Hatherly assumed the gestures of countless scribes before her.[10] While one of the leading aims in modernism, broadly defined, was to expose the arbitrariness that clings to words, this arbitrariness was not thought to have clung to the varied acts and performances of writing. Hatherly trained her hand to stage new iterations of earlier inscriptive acts, finding affinities with certain materials, instruments and effects to achieve a confluence in expression between past and present. “The basis of all my work is still and always the same,” she asserted in 2002. “It is an exploration of the concepts of writing.”[11] Her works on paper or in space are not guided purely by the meanderings of the subconscious—as esoteric projections of dreams, imaginings, trances, or meditative thinking—or with the ease of liquid flow. They are produced instead by a body steeped in the history of chirography.

Ana Hatherly, “Sem título” [Untitled] (1971).
Figure 7. Ana Hatherly, “Sem título” [Untitled] (1971). Felt-tip pen and color crayon on postcard, 13.9 x 8.9cm, Inv. DP1453. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon – Modern Art Center. Photograph: Paulo Costa

Vitally, Hatherly’s chirographic education was not always couched in languages that were comprehensible to her, but often in “unreadable” characters or marks (fig. 7). Beginning with close scrutiny of ancient Chinese in the 1960s, she, as discussed in correspondence with Dom Sylvester Houédard, also prioritized the “prior centuries of experiments with image-texts, comprised of hieroglyphs, ideograms, cryptograms, diagrams, rebuses, mandalas, amulets, jewels, toys, gravestones, and even some monuments, besides all other poematic texts or objects.”[12] This sentence unfurls like a scroll, generative in its enumeration of references. This associative compositional practice speaks to the creative urgency of drawings such as those published in a reinvenção de leitura and A Idade da Escrita (1998). There is a quality of something shifting |/ something poured |/ a stream of consciousness |/ perceptible in videos of Hatherly drawing or etching. With close attention to her prepared surface, small squares measured onto paper or cut from copper plates, her hand moves rapidly |/ instinctively |/ continuously |/. She rarely breaks the pen’s contact with the surface so that the single line may span the entire duration of the drawing.[13]

Casting her learned eye over paper and parchment to scrutinize mysterious resemblances |/ hidden meanings |/ shared etymologies |/, Hatherly’s aim was, she said, to “extend the field of reading beyond literality,” as well as to “widen the field of formal research” and to “enlarge the creative field for writing itself” (“Short Essay,” 60). She makes manifest both the gestural genesis of all language and the notion that thought exists as raw matter to be disfigured by language. As much as what Hatherly came to call her drawing—writings were experiments with form—semantic surges overturning the rectilinearity of typeset texts—they were also attuned to modern theoretical investigations into the problems of representation and communication. Her essays and poetry teem with voices drawn from philosophy, structuralism, material culture, literature, and anthropology, including Barthes, Max Bense, Ernst Cassirer, E. H. Gombrich, Johan Huizinga, James Joyce, Julia Kristeva, Stéphane Mallarmé, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The mão inteligente would open the closed loop of language, in its willingness to play with new means of signification, and create new universal languages based upon the recognition of the essential ambiguity of all language.

Ana Hatherly, “O Jogo do Escritor I” [The Writer’s Game I] (1970)
Figure 8. Ana Hatherly, “O Jogo do Escritor I” [The Writer’s Game I] (1970), felt-tip pen on card, 50 x 35 cm, DEP-AH-22. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon – Modern Art Center. Photograph: Paulo Costa

My mind would often run to Hatherly’s silhouettes of searching hands when failing to find my words in Portuguese, wringing mine in exasperation. Hands, as opaque forms or outlines poised with a pen, appear again and again in Hatherly’s work, betraying the hand of the artist, seen busy in the act of drawing–writing. A hand appears to paint typewritten letters |/ a steady hand loses its concentration |/ another holds in wait before a blank page|/. She thought of herself as an “artificer,” who “manipulates and questions the materials” with which she worked, and the presence of these hands remind the viewer of the alchemy performed by every writer or artist.[14] Many of her books in these later decades of her life ruminate upon the identity, political power, and cultural influence of the writer and the graphic mark. She invented objects that acknowledged the ludic element in creation: an abstract deck of cards for the writer, presumably to be shuffled, dealt, and handled (fig. 8) |/ a scroll that unfurled, much like her associative writing, to unveil a cryptic message thronged with shadows |/ a box of plastic letters twined together to form an alternative alphabet |/ “neograffiti” charged with the spontaneity of creation in urban space (fig. 9).[15]

Ana Hatherly, Only you (2001).
Figure 9. Ana Hatherly, Only you (2001). Acrylic on cardstock, 131.2 x 150.7cm, Inv. 03DP1844. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon – Modern Art Center. Photograph: Paulo Costa

For Hatherly, the revelation of the conjuring tricks of the hand, of the writer as a “calculator of improbabilities,” was tantamount to a political act, exalting the practice of play to upset the status quo and to empower the receiver of the message. Several of her female peers, such as the artists Helena Almeida, Lourdes Castro, and Ketty La Roca, also began to focus on the hands as a means of summoning a new alternative language into being, instrumentalizing their palms |/ wrists |/ digits |/ as tools of expression that challenged the gendered nature of many linguistic rules and norms. This “embodied” or “inhabited” language lived in gestures rather than print, wherein the Portuguese proverb—let the hands move and the mouth remain shut—became an act of sorcery. These hands were proponents of awakening within their communities, freeing the female body to script its own engagement (fig. 10).

Ana Hatherly, “Les Demoiselles d’Ávignon invaded by Time” (1991).
Figure 10. Ana Hatherly, “Les Demoiselles d’Ávignon invaded by Time” (1991). Stylographic ink on paper, Inv. DP1709. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon – Modern Art Center. Photograph: Paulo Costa

For Hatherly, it always came back to the written word. In an Oulipian way, she wrote to explore what literature might be, rather than to say what it is. To look at her work is, for me, a way of observing all the ways in which I do not know. Her work brings forth—and makes me bear the burden of—the endless horizon lines of language, enfolding |/ unfolding |/ enfolding |/ unfolding |/.


This piece is dedicated to the memory of António Silva, who opened up a world of Portuguese poetry to me. With thanks to Marta Areia and Ana Maria Campino at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, Teresa Pestana, Amanda Earl, and Joakim Norling for supporting this research.

[1] Jim Leftwich, letter to Tim Gaze, January 27, 1998, cited in Peter Schwenger, Asemic: The Art of Writing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 1.

[2] Michael Jacobson, “On Asemic Writing,” Asymptote (July 2013).

[3] For valuable studies that go some way to addressing this gender imbalance, see Steve McCaffery and Jed Rasula, ed., Imagining Language (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998); Tim Gaze and Michael Jacobson, ed., An Anthology of Asemic Handwriting (The Hague and Tirana: Uitgeverij, 2013); and Schwenger, Asemic.

[4] Roland Barthes, “Non Multa Sed Multum,” (1979) in Writings on Cy Twombly, ed. Nicola Del Roscio (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 2002), 88–101, 90.

[5] See Ana Bigotte Vieira, “‘I Guess You Guys Aren’t Reading for that Yet . . . But Your Kids are Gonna Love It,’ Part 2: Removal,” L’internationale Online (September 24, 2015).

[6] Herberto Helder, “Texto-Introdução” [Introduction-Text], Poesia Experimental (Lisboa: Cadernos de hoje, 1964), 5–6.

[7] Ana Hatherly, “Estrutura, Código, Mensagem,” Diário Popular (May 25, 1967).

[8] See Ana Hatherly, “Reading Paths in Spanish and Portuguese Labyrinths,” Visible Language XX 1 (1986): 52–64; and for context, Paulo Pires do Vale, Ana Hatherly and the Baroque: In a Garden Made of Ink (Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, 2017).

[9] Ana Hatherly, Mapas da Imaginação e da Memória (Lisbon: Editores Moraes, 1973), 5.

[10] For an overview of Hatherly’s scholarly interests, see Ana Hatherly, “Preface,” PO.EX: Essays from Portugal on Cyberliterature and Intermedia, ed. Sandy Baldwin and Rui Torres (Morgantown, WV: Center for Literary Computing, 2014), 15–20.

[11] Ana Hatherly in Luís Alves de Matos (dir.), Ana Hatherly: A Mão Inteligente (Portugal: Amatar Filmes, 2002).

[12] Ana Hatherly, “Short Essay,” in Baldwin and Torres, PO.EX, 49–64, 49–50.

[13] This is explored in de Matos’s film Ana Hatherly.

[14] Ana Hatherly, 463 Tisanas (Lisboa: Quimera Editores, 2006), 13.

[15] For career surveys, see Ana Hatherly, Ana Hatherly: A Mão Inteligente (Lisboa: Quimera Editores, 2003) and Fernando Aguiar, Maria Filomena Molder, Andrea Poças, and João Silvério, ed., Ana Hatherly: Território Anagramático (Lisbon: Fundação Carmona e Costa, 2017).