Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

01 MAY, 2015

JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time

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“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested that the poet Robert Frost participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. Eighty-six-year-old Frost telegrammed Kennedy with his signature elegance of wit: “If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration.” He proceeded to deliver a beautiful ode to the dream of including the arts in government, which touched Kennedy deeply.

Frost died exactly two years later, in January of 1963. That fall, Amherst College invited the President to speak at an event honoring the beloved poet. On October 26, Kennedy took the podium at Amherst and delivered a spectacular speech mirroring back to Frost that deep dedication to the arts and celebrating the role of the artist in society. Perhaps more than any other public address, it affirmed JFK as that rare species of politician who is equally a poet and prophet of the human spirit.

The speech was eventually included in the altogether superb Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time (public library) — a compendium of breathtaking adieus to cultural icons like Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emily Dickinson, Keith Haring, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Schulz, and Virginia Woolf, delivered by those who knew them best.

This original recording of the speech, while short in length, is endlessly ennobling in substance. Highlights below — please enjoy:

Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.

[…]

Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role…

If sometimes our great artist have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

Typed draft of the speech, edited in Kennedy's own hand (Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library)

But as notable as the speech itself — for reasons both poetical and political — are the parts Kennedy edited out in his own hand, including this heartbreaking-in-hindsight passage from the second page:

We take great comfort in our nuclear stockpiles, our gross national product, our scientific and technological achievement, our industrial might — and, up to a point, we are right to do so. But physical power by itself solves no problems and secures no victories. What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation. “It is excellent,” Shakespeare said, “to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Three weeks later, one of history’s ugliest and most arrogant misuses of brute power took place as JFK was assassinated, prompting Leonard Bernstein to pen his timelessly moving address on the only true antidote to violence. But the message at the heart of Kennedy’s speech continued to resonate even as his voice was silenced by brutality. Less than two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating the National Endowment for the Arts — the very dream that Frost had dreamt up at JFK’s inauguration.

Complement with two more titans of poetry on the role of the artist in culture: E.E. Cummings on the agony and salvation of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society.

The JFK speech appears as the opening track on composer Mohammed Fairouz’s spectacular album Follow Poet — titled after a line from W.H. Auden’s beautiful elegy for W.B. Yeats — and can be heard in Fairouz’s wholly fantastic On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

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30 APRIL, 2015

An Adventure in Paris with Pussy and Lovey: Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein Become Babysitters

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A positively pleasing illustrated take on a true story.

The fateful first meeting of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas sparked a lifelong romance that lasted not merely until Stein’s death but, as Toklas’s moving memoir suggests, until her own death twenty years later. During their reign as the quintessential Americans in Paris, they became an epicenter of creative culture, around which such rising stars as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald orbited. In 1954, Toklas captured their extraordinary partnership in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook — a delicious memoir in disguise, written in a style similar to Stein’s autobiography and peppered with warm recollections of the couple’s life and love.

Although their story is yet to join the finest picture-book biographies of great artists, writers, and scientists, a most delightful fragment of it comes to life in Gertrude and Alice and Fritz and Tom: An Artful Adventure with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (public library) by longtime Stein and Toklas collector Hans Gallas. Illustrated by comic artist and New Yorker cartoonist Tom Hachtman, creator of the comic strip Gertrude’s Follies, this marvelous picture book for all ages is loosely based on a chapter from the memoir of Fritz Peters, who went to a boarding school near Paris in the 1920s with his younger brother Tom and did indeed visit with Stein and Toklas one holiday.

The story begins with an affectionate primer on Stein and Toklas and their home in Paris amid “masterful modern paintings that covered the walls, floor to ceiling,” including a “positively pleasing portrait of Gertrude” by the couple’s dear friend Picasso.

Gertrude was a really remarkable writer and sometimes Alice called her “Lovey.”

Alice was a constantly creative cook and sometimes Gertrude called her “Pussy.”

One day, they receive a letter from an American friend asking them to babysit her “beautifully behaved boys, Fritz and Tom,” over Thanksgiving.

“There, there,” said Gertrude, “What to do? What to do? What to do?”

“Lovey,” said Alice, “I’ve heard Fritz and Tom can be a horrible handful. They play pesky pranks at school and are not fond of challenging chores.”

“Horrible handful? Pussy, you mean beastly brats who play pesky pranks and are not fond of challenging chores?

How beastly can the brats be? We have two dogs, Basket and Pépé.

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

After some deliberation over Tibetan tea and Alice’s “truly tasty teacakes,” the couple decides to let the boys visit. From the moment they arrive and begin pressing their noses against Stein’s prized art, festive chaos ensues.

After their Thanksgiving feast, appropriately reflective of Toklas’s culinary creativity, the foursome take to the streets of Paris for sightseeing and adventures in Stein’s famous car, Lady Godiva.

Eventually, the boys depart and the couple resumes life as usual.

Then, one morning, Alice discovers a sweet thank-you note from Fritz and Tom tucked behind her favorite teapot and runs to show it to Gertrude, who is enjoying one of her beloved bubble baths.

“Pussy, don’t drop it in the tub,” said Gertrude. “This is one of the nicest notes we have ever received.”

“Lovey, it is positively pleasing, and I think we would make two amusing American aunts,” said Alice B. Toklas.

“Now finish your belated bubble bath, you have some really remarkable writing to do!”

“And you have some constantly creative cooking to do!” said Gertrude Stein.

Complement the altogether positively pleasing Gertrude and Alice and Fritz and Tom with Stein’s loving “word portrait” of Toklas and Toklas’s recollection of the magical moment they first met, then revisit Lisa Congdon’s wonderful illustrated inventory of Stein’s favorite objects.

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29 APRIL, 2015

Where the Wild Things Really Are: Maurice Sendak Illustrates the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

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A dialogue in darkness and light across two centuries of magic and genius.

It is always an immeasurable delight when a beloved artist reimagines a beloved children’s book — take, for instance, the various illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit from the past century — but I have a special soft spot for reimaginings of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, which remain among humanity’s most exquisite and enduring storytelling. The roster of notable interpretations is lengthy and impressive — including Lorenzo Mattotti for a retelling by Neil Gaiman, Andrea Dezsö for the little-known original edition of the tales, Edward Gorey for three of the best-known ones, David Hockney for an unusual vintage edition, and Wanda Gág’s seminal early-twentieth-century illustrations. But the most bewitching Grimm interpreter of all is Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012).

To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the tales in 1973, exactly a decade after Where the Wild Things Are transformed Sendak from an insecure young artist into a household name, FSG invited the 45-year-old artist to illustrate a translation of the Grimm classics by Pulitzer-winning novelist Lore Segal. Sendak had first envisioned the project in 1962, just as he was completing Where the Wild Things Are, but it had taken him a decade to begin drawing. He collaborated with Segal on choosing 27 of the 210 tales for this special edition, which was originally released as a glorious two-volume boxed set and was reprinted thirty years later in the single volume The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm (public library).

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

The Goblins

Bearskin

The Goblins

To equip his imagination with maximally appropriate raw material, Sendak even sailed to Europe before commencing work on the project, hoping to drink in the native landscapes and architecture amid which the Brothers Grimm situated their stories. Aware of the artist’s chronic poor health, legendary children’s book patron saint Ursula Nordstrom — Sendak’s editor and his greatest champion — beseeched him in a lovingly scolding letter right before he departed: “For heaven’s sake take care of yourself on this trip.”

The Twelve Huntsmen

Hans My Hedgehog

The Golden Bird

Fitcher's Feathered Bird

The Frog King, or Iron Henry

Many-Fur

Rapunzel

That Sendak should gravitate to such a project is rather unsurprising. His strong opinions on allowing children to experience the darker elements of life through storytelling were rooted in an early admiration for the Brothers Grimm, who remained an influence throughout his career. He was also not only a lifelong reader, writer, and dedicated lover of books, but also a public champion of literature through his magnificent series of posters celebrating libraries and reading.

The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs

Snow-White and the Seven Drawfs

Ferdinand Faithful and Ferdinand Unfaithful

Brother and Sister

The Fisherman and His Wife

The Master Thief

Brother Gaily

The Goblins

The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear

Complement The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm with Sendak’s equally bewitching visual interpretations of three other classics — Tolstoy’s Nikolenka’s Childhood in 1961, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nutcracker in 1984, and Melville’s Pierre in 2005 — then revisit his own darkest, most controversial, yet most hopeful children’s book.

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28 APRIL, 2015

Delacroix’s Rare Illustrations for Goethe’s Faust

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“Goethe … peered into the mysteries of human existence with a hope of solving the imponderables that hold the lives of men enmeshed.”

“Why not take advantage of those antidotes to civilization, good books? They give strength and peace of mind,” 25-year-old Eugène Delacroix urged himself in his journal in 1823 while trying to reconcile his social life with the solitude his work required — work that would eventually render him one of humanity’s most significant artists. Among the great books in which he found strength and peace of mind was Goethe’s Faust — so much so that he felt compelled to capture the beloved book’s spirit in his art.

In February of that year, he wrote in the journal:

The things that are most real to me are the illusions which I create with my painting. Everything else is quicksand.

In another entry from the same month, he envisioned Goethe as a creative catalyst for his own work:

Every time I look at the engravings of Faust I am seized with a longing to use an entirely new style of painting that would consist, so to speak, in making a literal tracing of nature. The simplest poses could be made interesting by varying the amount of foreshortening.

By 1825, he had accomplished just that in a series of black-and-white lithographs — an interesting choice, given Goethe’s writings on the psychology of color and emotion — which created a mesmerizing dialogue across disciplines between these two geniuses, half a century apart in age. The result was a fine addition to history’s greatest artistic interpretations of literary classics — including William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Maurice Sendak’s formative etchings for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Tove Jansson’s take on Alice in Wonderland, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.

Upon seeing Delacroix’s drawings for his masterwork, 76-year-old Goethe wrote to his good friend Johann Peter Eckermann:

The more perfect imagination of such an artist forces us to think the situations as well as he has though them himself. I must now admit that M. Delacroix has surpassed my own conception in certain scenes!

In 1828, Delacroix’s lithographs were published in Paris as a rare large-format folio. For more than a century, these exquisite drawings remained virtually unknown. In 1932, New York’s Heritage Press finally resurrected them in Faust: A Tragedy (public library) — a gorgeous limited-edition slipcase volume, featuring reproductions of Delacroix’s eighteen lithographs restored through a collotype process.

Scholar Carl F. Schreiber captures Goethe’s transcendent genius in the introduction to this 1932 edition:

Toward noon on March twenty-second, 1832, Goethe closed his eyes forever on a world which he was privileged to understand as few human beings have been permitted to know it. For a period of eighty-two years those eyes … had observed the objects of this earth with a profound reverence; they had peered into the mysteries of human existence with a hope of solving the imponderables that hold the lives of men enmeshed. Goethe’s genius persevered, even in old age, a childlike wonderment and an untrammeled vision to a phenomenal degree. His reverence for all forms of life is a definite mark of his genius… Whatever Goethe was, he was first and foremost a devoted observer… Goethe was a seer.

Although this beautiful 1932 edition is deeply out of print, surviving copies can still be found with some luck and dedication. Complement it with Picasso’s illustrations for a racy Greek comedy and William Blake’s breathtaking drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, over which he labored until his dying day.

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