In February 1944, nuclear physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer sent a handwritten letter to Sarah Lawrence College in New York—nothing unusual about that. At the time, the letter’s author was not yet the world-famous Nobel laureate she would later become. In this concise and fittingly personal document, the scientist informs the college, represented by a certain “Miss Warren,” that she would like to return to her former post. “In the fall, you asked me to let you know my intentions for the future,” she writes. “My own desires have been very clear to me […] I have missed very much the teaching as it is done at Sarah Lawrence.”
This simple letter is the point of departure for Alicja Kwade’s Being Maria (2016). We see blue ink on ivory-colored paper; at the top a date, at the bottom a signature. In just two pages, Goeppert Mayer writes all that needs to be said: her recovery from an illness, her hope of being able to leave her current job as it is incompatible with her role as a mother of two, and, above all, her desire to return to Sarah Lawrence. The current job to which she refers, the one she wants to leave behind (you need to do some research to make the connection) was on the Manhattan Project. Beginning in 1943, she worked with Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller to develop America’s atomic bomb for the war against Hitler and his allies—this woman, born in 1906 in Kattowitz, Upper Silesia, made big plans early on, not least because her father constantly encouraged her to do so, often telling her, “Don’t grow up to be a woman. You’ll study and do something interesting.”

And so she did. She studied mathematics and physics, completing her PhD with Max Born in Göttingen; she was only twenty-four. Soon afterwards, with her husband, an American scientist, she went to New York, had children, and then really got started on her career. She conducted research into the structure of the atom, and in 1963 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, only the second woman after Marie Curie.

Happening upon Goeppert Mayer’s letter, neatly framed by Kwade behind glass, it is almost impossible to grasp all of this immediately. But neither is it necessary to know, for example, that she never went back to Sarah Lawrence in the end. You are presented with just the letter, a historical document, and reading its lines becomes an encounter with an “authentic” record of a moment in someone’s life.

Except that this letter is not genuine, or at least not entirely. The ink and the paper are real, the letter in the frame is a real letter; it is not a fiction and it is not just a copy. It is written in Goeppert Mayer’s handwriting and it contains her expressions and thoughts, but the letter was not written by her personally. It was written on these sheets of paper by Kwade.

The work is part of Kwade’s series Being … that deals with other people’s handwriting. Since her first letter in 2007, the artist has returned to the concept many times. There are now twenty-eight works in the series, for which Kwade peruses archives and estates, looking for handwritten documents by historical figures. She has found letters by actors like Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, and scientists like Werner Heisenberg and Nikola Tesla. Personal, sometimes emotional, most of the letters are addressed to someone unknown. They are documents of interpersonal communication.

Then, through a process of intense practice, Kwade tries to adopt the person’s handwriting, to appropriate it like a second identity. It is not merely a matter of creating a likeness, which could be achieved simply by tracing through thin paper. Rather, Kwade sits there for days and weeks, pen in hand, trying over and over to capture the formal richness and characteristics of a personal hand, carrying on until such time as when she can write in this new way automatically; no longer imitating but actually producing every word, every sentence, as if she herself were the person in question. Reality and fiction start to blur, the other person’s hand becomes her own. Once this conditioning is complete, she rewrites the original letter, freehand, word-for-word, as if addressing her concerns to the addressee herself. She is then Maria Goeppert Mayer, she slips into her brain. This is the letter the viewer sees: a document of an act of intimate mimicry.
Along with the framed letter, Being Maria also includes a graphological assessment, based not on the original but on Kwade’s version. Graphology is a subdiscipline of psychology, a psychodiagnostic method that views handwriting as the direct expression of individual personality. Graphologists say “handwriting is brain-writing.” They also say that character traits can be deduced from the way a person writes, because it is these very attributes which guide the movement of pen on paper. Yet the features of a person’s handwriting that can be examined is endless. Graphologists claim, for example, that if a person’s handwriting differs significantly from their signature, this points to a discrepancy
between self-perception and the way one is perceived by others, implying the absence of a coherent self-image.

The graphologist might not be aware that he or she is dealing with a piece of mimicry. But they do need to know a few basic facts before beginning work: age, gender, level of education. Everything else then rises up out of the handwriting, out of the characteristic curves and loops, the endings, corners, and breaks in the script. In the assessment that forms part of Being Maria, the graphologist speaks of a “fresh and lively personality,” of the modesty and self-assurance expressed in the writing, of a “well-developed sense of reality,” and a high degree of rationality, of clarity and order, of precise thinking and a consistent plan for the future. It is interesting, or at least entertaining, to see how this external evaluation and the life as it was lived seem to coincide—even though critical voices constantly call the true validity of graphology into question.

Although there can be little doubt about the very real meaning handwriting has for people, or what an achievement it is to learn to write by hand in the first place. This highly complex motor skill eventually becomes second nature, gradually acquiring a distinct form on the path from infancy to adulthood: this inestimable cultural technique that allows humans to think something, write it down, and pass it on, without ever needing to say it out loud. Six millennia of written culture is there every time, in every love letter furtively exchanged in the school playground, going all the way back to the Sumerians who first scratched signs into wet clay with a pointed stick. And regardless of whether a person’s handwriting can be fully interpreted, it is necessarily tied to their identity; like gait, speech, and facial expressions, it is shaped by a person’s character.

In recent years, however, analog writing has gone out of style. Who, apart from a few hopeless romantics, still writes letters by hand? With its tendency to efficiency and convenience, digitization has put handwriting under pressure: writing on a keyboard is far quicker, without question; and today’s schoolchildren will probably soon forget how to touch-type, once everything is controlled and dictated by speech alone. Do we still need handwriting then, this relic from the early days of written communication? In the digital age, it seems increasingly anachronistic. Earlier this year, for example, the world’s largest manufacturer of ballpoint pens, whose range of products also includes cigarette lighters and
surfboards, felt compelled to launch a campaign to save handwriting. Entitled “Fight for Your Write,” it suggests fourteen immediate measures to save the written word—apparently, the company feels that one of the pillars of its business model is slowly but surely crumbling away.

Kwade sensed this development more than a decade ago, perhaps even before she became fully aware of it. Her series Being… in turn makes us aware of the brilliance and uniqueness of handwriting, as well as its astonishing and sublime qualities. The works, her letters remind the viewer of the wealth of cultural practice and memory that would be lost if this manifestation of a human life expressed ever ceased to exist.
Long before the competition now posed by digitization, it was always clear that there was so much more to handwriting than merely recorded information, that it contains the imprint of a human being. There is an anecdote—no one knows to what extent it is true—about conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth and his obsession with trying to hone his handwriting, so to make it appear more distinguished, mature, and intelligent: he knew that his hand and his appearance are inseparably interwoven. To work on one’s own biography, on one’s personality, on one’s self-image—handwriting has always been all of these things.

Being Maria, like all the works in Kwade’s series, reminds us that a person’s handwriting—the ultimate and most unique document of their existence—will always be much more personal than any personal computer.

© Text Timon Karl Kaleyta