A Conversation with French Calligrapher Laurent Rébéna

After thirty-seven years of international calligraphy conferences, Rendez-vous is proud to be the very first conference to offer a selection of courses in French. And today, we are delighted to introduce you to another one of our francophone instructors, Laurent Rébéna. Laurent hails from France and was trained at the Scriptorium in Toulouse. He has authored three books, exhibited his work throughout Europe and is a founder of Calligraphis in Paris. Laurent will be teaching a five day class on Roman Cursives, taught completely in French! Continue reading to read the translation of our conversation, where Laurent shares his love of historical scripts and more. And you prefer to read the original text in French, just click here.

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in letters?

I grew up in the Paris suburb of Colombes. During a number of treks in the Himalayas (Ladakh, Nepal and Himachal Pradesh), I discovered the Mani walls. They are composed of flat stones on which Buddhist prayers or symbols are engraved or painted. The presence of these stones, often in deserted areas, fascinated me. Returning from these trips, and knowing that it would be difficult for me to understand cultures so different from my own, I started to be more interested in the equivalent aspect in our occidental culture: calligraphy. At that point I was a charcutier, specialized in culinary decoration. Calligraphy seemed to be an artistic practice in which the gesture was closest to my evolution in this profession. I therefore started studying at the Scriptorium in Toulouse.

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What was the first hand that you learned, and which hands resonate with you most today and why?

I started by learning Antiqua, a Humanist script from the Renaissance. All styles of writing interested me. I give about thirty workshops per year, where the themes are mostly historic writing styles. Each time I like to delve into a historical document, to take inventory of all the shapes and make a plan based around this research.

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Which teachers have made the deepest impact on you and your work, and why?

I started studying at the Scriptorium of Toulouse with Bernard Arin. There I learned about calligraphy and drawn letters. All my background in graphic arts comes from there. After that I did workshops with Jean Larcher, Jovica Veljovic and Brody Neuenschwander. Thanks to this work, I met and was invited by calligraphers like Marion Andrews and Bruno Riboulot. The most determined person was Roger Willems, a Belgian designer and professor of the art school of Saint-Luc in Brussels. His work, his personality and his humanity influenced me. He introduced me to the use of the Chinese brush for Latin calligraphy and made me focus on composition. Our meeting was fortuitous.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space? What is your best time of day and do you have any particular routines or warm-ups before you begin work?

I work in two locations. I give weekly classes and workshops at Calligraphis in Paris, and I also work from home, in Bagneux. I’ve built a studio in the garage (I don’t have a car) that faces onto a little garden. I don’t have a particular routine and I work all day long.

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What are three of the most essential tools for your calligraphy practice?

There are three types of tools: the wide ones, the pointed ones and others, each with their own qualities and I try all of their possibilities, conventional or otherwise.

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You have said that for you “the practice of calligraphy and the history of writing are inseparable”. What are your favourite writing history resources and what historical documents have influenced and/or inspired your work?

My favourite historical inspirations are original documents now available as a result of digital copies in major libraries, archives, especially municipal centres and institutions like l’École nationale des chartes. In the beginning, I started studying the work of paleographers such as Jean Malon, Jacques Stiennon or Bernard Bischoff. I quickly directed myself towards understanding the shapes more than the aesthetics.

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What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects, and why?

The creation of the welcome signage panels for Villers Abbey in Villers-la-Ville in Belgium. The abbey was discontinued in 1789 during the French Revolution. Abandoned, the ceiling structure fell, leaving only the walls standing. This location has been transformed into a cultural centre offering various activities. It was essential to create welcome or information areas. I wrote sentences in calligraphy from the realm of Saint Benoît in Latin and in French in a primitive Gothic script from the 12th century with brush and edged pen. This was printed and placed on a 13 x 8 foot wall. I kept the abbreviations and ligatures specific to that period, all of which was verified by a paleographer. I had been contacted by them because they felt I was able to do justice to the historical technique. The execution at actual size was a challenge, one which I was enthusiastic about, as it allowed me to put calligraphy into a cultural context.

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Could you tell us about the genesis behind your class “Les cursives romaines – Découverte et interprétation d’une écriture” ? What knowledge and skills will students gain after participating in this five day class, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

The idea for this year’s course comes from my passion for cursive writing in general, and particularly for Roman cursives. These hands are a source of all minuscule scripts that followed. After a presentation of historical documents (papyrus, graffiti from Pompeii and wax tablets), we will analyse an initial document. I will then give to each participant a document about the letters featured and each person will work on a sentence, trying progressively to understand the system of letter connections and progressions. There are many strokes and links possible for each letter and word. We will repeat this exercise with other Roman cursives of different periods, each becoming more and more complex.From these exercises, participants will create new codes using different tools, to create personal compositions. This workshop is designed to develop an understanding of new forms, to appropriate them and to give them a contemporary, more personal slant, all while respecting the original, historical writings. What is important to me in this workshop, is that participants leave with a methodology that can be adapted to other scripts, which is a characteristic of my style of teaching.

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Outside of calligraphy, what are some of your other interests, hobbies and/or pursuits? What might be something about you that people would be surprised to learn?

Hiking and trekking in the mountains has never left me. I enjoy reading novels, comics or graphic novels, essays and historical books. As for the surprise, I cook an excellent beef tongue

Laurent Rébéna

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