Brain Pickings

Salvador Dalí’s Eccentric and Extravagant Life, Illustrated

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Culture/commerce, person/persona, and other dualities that defined art history’s favorite lunatic.

“Every morning upon awakening,” Salvador Dali once wrote, “I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dali.” This amusing arrogance was engrained in the DNA of his artistic persona, from his bombastic opinions on decadence and death to his extravagant erotic cookbook. But beneath that pompous persona there was a complicated man haunted by his own demons and insecurities, which he went to far greater lengths than most of us to conceal and overcompensate for.

That osmosis between person and persona is what Scottish art historian Catherine Ingram and British illustrator Andrew Rae explore in This is Dali (public library) — another installment in the series that gave us This Is Warhol, which is set to include similar succinct, illustrated biographies of twenty-eight more famous artists.

Ingram contextualizes Dalí’s penchant for self-invention:

Dalí came from a family of storymakers, who embellished their past to impress. Dalí’s father told everyone that his own father had been a doctor, but he had actually traded as a corkmaker. When Dalí’s grandfather committed suicide by jumping from a building, the family’s story was that he had died tragically of a brain trauma. Following family tradition, Dalí creates his mythology: in his autobiography Secret Life he reinvents his childhood, giving it the color, intrigue and darkness appropriate for a genius painter.

Ingram traces Dalí’s obsession with power — which, in one of its most extravagant manifestations late in life, led him to carry bells around and ring them regularly, exclaiming, “How else would I be sure that they would notice me?” — to his childhood, which was defined by a dark instance of that famous family storymaking:

Dalí was haunted by his brother’s memory. He was the second Salvador. When he was a boy, his parents took him to his brother’s grave and told him that he was the reincarnation of his brother. He grew up in his brother’s shadow, as he tells: “My brother and I resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections. Like myself he had the unmistakable facial morphology of a genius. He gave signs of alarming precocity, but his glance was veiled by the melancholy characterizing insurmountable intelligence. I, on the other hand, was much less intelligent, but I reflected everything.”

Hardly anyone captured Dalí’s complexities and complexes with more affectionate dimension than the celebrated photographer Brassaï — known for his legendary conversations with Picasso — when he wrote:

I liked his comic humor, always a step ahead of his ideas, liked his complexes, his seriousness, his wild imagination, liked the way his brain worked … [and] sometimes liked his paintings as well.

From how growing up during the visual revolution that sparked the dawn of cinema and photojournalism shaped his visual mind to how he invented himself under the ethos that if he behaved like royalty he would be treated like royalty to his first dabblings in surrealism, Ingram traces how Dalí swelled into his now-famous persona. Her greatest gift is the subtlety with which she invites us to connect the dots between Dalí’s struggles and baggage on the one hand and his outrageous behavior and controversial views on the other, engendering a kind of soft sympathy for this odd man who spent his life in a hedonic treadmill of his own making.

This is Dali goes on to explore his spirituality, his complicated relationship with the domineering Gala, his voracious commercial appetites, and more. Complement it with Dalí’s drawings for Don Quixote, the essays of Montaigne, Alice in Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet, The Divine Comedy, and the twelve signs of the zodiac.

For more treats at the intersection of history and comics, see the graphic biographies of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and the human brain.

Illustrations courtesy of Laurence King; photographs my own

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How to Pitch Yourself: A Lesson from Young Eudora Welty’s Impossibly Charming Job Application to The New Yorker

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An exquisite yin-yang balance of erudition and irreverence, dignity and self-deprecation.

“Only when we take ourselves lightly can we take ourselves seriously, so that we are given the courage to say, ‘Yes! I dare disturb the universe,’” Madeleine L’Engle riffed on T.S. Eliot in her magnificent meditation on creativity. But in the quest to find fulfilling work, we stand in our own way all too often by taking ourselves too seriously to dare “disturb the universe” in any meaningful way.

In March of 1933, shortly before her 24th birthday, Eudora Welty penned the polar-opposite counterpart, if there could be such an oxymoron, of Sherwood Anderson’s perfect resignation letter: She mailed to The New Yorker what’s possibly the loveliest job application of all time, offering her services with equal parts respect and irreverence, self-esteem and well-placed self-deprecation — an epitome of what it means to find your purpose and do what you love. From offering to step in for the great James Thurber “in case he goes off the deep end” to showcasing her affinity for E.E. Cummings with disarming unsubtleness, Welty’s missive — found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library), that wonderful collection based on Shaun Usher’s labor-of-love website, which also gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life and E.B. White’s heartening response to a man who had lost faith in humanity — is a timeless lesson in how to pitch yourself to your dream job.

March 15, 1933

Gentlemen,

I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930–31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A.(’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours,

Eudora Welty

Disappointingly, the editors at The New Yorker seemed too dainty and immune to Welty’s intelligent charisma — her letter produced no response. Only years later would the magazine obliquely recognize that initial failure by eventually publishing some of her short stories. Exactly four decades after her brilliant plea for employment, Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter — a title inadvertently poignant in the context of her New Yorker rejection — and seven years later, in 1980, she became the first woman to receive the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in literature.

Letters of Note is a treasure trove of heartening humanism in its entirety — highly recommended. Sample its soul-quenching goodness further here and here.

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David Lynch on Where Ideas Come From and the Fragmentary Nature of Creativity

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How to throw bait in the river of ideation.

As soon as we ask what creativity is, we invariably ponder the essential question of where good ideas come from and how we can coax them into manifesting. In 1926, Graham Wallace proposed a pioneering model for the four stages of the creative process, which was adapted into a five-step “technique for producing ideas” in 1939, and went on to influence present theories about the creative process. But despite what psychologists may delineate, the best answers come from the trenches and the front lines — from the artists, writers, inventors, and other creative troopers who summon and wrangle ideas for a living.

In this fantastic conversation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, LIVE from the NYPL host and interviewer extraordinaire Paul Holdengräber poses this very question — where do ideas come from? — to legendary director David Lynch.

Lynch, who answers with equal parts irreverence and insight, speaks to the fragmentary nature of creativity and its combinatorial quality, echoing Arthur Koetsler’s seminal 1964 “bisociation theory” of how creativity works.

An idea comes — and you see it, and you hear it, and you know it…

We don’t do anything without an idea. So they’re beautiful gifts. And I always say, you desiring an idea is like a bait on a hook — you can pull them in. And if you catch an idea that you love, that’s a beautiful, beautiful day. And you write that idea down so you won’t forget it. And that idea that you caught might just be a fragment of the whole — whatever it is you’re working on — but now you have even more bait. Thinking about that small fragment — that little fish — will bring in more, and they’ll come in and they’ll hook on. And more and more come in, and pretty soon you might have a script — or a chair, or a painting, or an idea for a painting.

[They come], more often than not, in small fragments.

Pair with Lynch on the role of meditation in creative work, then revisit more explorations of how ideas are born from Neil Gaiman, Rod Serling, and Alice Walker.

Photograph courtesy of BAM

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