Manicules and Mandibles: Visualising the Creative Act

Natalie Ferris

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper

Abstract / Description of output

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. Manicules (small hands drawn by scribes) would beckon or point from the margins of medieval and renaissance to particular words or passages in a text, silhouettes of fingers hold in wait above blank pages, typewritten outlines intrude upon the spaces of concrete poems, the flaming hand in André Breton’s Nadja (1928) prophesies the act of writing. Ana Hatherly (1929-2015) was in thrall to the mão inteligente (the intelligent hand). As a poet, artist, pianist, and as a scholar of ancient, classical, early modern and modern writing systems, and particularly of the art and literature of the Baroque period, Hatherly understood the dexterity and ingenuity to be achieved by the fingertips. The hand, for Hatherly, was a guiding force in art and life that 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’. 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 technical trickery employed by every writer or artist. ‘The basis of all my work is still and always the same,’ she asserted on film in 2002, ‘It is an exploration of the concepts of writing’. Vitally, this education was not always couched in languages that were comprehensible to her, but often ‘non-readable’, automatic or asemic, characters or marks.

This paper will explore the ways that Hatherly’s pioneering interdisciplinary work, little-known outside of Portugal, interrogated the evolving nature of the creative act, to reflect upon the transformative and political power of the gesture in art and letters. Her work of the 1960s was constructive, creating a basis for concrete and experimental poetry in Portugal as part of the PO-EX movement, through new abecedaries ‘Ideograma Estrutural’ (1966) and ‘Alfabeto Estrutural’ (1967) and asemic drawings of the late 1906s, while books such as a reinvenção de leitura (1975), o escritor (1975), Joyciana (1982), and radical performances such as ‘poema d’entro’ (1976) and ‘rotura’ (1977), staged the hand as disruptive: her writing spun into dark vortices, her hand slashed through sheets of suspended paper, and pasted letters cascaded from open mouths. What happens when the relationship to both world and word begins to buckle?
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2019
EventGestures: Writing That Moves Between - University of Manchester / Whitworth Gallery , Manchester , United Kingdom
Duration: 15 Feb 201916 Feb 2019


ConferenceGestures: Writing That Moves Between
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • concrete poetry
  • poetry
  • poetry and the arts
  • ana hatherly
  • Portuguese Literature
  • Portuguese women's writing
  • experimental writing
  • drawing
  • writing
  • revolution
  • marginalia
  • History of the Book
  • artists books
  • art
  • modern art
  • modernism


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