Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

10 JULY, 2014

Artist Francis Bacon on the Role of Suffering and Self-Knowledge in Creative Expression

By:

“An artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs.”

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer… his unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden,” Viktor Frankl wrote in his spectacular 1946 treatise on the human search for meaning. We’re immersed in a great deal of cultural mythology regarding spiritual and psychoemotional suffering, but nowhere is it more dangerously romanticized than in the “tortured genius” myth of creative destiny — a myth whose patron saints include tragic heroes like Vincent van Gogh, David Foster Wallace and Sylvia Plath. It’s a formulation of creative pathology that I’ve always found toxic, and yet beneath it lies a deeper conversation about the role of suffering in human life and creative expression.

From The Artist Observed: 28 Interviews with Contemporary Artists (public library) by the prominent dance and art critic John Gruen — the magnificent out-of-print tome fifteen years in the making that also gave us Agnes Martin on art, happiness, pride and failure — comes a wide-ranging conversation with artist Francis Bacon, known for his highly graphic, emotionally charged imagery with strong undertones of anxiety, terror, and turmoil. Considered Britain’s greatest living painter at the time of the interview in 1972, Bacon was as reviled for his violent themes as he was revered for creative vision. In 2013, eleven years after his death, his painting Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, amassing a formidable $142,405,000.

Portrait of Francis Bacon by Irving Penn

Bacon, whom Gruen describes as seemingly enveloped in a time vacuum, presenting “the image of an awkward teenager, aged 62,” reflects with remarkable self-awareness on what he calls his “gilded gutter life” and contemplates the broader role of suffering in the creative experience:

I think that life is violent and most people turn away from that side of it in an attempt to live a life that is screened. But I think they are merely fooling themselves. I mean, the act of birth is a violent thing, and the act of death is a violent thing. And, as you surely have observed, the very act of living is violent. For example, there is self-violence in the fact that I drink much too much. But I feel ever so strongly that an artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs. These things alter an artist whether for the good or for the better or the worse. It must alter him. The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.

Three Studies of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon, 1969

After offering Gruen another round of drink, Bacon revisits the subject of suffering, offering an alternative interpretation of — or, rather, a confound at the heart of — the “tortured genius” mythology:

Of course I suffer. Who doesn’t? But I don’t feel I’ve become a better artist because of my suffering, but because of my willpower, and the way I worked on myself. There is a connection between one’s life and one’s work — and yet, at the same time, there isn’t. Because, after all, art is artifice, which one tends to forget. If one could make out of one’s life one’s work, then the connection has been achieved. In a sense, I could say that I have painted my own life. I’ve painted my own life’s story in my own work — but only in a sense. I think very few people have a natural feeling for painting, and so, of course, they naturally think that the painting is an expression of the artist’s mood. But it rarely is. Very often he may be in greatest despair and be painting his happiest paintings.

This osmosis of suffering and creative flow, according to Bacon, is rooted in a deep and necessary self-knowledge:

You must understand, life is nothing unless you make something of it. I’ve learned, as life progresses, to become more cunning. I know where I would automatically go wrong, which I wouldn’t have known when I was younger. Anyway, I’ve become more cunning both in my work and in my relationships. When I say cunning, perhaps it’s the wrong word. I think knowledgeable is a better word, because, in fact, I don’t like cunning people.

Ultimately, the creative process itself springs from that self-knowledge and remains a private experience, independent of external validation:

When one is right inside the work … it’s very stimulating and exciting, because that’s when you bring things nearer to the nervous system. you must understand that I don’t paint for anybody except myself. I’m always very surprised that anybody wants to have a picture of mine. I paint to excite myself, and make something for myself. I can’t tell you how amazed I was when my work started selling!

The Artist Observed, should you be able to find a surviving copy, is a treasure trove in its entirety, featuring conversations with such creative icons as Saul Steinberg, Agnes Martin, and Roy Lichtenstein. For more archival interview goodness, see Jackson Pollock on art, labels, and morality and Frank Lloyd Wright on his famous peers, education, and New York City’s skyline.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

07 JULY, 2014

The Best Illustrations from 150 Years of Alice in Wonderland

By:

Down the rabbit hole in enchanting reimaginings.

On July 4, 1862, English mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson boarded a small boat with a few friends. Among them was a little girl named Alice Liddell. To entertain her and her sisters as they floated down the river between Oxford and Godstow, Dodgson fancied a whimsical story, which he’d come to publish three years later under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Alice in Wonderland went on to become one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, and my all-time favorite.

In the century and a half since Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the Carroll classic has sprouted everything from a pop-up book adaptation to a witty cookbook to a quantum physics allegory, and hundreds of artists around the world have reimagined it with remarkable creative vision. After my recent highlights of the best illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit, here come the loveliest visual interpretations of the timeless book.

LISBETH ZWERGER (1999)

As an enormous admirer of Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger’s creative vision — her illustrations for L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant are absolutely enchanting — I was thrilled to track down a used copy of a sublime out-of-print edition of Alice in Wonderland (public library) featuring Zwerger’s inventive, irreverent, and tenderly tantalizing drawings, published in 1999.

What makes Zwerger’s aesthetic particularly bewitching is her ability to render even the wildest feats of fancy in a soft and subdued style that tickles the imagination into animating the characters and scenes with life.

The book begins with Carroll’s prefatory poem from the book, which recounts the afternoon boat trip on which he first told the Alice in Wonderland story to the three little Liddell sisters — Lorina (“Prima”), Alice (“Secunda”), the real-life girl who inspired the tale, and Edith (“Tertia”):

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.

Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale of breath too weak
To stir the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?

Imperious Prima flashes forth
Her edict to “begin it”:
In gentler tones Secunda hopes
“There will be nonsense in it!”
While Tertia interrupts the tale
Not more than once a minute.

Anon, to sudden silence won,
In fancy they pursue
The dream-child moving through a land
Of wonders wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird or beast —
And half believe it true.

And ever, as the story drained
The wells of fancy dry,
And faintly strove that weary one
To put the subject by,
“The rest next time—” “It is next time!”
The happy voices cry.

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out—
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s wither’d wreath of flowers
Pluck’d in far-off land.

Though this enchanting edition is currently out of print, you can still find used copies online and at the library. Some of Zwerger’s prints, including one of the Alice cover illustration, are available on ArtKandy.

See more here.

RALPH STEADMAN (1973)

Among the most singular and weirdly wonderful interpretations of the beloved story is the 1973 gem Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman (public library; Abe Books), more than twenty years before Steadman’s spectacular illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm. Barely in his mid-thirties at the time, the acclaimed British cartoonist — best-known today for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson and his unmistakable inkblot dog drawings — brings to the Carroll classic his singular semi-sensical visual genius, blending the irreverent with the sublime.

(Because, you know, it’s not a tea party until somebody flips the bird.)

Should you find a surviving copy, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman is an absolute treat in its entirety. See more of it here.

TOVE JANSSON (1966)

In 1959, three years before the publication of her gorgeous illustrations for The Hobbit and nearly two decades after her iconic Moomin characters were born, celebrated Swedish-speaking Finnish artist Tove Jansson was commissioned to illustrate a now-rare Swedish edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (public library), crafting a sublime fantasy experience that fuses Carroll’s Wonderland with Jansson’s Moomin Valley. The publisher, Åke Runnquist, thought Jansson would be a perfect fit for the project, as she had previously illustrated a Swedish translation of Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark — the 1874 book in which the word “snark” actually originated — at Runnquist’s own request.

When Runnquist received her finished illustrations in the fall of 1966, he immediately fired off an excited telegram to Jansson: “Congratulations for Alice — you have produced a masterpiece.”

What an understatement.

In 2011, London’s Tate Museum published an English edition of Janssen’s Alice, but copies of that are also scarce outside the U.K. Luckily, this gem can still be found in some public libraries and, occasionally, online.

See more here.

LEONARD WEISGARD (1949)

One of the most beautiful editions of the Carroll classic is also one of the earliest color ones — a glorious 1949 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (public library), illustrated by artist Leonard Weisgard. The vibrant, textured artwork exudes a certain mid-century boldness that makes it as much a timeless celebration of the iconic children’s book as it is a time-capsule of bygone aesthetic from the golden age of illustration and graphic design.

JOHN VERNON LORD (2011)

“Words mean more than we mean to express when we use them,” Lewis Carroll once wrote in a letter to a friend, “so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means.”

That’s what British artist John Vernon Lord — one of the most imaginative literary illustrators working today, who also gave us those spectacular recent illustrations for James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake — sought to embody in his special ultra-limited-edition Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (public library), published in 2011 in a run of only 420 signed and numbered copies, of which 98 came with a special set of prints.

Lord writes in the afterword to his glorious edition:

There is hardly anything new to be said about Lewis Carroll’s two ‘Alice’ books. So much has been written about them. Their contents have been probed by the scalpels of psychoanalysts, literary theorists, annotators, enthusiasts and the journalists. Perhaps I should include illustrators among this group, for it is the illustrator’s duty to get to grips with the text and thus make a visual commentary upon it.

Readers of the text and viewers of the illustrations also make a book their own. Each one of us interprets stories and pictures in our own way and each one of us is unique. . . . [But] I think we have to be careful not to look for too many possible meanings that we might think may be lurking within the text of Carroll’s Alice books. It is very tempting to do so and many writers have done just that, sometimes disturbingly, often without evidence, and sometimes in a most delightfully illuminating way.

And yet Lord’s own illustrations invite a wealth of meaning — the most “delightfully illuminating” kind possible. He argues that illustrators of classics like Carroll’s have the special duty of “confounding people’s expectations,” as readers are already well familiar with the stories and long “to be given a different slant to a familiar narrative.” I was fortunate enough to hunt down one of these rare editions — here’s a taste of Lord’s unparalleled genius:

If you’re able to track one down, do treat yourself to a copy of Lord’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There — it’s absolutely gorgeous. See more of it here.

SALVADOR DALÍ (1969)

In 1969, Salvador Dalí was commissioned by New York’s Maecenas Press-Random House to illustrate a special edition of the Carroll classic, consisting of 12 heliogravures — one for each chapter of the book and an original signed etching in four colors as the frontispiece. Distributed as the publisher’s book of the month, the volume went on to become one of the most sought-after Dalí suites of all time — even rarer than Dalí’s erotic vintage cookbook and his illustrations for Don Quixote, the essays of Montaigne, Romeo and Juliet, The Divine Comedy.

Frontispiece

Down the Rabbit Hole

The Pool of Tears

A Caucus Race and a Long Tale

The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill

Advice From a Caterpillar

Pig and Pepper

Mad Tea Party

The Queen's Croquet Ground

The Mock Turtle's Story

The Lobster's Quadrille

Who Stole the Tarts?

Alice's Evidence

See more, including a hands-on video tour of the folio case, here.

YAYOI KUSAMA (2012)

In 2012, Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist, unleashed her signature dotted magic onto a gorgeous edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (public library) from Penguin UK and book-designer-by-day, analog-data-visualization-artist-by-night Stefanie Posavec.

Since childhood, Kusama has had a rare condition that makes her see colorful spots on everything she looks at. Her vision, both literally and creatively, is thus naturally surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Her vibrant Alice artwork, sewn together in a magnificent fabric-bound hardcover tome, becomes an exquisite embodiment of Carroll’s story and his fascination with the extraordinary way in which children see and explore the ordinary world.

Kusama’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a breathtaking piece of visual philosophy to complement Carroll’s timeless vision. See more of it, including a short trailer, here.

BONUS: ALICE IN WONDERLAND POP-UP BOOK (2003)

Those of us enchanted by imaginative pop-up books — from an adaptation of The Little Prince to the life of Leonardo da Vinci to a naughty Victoriana — are bound to fall in love with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: A Pop-up Adaptation (public library) by pop-up book artist and paper engineer Robert Sabuda. Originally published in 2003 — three years after Sabuda’s equally enchanting adaptation of The Wizard of Oz and five years before his take on Peter Pan — the book is a kind of “Victorian peep show” version of the Lewis Carroll classic.

Then the Queen, quite out of breath, said to Alice, ‘Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?’

‘No,’ said Alice. ‘I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.’

‘It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,’ said the Queen.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

04 JULY, 2014

A Breathtaking Animated Adaptation of Bukowski’s “The Man with the Beautiful Eyes”

By:

A visual interpretation at the intersection of the touching and the haunting.

Charles Bukowski was a creature of perplexity and paradox, oscillating between romantic pessimism and luminous wisdom on the meaning of life, propelled by an outrageous daily routine. His expressive poems explored everything from the myths of creativity to his “friendly advice” to young men.

In 1999, British animator Jonathan Hodgson and illustrator Jonny Hannah teamed up on a breathtaking animated adaptation of Bukowski’s 1992 poem “the man with the beautiful eyes” from his final and arguably best poetry collection, The Last Night of the Earth Poems (public library).

when we were kids
there was a strange house
all the shades were
always
drawn
and we never heard voices
in there
and the yard was full of
bamboo
and we liked to play in
the bamboo
pretend we were
Tarzan
(although there was no
Jane).
and there was a
fish pond
a large one
full of the
fattest goldfish
you ever saw
and they were
tame.
they came to the
surface of the water
and took pieces of
bread
from our hands.

our parents had
told us:
“never go near that
house.”
so, of course,
we went.
we wondered if anybody
lived there.
weeks went by and we
never saw
anybody.

then one day
we heard
a voice
from the house
“YOU GOD DAMNED
WHORE!”

it was a man’s
voice.

then the screen
door
of the house was
flung open
and the man
walked
out.

he was holding a
fifth of whiskey
in his right
hand.
he was about
30.
he had a cigar
in his
mouth,
needed a shave.
his hair was
wild and
and uncombed
and he was
barefoot
in undershirt
and pants.
but his eyes
were
bright.
they blazed
with
brightness
and he said,
“hey, little
gentlemen,
having a good
time, I
hope?”

then he gave a
little laugh
and walked
back into the
house.

we left,
went back to my
parents’ yard
and thought
about it.

our parents,
we decided,
had wanted us
to stay away
from there
because they
never wanted us
to see a man
like
that,
a strong natural
man
with
beautiful
eyes.

our parents
were ashamed
that they were
not
like that
man,
that’s why they
wanted us
to stay
away.

but
we went back
to that house
and the bamboo
and the tame
goldfish.
we went back
many times
for many weeks
but we never
saw
or heard
the man
again.

the shades were
down
as always
and it was
quiet.

then one day
as we came back from
school
we saw the
house.

it had burned
down,
there was nothing
left,
just a smoldering
twisted black
foundation
and we went to
the fish pond
and there was
no water
in it
and the fat
orange goldfish
were dead
there,
drying out.

we went back to
my parents’ yard
and talked about
it
and decided that
our parents had
burned their
house down,
had killed
them
had killed the
goldfish
because it was
all too
beautiful,
even the bamboo
forest had
burned.

they had been
afraid of
the man with the
beautiful
eyes.

and
we were afraid
then
that
all throughout our lives
things like that
would
happen,
that nobody
wanted
anybody
to be
strong and
beautiful
like that,
that
others would never
allow it,
and that
many people
would have to
die.

Complement with an equally beautiful animated adaptation of Bukowski’s “Bluebird” and his poetry illustrated by the great R. Crumb.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.