Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

29 JANUARY, 2014

Let’s Be Enemies: A Vintage Maurice Sendak Treasure

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A delightful lesson in reverse psychology from the greatest children’s illustrator of all time.

Everything Maurice Sendak touched had an immutable aura of wonderfulness to it, from his beloved children’s books to his little-known posters on the joy of reading to his energy as an educator. Among his earliest and loveliest gems is Let’s Be Enemies (public library), written by Janice May Udry and published in 1961 — the same year that young Sendak received that remarkable letter of encouragement from his editor and patron saint, the great Ursula Nordstrom, and also the year that he created his magnificent Tolstoy illustrations.

This endearing reverse-psychology story about the silliness of quarreling as a lose-lose proposition is in some ways the mirror image of Ruth Krauss’s I’ll Be You and You Be Me, which Sendak illustrated seven years earlier. Here, 33-year-old Sendak exercises his faux-curmudgeonly side through the tale of two little boys who decide to be enemies, only to realize how much richer life is when they’re friends — a charming reminder for all of us that self-righteous indignation is never an appropriate, or a soul-satisfying, response.

Complement Let’s Be Enemies with the immeasurably wonderful I’ll Be You and You Be Me and Open House for Butterflies.

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28 JANUARY, 2014

Industrial Sublime: How New York City’s Bridges and Rivers Became a Muse of Modernism

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How a city of contrasts inspired a generation of artists.

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, a cathedral thirteen years in the making permanently changed the riverscape of New York City. In a short period of time, three other major bridges would join it — the Williamsburg Bridge was begun in 1896, the Manhattan Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge in 1901. The waterway was now a river of canyons, and the city became a spectacular form of natural and manmade wonders. Industrial Sublime: Modernism and the Transformation of New York’s Rivers, 1900-1940 (public library), the book companion for the Hudson River Museum exhibition of the same title, reveals how in the first half of the twentieth century, these manmade marvels embracing New York’s river banks enthralled a generation of influential artists who had once turned to nature as their muse.

'East River From the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1928 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

For a youthful America in the beginning of the nineteenth century, the painters of the Hudson River School created a vision of arcadia in the new world, with the waterway at its very heart. The Catskill Mountains and the New Jersey Palisades became as worthy of contemplation as any poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge or William Wordsworth.

America, with its vast frontier, could be a place of Romantic wonder.

'A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning,' by Thomas Cole, c. 1844 (Brooklyn Museum)

But what some Hudson River painters delicately left out of many of their views were the encroaching factories and docklands on New York’s picturesque rivers. In Samuel Coleman’s Storm King on the Hudson, a factory competes with a local mountain called Storm King for sublime attention: one is submerged in clouds, the other creates its own industrial cloud.

'Storm King on the Hudson' by Samuel Coleman, 1866. (Smithsonian American Art Museum).

'The Hudson River from Hoboken' by Robert Walter Weir, 1878 (Detriot Insitute of the Arts)

The river itself became a place of business as sailboats, steamboats, and tugboats crowded the water like a highway. But the success of a city could be defined in the image of its bustling waterway, and artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and John Sloan became fascinated with the intersections and collisions of nature and industry: the edge of a dock, the darkness under a bridge, the lights along the span of Queensboro at night.

'The East River' by Carlton Theodore Chapman, 1904. (New York Historical Society)

At the turn of the century, Gotham was a city of stark visual contrasts: the brightest day could be met with a shadow from a building that could cast a viewer into night, and electric lights might turn the blackest city park into a bright new square. Sublimity could be found in these contrasts, where joy could turn to fear along any street.

'The Bridge: Nocturne' by Julian Alden Weir, 1910 (Smithsonian)

By 1920, life in America had become primarily urban; according to the census, for the first time more people lived in cities than in the country.

'Office Buildings from Below,' photograph by Paul Strand, 1917. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Even in the 1930s, fifty years after its completion, the Brooklyn Bridge remained a source of inspiration. More architecturally beautiful than its East River counterparts, it was the first hint of the industrial sublime in New York, and its most enduring symbol.

'Brooklyn Bridge' by Ernest Lawson, c, 1917. (Terra Museum of Art)

Hart Crane’s The Bridge became an American response to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, with the East River and Brooklyn Bridge as its inspiration:

A tugboat, wheezing wreaths of steam
Lunged past, with one galvanic blare stove up the River.
I counted the echoes assembling one after one,
Searching, thumbing the midnight on the piers.
The blackness somewhere gouged glass on a sky.
And this thy harbor, O my city, I have driven under….

'Power' by Edward Bruce, c. 1933. (The Phillips Collection)

Industrial Sublime is a vision of New York that recounts a time when artists reconceived the beauty, terror, and awe of the place they called home, as the city’s rolling hills could no longer resist the greatest grid amidst a city at the height of metamorphosis.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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27 JANUARY, 2014

John Lennon’s Semi-Sensical Poetry and Prose, Illustrated with His Charming Drawings

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Subtle critique of culture’s hypocrisies, wrapped in bewitching gibberish.

There is something singularly heartening about famous creators with secret talents, about discovering such little-known delights as William Faulkner’s Jazz Age art, Richard Feynman’s drawings, Marilyn Monroe’s poetry, Rube Goldberg’s political art, Liberace’s culinary zest, Hans Christian Andersen’s sketches, and Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons. Among them, unbeknownst to many, was beloved Beatle John Lennon.

In His Own Write & A Spaniard in the Works (public library), released to commemorate Lennon’s 70th birthday with introductions by Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, collects his offbeat poetry and prose along with his charming drawings.

Lennon’s whimsical, semi-sensical writings fall somewhere between Lewis Carroll and Gertrude Stein. He has a particular penchant for unusual wordplay, inventing nonsensical twists on familiar phrases — “a goodbites sleep,” “one upon a tom,” “all of a surgeon” — inevitably leaving the reader to wonder whether there is a deeper meaning, perhaps a postmodernist or surrealist message, or it’s simply linguistic gibberish for the sake of diversion. Paul McCartney writes in the introduction:

There are bound to be thickheads who will wonder why some of it doesn’t make sense, and others who will search for hidden meanings.

“What’s a Brummer?”

“There’s more to ‘dubb owld boot’ than meets the eye.”

None of it has to make sense and if it seems funny then that’s enough.

Still, underneath the amusing and often perplexing writing lies a subtle undertone of cultural commentary on society’s hypocrisies. Take, for instance, the beginning of “Nicely Nicely Clive”:

To Clive Barrow it was just an ordinary day nothing unusual or strange about it, everything quite navel, nothing outstanley just another day but to Roger it was somthing special, a day amongst days … a red lettuce day … because Roger was getting married and as he dressed that morning he thought about the gay batchelor soups he’d had with all his pals. And Clive said nothing.

To Roger everything was different, wasn’t this the day his Mother had told him about, in his best suit and all that, grimming and shakeing hands, people tying boots and ricebudda on his car. To have and to harm … till death duty part … he knew it all off by hertz.

Lennon’s intentional substitute of “harm” for “hold” paints a portrait of the dark side of marriage and all the pain that can live under the hood of this cultural institution masquerading as pure bliss (which Susan Sontag so grimly termed “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings”), and his use of the word “duty” calls out the misguided mechanism by which dysfunctional marriages continue “to have and to harm” (perhaps, as Sontag observed, because such arrangements are “based on the principle of inertia.”)

Or take this short poem, titled “Good Dog Nigel”:

Arf, Arf, he goes, a merry sight,
Our little hairy friend,
Arf, Arf, upon the lampost bright
Arfing round the bend.
Nice dog! Goo boy,
Waggie tail and beg,
Clever Nigel, jump for joy

Because we’re putting you to sleep at three of the clock, Nigel.

Much of it, however, as McCartney points out, is simply fun — which is more than enough.

THE MOLDY MOLDY MAN

I’m a moldy moldy man
I’m moldy thru and thru
I’m a moldy moldy man
You would not think it true.
I’m moldy till my eyeballs
I’m moldy til my toe
I will not dance I shyballs
I’m such a humble Joe.

In His Own Write & A Spaniard in the Works is weird and wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with Yoko Ono’s equally delightful poems, drawings, and instructions for life.

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