Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

01 APRIL, 2015

R. Crumb Illustrates Kafka

By:

…and why “Kafkaesque” doesn’t mean what you think it does.

After revolutionizing album covers in the 1960s and 1970s, legendary cartoonist and counterculture icon R. Crumb (b. August 30, 1943) sought out his creative kin in another realm of art, traversing the boundaries of life and death to embark on a series of posthumous “collaborations” with some of literature’s most revered irreverents. He illustrated two short books by Bukowski, visualized Philip K. Dick’s hallucinatory exegesis, and adapted Sartre into a comic.

But his greatest, most grimly glorious contribution to the literary canon came with the 2007 release of Kafka (public library) — a succinct and illuminating biography by David Zane Mairowitz, covering everything from Kafka’s the troubled relationship with his emotionally abusive father to his fear of women to his lifelong love affair with his own death to the cultural misunderstandings in which the term “Kafkaesque” is mired.

In one particularly poignant passage, Mairowitz examines Kafka’s conflicted sense of identity — a function of the core human tendencies Margaret Mead and James Baldwin so elegantly captured decades earlier — and considers the author’s coping mechanisms amid Prague’s anti-Semitic cultural climate:

Franz Kafka was never one of those harassed or beaten up on the streets because he was, or simply looked like, a Jew. Yet, however much he may have retired into himself and pushed these events out of direct reach, it would have been impossible, as for most Jews, to absent himself intellectually from the collective fate.

Like all assimilated Jews, one of the things he had to “assimilate” was a measure of “healthy anti-Semitism.” Most Jews of that time (or any other) absorbed the daily menace of anti-Semitism and turned it inward toward themselves. Kafka was no exception to feelings of Jewish self-hatred.

But sooner or later, even the most hateful of Jewish self-hatreds has to turn around and laugh at itself. In Kafka, the duality of dark melancholy and hilarious self-abasement is nearly always at work. “Kafkaesque” is usually swollen with notions of terror and bitter anguish. But Kafka’s stories, however grim, are nearly always also … funny.

Mairowitz and Crumb also explore how Kafka’s relationship with his tyrannical father — whom 36-year-old Franz eventually attempted to confront in a harrowing letter — shaped his writing, including his most famous work, “The Metamorphosis.”

These grim parallels between Kafka’s lived experience and his fictional worlds continued until his death, even through his final moments — in June of 1924, while dying of tuberculosis-induced starvation, he was busy correcting the galley-proofs for his story collection A Hunger Artist, the publication of which several months later he never lived to see.

Complement the Crumb-crusted Kafka with the celebrated author on what books do for the human soul, his beautiful and heartbreaking love letters, and My First Kafka, a most unusual and imaginative adaptation of Kafka for kids.

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30 MARCH, 2015

Enormous Smallness: The Sweet Illustrated Story of E. E. Cummings and His Creative Bravery

By:

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

“In a Cummings poem,” Susan Cheever wrote in her spectacular biography of E. E. Cummings, “the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.” Such a burst is what rewards the reader, whatever his or her age, in Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings (public library) — an uncommonly delightful picture-book celebration of Cummings’s life by Brooklyn-based poet Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo (the artist behind the wonderful alphabet book Take Away the A).

To reimagine the beloved poet’s life in a tango of word and image is quite befitting — unbeknownst to many, Cummings had a passion for drawing and once described himself as “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.”

The project comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — publisher of some of the most daring and tender children’s books of our time — and was first envisioned by ELB founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick, who approached Burgess about writing a children’s biography of Cummings. Miraculously, Burgess had visited Cummings’s home at 4 Patchin Place in New York City three years earlier, after a serendipitous encounter with the current resident — an experience that had planted a seed of quietly germinating obsession with the legendary poet’s life.

And so the collaboration stretched between them, as Cummings might say, like “a pleasant song” — Burgess and Bedrick worked side by side for four years to bring this wonder of a book to life.

The story begins with Cummings, already known as “E. E.” and living in his New York City home where he spent the last forty years of his life, typing away as the love of his life, the fashion model and photographer Marion Moorehouse, summons him to tea-time with an elephant-shaped bell.

From there, Burgess takes the reader on an affectionate biographical detective story, tracing how Edward Estlin became E. E., what brought him to Manhattan from his native Cambridge, and how elephants (and trees, and birds) became his lifelong creative companions in the circus of his imagination.

Young Estlin’s first poem “poured out of his mouth when he was only three.”

With the loving support of the unsung champions with whom the history of creative culture is strewn — the mother who began recording his spontaneous recitations in a little book titled “Estlin’s Original Poems”; the father who stomped on his hands and knees, play-pretending into existence the mighty elephant that was little Estlin’s creative muse; the teacher who encouraged him to pursue his love of words; the uncle who gave him a book on how to write poetry — he eventually made it to Harvard.

There, he came upon the words of his favorite poet, John Keats — “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination” — which awakened young Estlin’s creative courage. After graduation, he began experimenting with poetry and moved to New York City, falling in love with its “irresistibly stupendous newness.”

But then World War I struck and Estlin went to France, volunteering as an ambulance-driver. While working in the French countryside, he was mistaken for a spy and sent to prison for several months.

When the war ended, he wrote a book about his experience, titled The Enormous Room. Estlin was reborn as E. E.

The following year, he published his first book of poems, Tulips & Chimneys.

Burgess writes:

Using a style all his own,
e. e. put lowercase letters where capitals normally go,
and his playful punctuation grabbed readers’ attention.

His poems were alive with experimentation
and surprise!

And because of his love for lowercase letters,
his name began to appear with two little e’s (& a little c, too).

But his expansive experimentation was too much for the small-minded literary pantheon:

Some people criticized him for painting with words.
Other said his poems were
too strange
too small.
Some said they were
no good at all.

And yet Cummings, who viewed society’s criteria for what it means to be a successful artist with mischievous wryness, was undeterred. A century before Neil Gaiman’s memorable advice that the artist’s only appropriate response to criticism is to make good art, Cummings embodied this ethos. Burgess captures this spirit with quiet elegance, weaving one of Cummings’s poems into the story:

But no matter what the world was giving or taking,
E. E. went right on dreaming and making.
For inside, he knew his poems were new and true.

love is a place

love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all words.

His poems were his way
of saying YES.

YES to the heart
and the roundness of the moon,
to birds, elephants, trees,
and everything he loved.

YES to spring, too
which always brought him back
to childhood, when the first
sign of his favorite season
was the whistling arrival
of the balloon man.

The book’s epigraph is a celebration of this unflinching yes-saying: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

With that courage he catapulted himself into the open arms of those who also hungered for beauty and meaning, and became one of the world’s most beloved poets — a capital-A Artist of his own lowercase making.

Complement the immeasurably wonderful Enormous Smallness with a very differently delightful grownup biography of Cummings and his own little-known children’s book, then revisit the picture-book biographies of other creative icons: Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, Pablo Neruda, and Henri Rousseau.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs my own

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25 MARCH, 2015

Viva Frida: A Beautiful and Unusual Children’s Book Celebrating Frida Kahlo’s Story and Spirit

By:

The story of creative culture’s most uncommon Alice in a luminous Wonderland of her own making.

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) was a woman of vibrantly tenacious spirit who overcame an unfair share of adversity to become one of humanity’s most remarkable artists and a wholehearted human being out of whom poured passionate love letters and compassionate friend-letters.

The polio she contracted as a child left her right leg underdeveloped — an imperfection she’d later come to disguise with her famous colorful skirts. As a teenager, having just become one of only thirty-five female students at Mexico’s prestigious Preparatoria school, Kahlo was in a serious traffic accident that sent an iron rod through her stomach and uterus. She spent three months in a full-body cast and even though the doctors didn’t believe it possible, she willed her way to walking again. Although the remainder of her life was strewn with relapses of extreme pain, frequent hospital visits, and more than thirty operations, that initial recovery period was a crucial part of her creative journey.

True to Roald Dahl’s conviction that illness emboldens creativity, Kahlo made her first strides in painting while bedridden, as a way of occupying herself, painting mostly her own image. Today, she remains best-known for her vibrant self-portraits, which comprise more than a third of her paintings, blending motifs from traditional Mexican art with a surrealist aesthetic. Above all, she became a testament to the notion that we can transcend external limitations to define our scope of possibility.

Kahlo’s singular spirit and story spring to life in the immeasurably wonderful Viva Frida (public library) by writer/illustrator Yuyi Morales and photographer Tim O’Meara.

In simple, lyrical words and enchanting photo-illustrations, this dreamlike bilingual beauty tells the story of an uncommon Alice in a luminous Wonderland of her own making.

Morales, who painstakingly handcrafted all the figurines and props and staged each vignette, writes in the afterword:

When I think of Frida Kahlo, I think of orgullo, pride. Growing up in Mexico, I wanted to know more about this woman with her mustache and unibrow. Who was this artist who had unapologetically filled her paintings with old and new symbols of Mexican culture in order to tell her own story?

I wasn’t always so taken by Frida. When I was younger, I often found her paintings tortuous and difficult to understand. The more I learned about Frida’s life, the more her paintings began to take on new light for me. I finally saw that what had terrified me about Frida’s images was actually her way of expressing the things she felt, feared, and wanted.

[…]

Her work was proud and unafraid and introduced the world to a side of Mexican culture that had been hidden from view.

As a child, while learning to draw, I would often study my own reflection in the mirror and think about Frida. Did she know how many artists she influenced with her courage and her ability to overcome her own limitations?

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at Morales’s process that only intensifies the project’s magic:

Viva Frida, which is immensely beautiful from cover to cover, joins the canon of inspired picture-book biographies of cultural icons like Jane Goodall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Neruda, Henri Rousseau, Julia Child, Albert Einstein, Ibn Sina, and Maria Merian.

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