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11 MARCH, 2015

Pioneering Early-Twentieth-Century Artist and Creative Entrepreneur Wanda Gág on Our Two Selves and How Love Lays Its Claim on Us

By:

“There is nothing better for us to do than to take ourselves as we find ourselves and make the best of ourselves.”

At the age of fifteen, long before she became a successful artist, a Newbery- and Caldecott-honored children’s book pioneer, and an influence for creative legends like Maurice Sendak, Wanda Gág (March 11, 1893–June 27, 1946) began keeping an illustrated diary, eventually published as Growing Pains (public library). Although it covers her adolescence and early twenties, it is anything but teenage in character — not in the least because by the time the word “teenager” was coined, Gág was already on her deathbed. Rather, it is the precocious, deeply alive record of how a young woman dragged herself out of poverty by her own talents and her dogged dedication, and became a great artist and creative entrepreneur in an era before women could even vote. (That she would eventually write and illustrate a glorious proto-feminist children’s book only adds to her emboldening story.)

Wanda Gág, 1916

The early portions of the diary capture the formative experiences of Gág’s childhood and adolescence — growing up in poverty and selling her art to earn money for the family (“Made 115 place cards in about 2 days. Wish I could keep the money and buy dresses with, but what’s the use of dreaming all the time?”); living with constant hunger, which she notes only as a matter of fact rather than a complaint (“Ate only doughnuts and coffee for supper to-day.”); being the eldest of seven siblings, of whom she took care after her father died and her mother fell gravely ill (“Mama was in bed and we had the worst time getting dinner and giving the kids their things.”); wanting nothing more than a steady education, but having to drop out of school over and over to take care of her siblings and earn income for the family (“Oh dear, I wish I could earn a pile of money so that I could draw a little for myself, and so that I could go to school without having to think of quitting. I can’t see why some kids don’t like school. I can scarcely wait for the Monday’s.”); being unable to afford even the very notebooks necessary for the continuation of the diary, and being immeasurably elated when she finally saved up enough (“Oh glories, joys, beauties, victory, etc. etc. etc! I’ll get a new diary! Talk of being glad!”).

Young Wanda Gág's drawing of her siblings, found in the diary

But despite the extreme practical hardship, Gág grew up in an atmosphere that encouraged and valued art — not merely as something to sell, but as something to celebrate in the soul.

Anton Gág

Gág writes of her artist-father, Anton, who died a few months before she started the diary but remained an enormous spiritual influence for the remainder of her life:

For his livelihood, he decorated houses and churches; but on Sundays, for his inner satisfaction, he painted pictures in his attic studio. We children had learned early how to behave when someone was “making something” and were sometimes allowed in his studio while he painted there. I liked this — there was a silent, serious happiness in the air which, although I had no words for ti then, I recognized as the ineffable joy of creation. I had already experienced this exaltation myself at times, so I knew that on Sundays my father was happy in his soul.

In 1913, thanks to years of hard work and the help of friends, Gág fulfilled her dream of going to art school and enrolled in The Saint Paul School of Art, where she was offered a scholarship. It was a transformative experience in many ways, both in developing her skills as an artist and in finding herself as a person.

Three self-portraits

In the spring of 1914, several years before Freud first formulated his notions of the id, the ego, and the super-ego, 21-year-old Gág developed and became preoccupied with a peculiar theory that personhood consists of two parts always tussling with each other for dominion — a surface “Me,” unstable in its constantly fluctuating needs and desires, and an underlying “Myself,” the stable representation of one’s deepest truth. The main struggle of life, she intuits, is that of integration between these conflicting aspects of the self.

In a diary entry from April of that year, she captures with extraordinary introspective insight the interplay of these two parts in herself:

Myself, you see, stands for my better judgement, for my permanent self, and Me is my unstable self, the part that is continually changing. Myself is the part of me that sees its way out of my “self-to-me” arguments…; and Me is that part that writes things in diaries in angular words, angular phrases and angular thoughts.

She illustrates this with a small sketch in the margin and writes:

Like this: — Myself is inside, and Me is trying to sort of fit around the outside only it can’t very well because it’s so angular, you see, and can do no more than touch myself and feel that myself is there.

Myself laughs, sometimes mockingly and sometimes indulgently but encouragingly withal, at my poor attempts to express Myself. I do not mind its laughing, for some day I hope to become one with myself.

She captures this inner divide in action as she chronicles her day:

I was kept busy sketching until almost twelve. I was a fool to do it for I was very tired, but I (that is, Me, you know) am often a fool. Myself made only feeble remonstrances for at times I am stronger than it, and besides It seems at times to believe in letting Me do as I please so that I can learn by actual experience.

With the very ambivalence for which this dichotomy of self is culpable, she adds:

In a way I am rather glad I discovered this Me and Myself business because it seems to explain so many things, but on the other hand I don’t like it at all for I can just see where it will jump into my thoughts and conversation all the time.

In June of 1914, Gág considers how this plays into the dynamic of self and other:

I always have a feeling — I may be mistaken of course — that some people think that I am just a common heart breaker — or else a girl who is serious about her art, but one with everyday feelings about love and life and her fellow beings. They do not know that art to me means life. It may sound egotistical for me to say so but I know that I have seen, and see every day, a beautiful part of life which the majority of them never have and never will see. It isn’t egotistical when you think it over — I deserve no credit for that. It is my heritage. My father had that power before me, but because he was unselfish it could not be developed as much as Himself wanted it to be. So he handed it to me, and it’s my duty to develop it. If I ever turn out anything worth while I will not feel like saying that “I did this,” but “My father and I did this.” Aside from that, I will have to include all Humanity to a greater or lesser extent too; and the Great Power that names the Myselves in things will be the most important thing, of course.

The ebb and flow of daily living, Gág’s model suggests, keeps eddying the “Me” part; but life itself pulses through the “Myself” and registers in its deepest trenches, to be transmuted into art after a period of unconscious incubation. She illustrates this with great subtlety in relaying an exchange with a young suitor, Armand, as they go to the fair in early May and he begins pointing out parts of the landscape to her:

Armand sometimes thinks I don’t see as much of my surroundings as I do, simply because I don’t say anything about them. I usually pack them up silently and store them away within me. There are a number of scenes that I saw that day, that I disposed of that way and sometime, perhaps in a few weeks, perhaps in a few months, I will use them — or maybe it will take a few years until they will really go thru Myself so that they will have their fullest effect on me.

A few weeks later, in a passing aside, she adds a related remark that is one of the most poignant lines in the entire diary:

I think people always consider me such a child because I have done my living in silence.

Portrait of Wanda Gág by Adolph Dehn

This tug-of-war between “Me” and “Myself,” for Gág, is often one between emotion and reason — especially when it comes to love, and especially in her particular relationship with Armand, plagued by an asymmetry of affections: she, reluctantly besotted; he, insufficiently interested and manipulative of her affections, giving her just enough to fuel the anguishing infatuation but not so much as to remove the anguish. (A dynamic familiar to anyone who has suffered the cruel ambivalence of a lover.) By the end of May, Wanda and Armand have confronted the issue and “agreed to keep [the] relationship on a Platonic basis.” (Again, a reluctant pseudo-solution familiar to anyone who has ever had intense romantic feelings for a partner incapable or unwilling to reciprocate them.)

In one particularly turbulent entry from May 25, Gág chronicles the rapids of feeling violently dragging her “Me” in its fast-flowing stream of changing emotions:

It is queer — I have gone thru so many stages during the last three days. Saturday morning I was bewildered, at about noon I was happy, by evening I was wretched. By Sunday noon I could smile, in the afternoon I was happy and could laugh. This morning I was mischievous, this afternoon deliciously wicked, right after supper reckless, and right after that wretchedly serious. And now I have come back to the beginning and am bewildered again.

[…]

Just this minute I almost hate him because perhaps I love him, and on the other hand, I almost love him because I almost hate him.

Oh Myself, Myself, where are you? I am surrounded by Me’s and Me’s — bewildered Me’s, wicked Me’s, frivolous Me’s and vindictive Me’s — and I cannot feel you at all.

A couple of days later, she despairs about the possibility of integration:

I think I am not equal at present to wrestle with Myself and Me… Myself and the Me’s are like strings which ought to, and will, guide me when I can understand them, but just now they are tangling up my feet, keeping me from going on.

And yet despite her confusion and her romantic exasperation, Gág coolly notes that she has “a pretty stable record as far as love [is] concerned,” observing that most girls of her age she met in school have already been engaged “once or twice or even thrice.” She cites a poignant exchange with her friend Nina and considers the perilous sublimation of “Myself,” for the benefit of “Me,” in our attempts at love:

She thinks … that she knows more about love than I do. Of course she has been engaged three times and has seen more of the world than I have. But most of the time Herself was obliterated, and you cannot depend upon the judgment of Me’s. Just about all that I know about the subject, I have learned since I have discovered Myself, so I insist that even tho I don’t know as much as she does, I know better.

Page from the diary, 1915

The following year, with patronage from the prominent book collector and publisher Herschel V. Jones — known for his philosophy of “credit based on character and integrity” — Gág transferred to The Minneapolis School of Art. But she brought along both her preoccupation with the “Me”/“Myself” divide and her infatuation with Armand. In an entry from April of 1915, she contemplates with great anguish and poignancy how these two notions — self and love — relate to one another, through the lens of her feelings for Armand:

Where under the sun that man got all that knowledge of human nature, I do not know, but the more I think about it and the more I compare him with other people, the more I realize that his knowledge of people’s innermost selves is not only extensive but beautifully sympathetic. Oh ding it all, Armand is a perfect brick and all his irritating characteristics are but virtues which are misunderstood. I am speaking particularly of those which I deliberately misunderstand.

She adds a pause-giving note on gender double standards:

Oh it is so hard to know that you have to keep caring when you are trying so virtuously to do otherwise. Even the fact that Armand may not care for me at all, and even tho I may be humiliating myself unspeakably in the eyes of the future Wanda Gág, I write, recklessly, that I love him still. If I were a man it would be different. No one thinks a man humiliates himself by loving faithfully and forever a woman who does not care for him. One even admires him for it. But with a woman it is different. She must choke it down and bear it all in silence. I must just act as if I now believe that it was the child in me that had spoken last Spring. Perhaps it was the child-part that spoke, and perhaps I will meet someone whom I like better — but I am certainly not anywhere near believing it.

This mention of the inner child is especially poignant in light of a letter Armand had sent her a year earlier, in which he writes:

The child sees the truth but the genius sees the truth and realizes it.

And yet Gág’s most perceptive remark touches on the very thing that Tom Stoppard would later articulate in the greatest definition of love — the idea that the best kind of love sees through our “Me’s” and straight to the “Myself,” and this seeingness is the source of its irresistible pull on us:

If he did not understand me so very very well, and if he were not so absolutely indispensable to my poor groping Myself, I should almost wish I had never met him. But I’m glad I did, anyway.

The same month, she revisits the subject of duty in the evolution of the self, which is where her theory of “Me” and “Myself” originated:

There is nothing better for us to do than to take ourselves as we find ourselves and make the best of ourselves. If I find myself, as I did, the daughter of an artist who has left me with broadmindedness and a conveniently strong character to resist temptation, I take myself from there and accomplish what I can… I do not even deserve praise for doing my best, for that is my duty and I deserve to be blamed for not doing my best.

Growing Pains is a wonderful read in its entirety — the living record of how a remarkable artist, who should be appreciated and celebrated far more than she is by our short-termist culture, became herself. Complement it with great writers on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then revisit Gág’s Grimm illustrations and her delightful alphabet book.

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11 MARCH, 2015

David Whyte on How to Break the Tyranny of Work/Life Balance

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“We are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.”

The equilibrium between productivity and presence is one of the hardest things to master in life, and one of the most important. We, both as a culture and as individuals, often conflate it with the deceptively similar-sounding yet profoundly different notion of “work/life balance” — a concept rather disheartening upon closer inspection. It implies, after all, that we must counter the downside — that which we must endure in order to make a living — with the upside — that which we long to do in order to feel alive. It implies allocating half of our waking hours to something we begrudge while anxiously awaiting the other half to arrive so we can live already. What a woefully shortchanging way to exist — lest we forget, so speaks Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

In The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship (public library) — a book reminiscent of Parker Palmer’s beautiful Thoreau-esque writings on the art of inner wholeness yet wholly revelatory in its own right — English poet and philosopher David Whyte aptly calls “work/life balance” a “phrase that often becomes a lash with which we punish ourselves” and offers an emboldening way out of this cultural trap. In an immensely insightful inquiry into these three primary commitments we all make in life, consciously or not, and the dynamics common to them all — the sequence of recognition, pursuit, disappointment, and recommitment — he explores “all those strange and inexplicable inner ways we belong to ourselves.”

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's original watercolors for 'The Little Prince.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Emerson — who observed in his reflections on how we grow: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” — Whyte turns a skeptical eye toward the concept of “balance” between work and life:

Poets have never used the word balance, for good reason. First of all, it is too obvious and therefore untrustworthy; it is also a deadly boring concept and seems to speak as much to being stuck and immovable, as much as to harmony. There is also the sense of unbalancing that must take place in order to push a person into a new and larger set of circumstances.

[…]

The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.

This longing for integration has always been part of the human experience, but today we ache for it more than ever as we face a culture that, in the wise and wonderful Courtney Martin’s words, asks us to “show up as only slices of ourselves in different places.” Whyte captures this beautifully:

These hidden human dynamics of integration are more of a conversation, more of a synthesis and more of an almost religious and sometimes almost delirious quest for meaning than a simple attempt at daily ease and contentment.

In a passage that calls to mind Wendell Berry’s glorious meditation on solitude, Whyte details the trifecta of his inquiry:

Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness. Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we have set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other.

[…]

We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and … they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously… To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.

Whyte draws the prefatory conclusion:

We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

Illustration by Gus Gordon from 'Herman and Rosie.' Click image for more.

I have always found the notion of compromising — particularly when it comes to this unfair tradeoff of work and life — to be a double-edged sword of meaning: on the one hand, a compromise implies reaching a happy medium between two conflicting needs; on the other, to compromise requires the trimming off of excess in one area in order to alleviate a deficit in the other, which invariably means compromising — in the sense of undermining — the area deemed excessive. And yet, as Anaïs Nin memorably remarked her passionate case for the importance of excess in creative work, such compromising hardly benefits us in the end.

Whyte gets at this elegantly, noting that each of the three pursuits he explores “is, at its heart, nonnegotiable,” and urges us to start thinking of each not as something to be balanced against the other two but as something “conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two.” Only then can we begin to shift away from “trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities.” Because work and life are not separate things, he argues, they can’t be “balanced” against one another; instead, they are best treated as a “movable conversational frontier.”

Beneath these seemingly contradictory demands of work and life, Whyte observes, are two deeper needs pulling us in opposite directions with equal force — our often exhausting desire to belong with our fellow human beings and our longing for solitude, for being “left completely and utterly alone, trawling the deep riches of an inner peace and quiet, where the self can actually seem lithe, movable, limitless and inviolate.” And yet Whyte sees hope for reconciliation:

We can still make a real life even when crowded by other identities, or even when unbalanced and intoxicated with desire, or even when we are disappointed in work or love, and perhaps the way, at the center of all this deep love of belonging and this deep exhaustion of belonging, we may have waiting for us, at the end of the tunnel, a marriage of marriages, a life worth living, and one we can call, despite all the difficulties and imperfections, our very own.

Whyte draws a parallel between the first two marriages:

Work, like marriage, is a place you can lose yourself more easily perhaps than finding yourself. It is a place full of powerful undercurrents, a place to find our selves, but also, a place to drown, losing all sense of our own voice, our own contribution and conversation.

[…]

Good work like a good marriage needs a dedication to something larger than our own detailed, everyday needs; good work asks for promises to something intuited or imagined that is larger than our present understanding of it. We may not have an arranged ceremony at the altar to ritualize our dedication to work, but many of us can remember a specific moment when we realized we were made for a certain work, a certain career or a certain future: a moment when we held our hand in a fist and made unspoken vows to what we had just glimpsed.

[…]

Work is a constant conversation. It is the back-and-forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me; it is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world. Like the person to whom I am committed in a relationship, it is constantly changing and surprising me by its demands and needs but also by where it leads me, how much it teaches me, and especially, by how much tact, patience and maturity it demands of me.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Parker Palmer’s wisdom on letting your life speak and Van Gogh’s floundering to find his purpose, Whyte writes:

Work is a constant invisible question, sometimes nagging, sometimes cajoling, sometimes emboldening me; at its best beckoning me to follow a particular star to which I belong.

One can’t help but think of Gabriel García Márquez’s unlikely path to becoming a writer as Whyte adds:

If children move into their late teens with no inkling of their future vocation, not even a glimpse of the star, it is time for the adult world around them to become rightly and increasingly worried. At this point a seemingly wrongheaded but determined direction is far better than none at all. It may be, in fact, that most of the great work done by individuals through history has often been accomplished through long years of dedicated wrongheadedness.

And yet the most challenging marriage of all is the invisible, private one behind the two public-facing commitments of work and relationship — “the internal and often secret marriage to that tricky movable frontier called ourselves.” While poets and psychologists agree that the self is a fluid phenomenon and there is no such thing as fixed personality, we still cling to the comforting falsehood that the self is a stable foundation. And yet in its very instability, Whyte suggests, lies its promise of satisfaction — the self “moves and changes and surprises us as much as anything in the outer world to which it wants to commit,” and that outer world invariably shapes our inner experience. He captures this with a philosopher-poet’s lyrical precision:

We are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.

[…]

Neglecting this internal marriage, we can easily make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Echoing Rilke’s exquisite meditation on how we hide from ourselves and Seneca’s on the shortness of life, Whyte adds:

Not only can we become afraid of these internal questions, but also we can become terrified of the spaces or silences in which these questions might arise. The act of stopping can be the act of facing something we have kept hidden from ourselves for a very long time.

[…]

The marriage with the self is difficult because it is connected to the great questions of life that refuse to go away and which are also connected to our own mortality. In the silences that accompany a strong internal relationship with the self we see not only the truth of our present circumstances and a way forward but we also realize how short our stay is on this earth. Life waits for us in this internal marriage, but death waits for us also.

As if driven by Mary Oliver’s existential prod “urgent as a knife,” Whyte reminds us that it pays to imagine immensities and writes:

This willingness to look at the transitory nature of existence [is] not pessimism but absolute realism: life is to be taken at the tilt, you do not have forever, and therefore why wait? Why wait … to become a faithful and intimate companion to that initially formidable stranger you called your self?

He considers what marriage — any marriage, in all three domains — asks of us, and what it stands to give:

It is almost like a mutual invitation to which both partners must respond wholeheartedly. It includes as much of the future in its gravitational pull as it does any present particularities. It is something that lives over the horizon as much as it exists in the here and now. It is full of keen daily pleasures and shattering disappointments. From all of these early, optimistic appearances and depressing disappearances we realize we have had a first glimpse of secret imagined possibilities, until now unspoken.

In the remainder of The Three Marriages — a tremendously rewarding read in its totality — Whyte delves into the details of each domain, fortifying his poetic and practical insights with lived examples from the lives of such creative luminaries as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson. Complement it with Ursula Nordstrom’s letter to young Maurice Sendak on the cohesion of creative purpose, Parker Palmer on how to live with inner wholeness, and the story of how Van Gogh found his purpose.

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10 MARCH, 2015

More than Words: The Illustrated Love Letters, Thank-You Notes, and Travelogues of Great Artists, from Kahlo to Calder to Saint-Exupéry

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“Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.”

Virginia Woolf aptly called letter writing “the humane art.” But what amplifies the humanity and immediacy of words is the addition of art itself — how instantly alive Van Gogh’s illustrated letters feel, to say nothing of Edward Gorey’s envelope drawings.

That magical marriage of epistolary text and image is what Liza Kirwin explores in More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (public library) — a wonderful selection of love letters, thank-you notes, travel missives, visual instructions, picture-puzzles and plays on words from the world’s largest repository of artists’ papers, featuring missives from creative titans like Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth, Alexander Calder, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Kirwin, who serves as deputy director of the venerable archive and has also culled from it the illustrated lists and inventories of great artists, begins the book with a perfect line from a letter the great American graphic artist John Graham wrote to his third wife, Elinor, in July of 1958 — a gem from the archive’s John Graham Papers collection:

Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.

The illustrated letter is an even more beautiful such manifestation, as artist Walter Kuhn remarked in a letter to his wife: “One should never forget that the power of words is limited.”

Lyonel Feininger to Alfred Churchill, May 20, 1890

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

German-American Expressionist painter and comic strip artist Lyonel Feininger asserted this sentiment with double the ardor in a May 1890 letter to the art critic and lecturer Alfred Churchill:

I will … make one more demand upon your friendship, also it is your promise to me before we parted. viz: to illustrate your letters! If it is only a little landscape or a simple figure, or any little sketch or sketches illustrating the text of your letters, it will be just as welcome and will do you very considerably good in helping you on in penwork or ready interpretation of any little conception you may wish to put on paper.

Frida Kahlo to Emmy Lou Packard, October 24, 1940

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Among the many gems is one from Frida Kahlo — who was a prolific letter writer, most notably of gorgeous and profound illustrated love letters to Diego Rivera — thanking muralist Emmy Lou Packard for taking such good care of Rivera during his trip to San Francisco. The couple had divorced a year earlier, and yet Kahlo writes, illustrating the letter with lipsticked smooches:

Kiss Diego for me and tell him I love him more than my own life.

Kahlo and Rivera remarried a few weeks later and remained together, not without tumult, until death did them part. Years later, as he recalled first meeting the teenage Kahlo, Rivera would consider her “the most important fact” of his life.

Alfred Joseph Frueh to Geiuliette Fanciulli, January 29, 1913

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

One of the sweetest love letters comes from caricaturist Alfred Joseph Frueh, who called his fiancée’s missives “pinkies” (on account of the pink paper she used) and declared that weeks without pinkies “are as empty as cream puffs without cream.” In one letter, he sent her a set of charming cartoons, writing in the postscript that he had to tear up a “pinky” and adding: “But you’ll send me another, wontcha?”

Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, September 8, 1894

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Among the most charming specimens from the section on travel letters is one from Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, listing in beautiful penmanship and delightful illustrations the masses of fruit he was consuming during his 1894 trip to Venice:

Delicious fruits are here in Venice now, and I consume vast quantities of it. Melons, pears, peaches, plums, apples, figs, grapes and other things unknown to my interior.

[…]

I eat fruit so much of the time and so much at a time that I go to bed at night expecting.

But folded into this playful admission of dietary excess is Smith’s larger and graver meditation on the excesses and pretensions of the art world. With the conflicted ambivalence not uncommon in artists — a polarizing pull between wanting commercial success on the one hand and having deep disdain for the system that bestows it on the other — he recounts his visit with the prominent American art patron Isabella Steward Gardner:

Mrs. Gardner wishes so much to have the extreme pleasure of having me make her a visit there that I have promised to go over on Wednesday and end my visit in Venice there.

I lunched there yesterday and showed my pictures and dined with the Brimmers and again passed them all out and told the same little anecdotes with the same inflexion of voice — and they seemed pleased and Colleroni and I are pretty well set up and conceited — for when they weren’t admiring him — they were the workmanship — and I simply floated home in air I was that puffed up my waistcoat hasn’t a button to its name — and the upper part of my trousers looks like two funnels.

And you will ask — you miserable money ideaed things you sordid American parents you will ask if I sold any pictures to Mrs. Gardner — so I will just say yes — “it was bit off” — and with love to you all

I remain your little sonnie JoJo

Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, June 15, 1894

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Smith’s irreverent playfulness and his conflicted attitude toward the art world appear in another letter to his parents from that spring, when he was holding informal exhibitions four evenings a week and buyers — mostly American collectors visiting Venice — were clamoring to buy his work. Illustrating his letter with a drawing that captures perfectly this duality of the artist as panhandler and fashionable commodity, he writes:

Dear Mother and Father,

“It never rains but it pours.”

Behold your son painting under a shower of gold. I am selling pictures on every side and every day. — And we are feeling very much set up and bloated at Palazzo Dario these days.

[…]

I am going to make this last picture the best thing I have ever done.

Man Ray to Julian Edwin Levi, June 26, 1929

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Some are landmarks not only of art history but of all history — shortly before the stock market crash of 1929, surrealist icon Man Ray is sitting in an American bar in Paris, sketching a self-portrait in a lyrical letter to his friend Julian Edwin Levi:

The blue light is creeping over Blvd. Montparnasse and the sparrows are chirping in the trees waiting for a windfall.

J. Kathleen White to Ellen Hulda Johnson, September 1, 1986

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Another letter marks a turning point in the history of computing technology. In the fall of 1986, artist and writer J. Kathleen White brags in a letter to art historian Ellen Hulda Johnson about using a computer to draw a cat, a dog, and a bird:

These household pets here pictured come from computer land.

Alexander Calder to Ben Shahn, February 24, 1949

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Then there are those practical matters for which words simply don’t suffice — such as directions. In his letter of invitation to artist Ben Shahn, the great Alexander Calder encloses a hand-drawn map to his home — and it somehow feels like one of his iconic mobiles.

Robert Lortac to Edward Willis Redfield, August 18, 1919

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Some letters offer oblique assurances about the creative path. Like many subsequently successful artists, French filmmaker and cartoon animation pioneer Robert Collard (known as R. Lortac) had a day-job. During his years as a real estate consultant, he included in a letter to his friend Edward Willis Redfield — a landscape artist — a series of beautiful drawings to give him a better sense of “the character of the landscape” in Brittany, where Redfield was planning a trip.

Andy Warhol to Russell Lynes, 1949

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Another such oblique assurance comes from Andy Warhol. Immediately after graduating from college and moving to New York City — where his overbearing mother would soon follow him to take care of her son through poverty — Warhol applied for a job at Harper’s. Without the slightest care for punctuation or capitalization, except when it comes to his own name, 21-year-old Warhol answers editor Russell Lynes’s request for biographical information:

Hello mr. lynes
thank you very much
biographical information

my life couldn’t fill a penny post card i was born in pittsburgh in 1928 (like everybody else — in a steel mill)

i graduated from carnegie tech now i’m in NY city moving from one roach infested apartment to another.

Andy Warhol.

And yet later that year, Lynes gave Warhol one of his first jobs — to illustrate a John Cheever short story for Harper’s. It would be another decade before he began working as a low-level art director at Doubleday, producing his little-known children’s book illustrations — he filled the time by collaborating with his mother on feline drawings — and nearly twenty years before he established himself as a pop culture icon.

A letter from the German painter and writer Edith Schloss brings a delightful meta-touch to the volume — in 1981, in thanking Philip Pearlstein and other supporters for their help with her American visa, she writes on the back of the letter:

I wish we had a National Archives here to give all my junk & diaries to — I’m not good at throwing things away.

Edith Schloss to Philip Pearlstein, March 25, 1981

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Pearlstein eventually donated his own papers to the Smithsonian’s esteemed archive from which this book is culled, and Schloss — most likely upon his suggestion — soon did the same.

Some are delightful for their little-touches — like multimedia artist Red Grooms’ genial copyediting on the word “snail” in his altogether charming thank-you note to three of his friends for letting him stay at their home in Europe during an extended visit.

Red Grooms to Elisse and Paul Stuttman and Edward C. Flood, 1968

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Perhaps the tenderest letter in the book is also an elegant homage to time and place. Legendary French couturier Yves Saint-Laurent writes his affectionate letter to his dear friend and Vogue art director Alexander Liberman inside a sketch of a traditional Islamic cloak typically worn by women in Marrakech, where the designer had a home, against a background of a traditional Moroccan pattern.

Yves Saint-Laurent to Alexander Liberman, June 7, 1970

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

My very very dear Alex

I am here, in Marrakech
and I am thinking of you as always
of your friendship, loyalty
and your sincerity
I hope to see you as soon as possible and hug you
I love you with all my heart

Yves

But my favorite letter comes from beloved author and contemplator of life Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, penned shortly after the completion of his masterwork The Little Prince — the manuscript of which he also illustrated.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to Hedda Sterne, 1943

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

The letter is merely a dinner invitation to his friend, but it is the postscript, referencing the completion of The Little Prince, that makes it irresistibly endearing and bittersweet:

P.S. A nuisance delayed this letter that did not leave but — to be very honest — I am so proud of my masterpiece that I send it to you anyway.

About a year later Saint-Exupéry, left on a reconnaissance mission as a fighter pilot, never to return. He was forty-four — a biographical detail utterly eerie given that in Saint-Exupéry’s beloved book, the Little Prince watches the sun set exactly forty-four times.

More than Words is an absolute treat in its totality. Complement it with Kirwin’s other collection, Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Collections of the Smithsonian Museum, then revisit Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s illustrated love letters and Lewis Carroll’s rules of letter writing.

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10 MARCH, 2015

Rilke on How Great Sadnesses Bring Us Closer to Ourselves

By:

“The future enters into us in this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens.”

Rainer Maria Rilke’s classic Letters to a Young Poet (public library) is among those very few texts — alongside Thoreau’s journal, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — that I read like one does scripture. In the century since its publication, Rilke’s reflections have proven timeless and timely, over and over, in countless human lives — enduring ideas on how to live the questions and what it really means to love.

Perhaps his most piercing insight and sagest advice — not only for the recipient, the 19-year-old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus, but for every human being with a beating heart and a restless mind — comes from a letter penned on August 12, 1904.

Long before modern psychologists extolled the creative benefits of melancholy, Rilke explores the value of sadness as a clarifying force for our own interior lives. He turns his illuminating gaze to the vast swaths of life we spend completely opaque to ourselves, and writes:

Great sadnesses … they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.

[…]

I believe that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralyzing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living. Because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered into our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more, — is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered.

Many decades before psychoanalyst Adam Phillips championed the importance of “fertile solitude,” Rilke argues that only by cultivating that basic capacity to be alone with our own experience are we able to notice those otherwise imperceptible yet utterly transformative shifts in the heart:

We cannot say who has come, perhaps we shall never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters into us in this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens. And this is why it is so important to be lonely and attentive when one is sad: because the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us as if from outside.

His words vibrate with double poignancy a century later, amid a culture where to be uncertain is the greatest sin of all — never mind that uncertainty is the crucible of self-transcendence; a culture that has commodified the cultivation of happiness and industrialized the eradication of sadness:

The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us, so much the better do we make it ours, so much the more will it be our destiny, and when on some later day it “happens” (that is, steps forth out of us to others), we shall feel in our inmost selves akin and near to it. And that is necessary. It is necessary — and toward this our development will move gradually—that nothing strange should befall us, but only that which has long belonged to us.

But most enlivening of all is the readiness with which Rilke acknowledges the vital relationship between knowledge and mystery. On the cusp of the twentieth-century physics revolution, mere months before Einstein completed his graduate thesis, Rilke draws an elegant parallel between how we get to know the world and how we get to know ourselves:

We have already had to rethink so many of our concepts of motion, we will also gradually learn to realize that that which we call destiny goes forth from within people, not from without into them. Only because so many have not absorbed their destinies and transmuted them within themselves while they were living in them, have they not recognized what has gone forth out of them; it was so strange to them that, in their bewildered fright, they thought it must only just then have entered into them, for they swear never before to have found anything like it in themselves. As people were long mistaken about the motion of the sun, so they are even yet mistaken about the motion of that which is to come. The future stands firm … but we move in infinite space.

Letters to a Young Poet, it bears saying over and over, is an absolutely indispensable read. Complement it with Rilke on how befriending our mortality can help us live more fully, the relationship between body and soul, and the resilience of the human spirit.

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