Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

23 JANUARY, 2012

Architecture Without Architects: What Ancient Structures Reveal About Collaborative Design

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From Rome’s theater districts to China’s underground cities, or what pleasure has to do with utility.

The mythology of the sole genius underpins most contemporary creative disciplines, but it is particularly pronounced in architecture, where the image of the visionary diva-architect endures as the gold standard of the discipline’s success. In 1964, Moravian-born American writer, architect, designer, collector, educator, designer, and social historian Bernard Rudofsky examined a whole other side of architecture in Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture — a fascinating lens on “primitive” and communal architecture, exploring both its functional value and its artistic richness, with a focus on indigenous tribal structures and ancient dwellings. Rudofsky peels the pretense of architecture from the creative and utilitarian acts of building to reveal a kind of vernacular, communal architecture embodying a timeless art form that springs from the intersection of human intelligence, necessity, and collective creativity.

I believe that sensory pleasure should take precedence over intellectual pleasure in art and architecture.” ~ Bernard Rudofsky

Underground city near Tungkwan (China)

Anticoli on the Sabine Mountains (near Rome)

Rudofsky was concerned with the cultural bias of architectural history, so he took a special interest in the vernacular architecture of non-Western communities.

Architectural history, as written and taught in the Western world, has never been concerned with more than a few select cultures. In terms of space it comprises but a small part of the globe -Europe, stretches of Egypt and Anatolia- or little more than was known in the second century AD. Moreover, the evolution of architecture is usually dealt with only in its late phases.” ~ Bernard Rudofsky

Cliff dwellings of the Dogon tribe (Sudan)

(Curiously, Rudofsky’s black-and-white photographs of clustered housing units bear a visceral resemblance to the illustrations of Soviet mathematician-turned-artist Anatolii Fomenko, conveying a strange sense of organic order.)

Marrakech (Morocco)

The structures in Architecture Without Architects reveal a kind of purposeful, iterative, social design process that, while dating back centuries and originating in primitive cultures, offers a powerful parallel to contemporary shifts towards collaborative creation.

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20 JANUARY, 2012

Visions of the Jinn: A Visual History of Arabian Nights

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From Aladdin to Lewis Carroll, or what Buddhist deities have to do with understanding the Middle East.

Among 2011′s best sort-of-children’s books was a magnificent volume culling the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm fairy tales — a visual history of some of the most memorable storytelling ever published. Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights is a remarkable tome that applies a similar lens to another infinitely influential piece of timeless storytelling, whose impact spans from the poetry of Goethe and Rilke to the contemporary fiction of Borges and Proust to the visuals and narratives of video games.

Though the first edition of Arabian Nights contained no pictures, the late 18th century saw a flourishing of illustrated editions, the first of which were almost comically amiss in their visual depictions of Arab culture, most notably a widely pirated 1714 edition with engravings by Dutch artist David Coster, who had no grasp of the cultural differences between medieval European and Islamic cultures, so he portrayed the characters in European dress, on European furniture, amidst European architecture.

Shahrazad tells her story to Shahryar, while her sister Dunyazad is listening. Other stories occupy the smaller frames, including 'The fisherman and the jinn.' Illustration by Dutch artist David Coster, 1714.

In the subsequent decades, other artists took a similarly hazy approach to exoticism. It wasn’t until the 1839-1841 publication of The Thousand and One Nights, translated by ethnographer Edward William Lane, who had spent several years in Egypt himself, that the stories began to reflect the Arab world with respectable accuracy. Lane, who aspired to make the text an educational introduction to everyday life in the Middle East, hired acclaimed British engraver William Harvey to do the artwork and saw to its accuracy by giving Harvey historical engravings of Egyptian and Moorish architecture to copy, approaching the project as an educational primer rather than a visual journey of the imagination.

Illustration by William Harvey, 1841.

The first unabashedly imaginative edition of the Victorian age came in 1865. Titled Dalziel’s Illustrated Arabian Nights Entertainments, it featured engravings by a number of notable artists from the era, including perhaps most notably Sir John Tenniel, famous for his whimsical and brilliantly comical illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published that same year.

Sidi Nouman's vengeance on his wife. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1865.

The sleeping genie and the lady. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1865.

The first color take on the tales came Walter Crane in his 1876 Aladdin’s Picture Book. Crane was also among the first to consider the visual tastes of children, reining in a new era of designing storytelling for young readers.

Children, like ancient Egyptians, appear to see things in profile, and like definite statements in design. They prefer well-designed forms and bright frank colour. They don’t want to bother with three dimensions. They can accept symbolic representations. They themselves employ drawing… as a kind of picture writing and eagerly follow a pictured story.” ~ Walter Crane

Aladdin’s Picture Book Arabian Nights. Illustration by Walter Crane, 1878.

Even though the editions since Lane’s scholarly translation had progressed in the realm of visual imagination, the content had remained rather sterilized and prudish. It wasn’t until the 1885-1888 publication of Richard Burton’s sixteen-volume translation that themes of sexuality emerged, complete with extensive notes on topics like homosexuality, bestiality, and castration. Though Burton’s original edition featured no pictures in order to avoid prosecution for obscenity, shortly after his death in 1890 a young friend and admirer of his by the name of Albert Letchford, who had trained in Paris as an orientalist painter, created 70 paintings, which eventually became the basis for the next edition of Burton’s translation. With a keen sensibility for fantasy and a shared interest in the erotic to complement Burton’s own, Letchford’s artwork featured many nudes and were infused with sensuality. Ironically, Letchford contracted an exotic disease in Egypt and died at a young age.

Illustration for Richard Burton's The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night by Albert Letchford, 1897.

Illustration for Richard Burton's The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night by Albert Letchford, 1897.

In the early 1900s, Anglophile Edmund Dulac illustrated the highly successful gift books Stories from the Arabian Nights (1907), Princess Badoura (1913), and Sindbad the Sailor & Other Tales from the Arabian Nights (1914), blending the British tradition of book illustration with the vibrant colors of Persian miniatures and motifs from Chinese and Japanese art. His artwork endures as arguably the most memorable and widely recognized visual footprint of Arabian Nights.

The Story of the Wicket Half-Brothers. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907.

The Fisherman and the Genie. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907.

The Princess Deryabar. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907.

The Story of the Magic Horse. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907.

In the early twentieth century, artists abandoned the obligation to historical and ethnographic accuracy, experimenting instead with the explosion of color and the cross-pollination of world mythologies. Illustrators like Danish artist Kay Nielsen looked to the fantastical monsters and whimsical landscapes of Asian folklore, weaving Buddhist deity iconography, Chinese cloud bands, and near-surrealist elements into the familiar stories.

Sheherezade. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, 1917.

Arabian Nights. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, 1917.

Arabian Nights. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, 1917.

The latter part of the twentieth century saw an even greater explosion of color, among which were the arresting illustrations of British artist Errol le Cain.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Visions of the Jinn explores these and many other treasures, as well as the fascinating historical and sociocultural context in which they were created, to paint a rich and vivid mosaic of the visual legacy of Arabian Nights.

HT The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian

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19 JANUARY, 2012

Gorgeous Vintage Swiss Stamps from the 1940s-1970s

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As if you needed another reason to love mid-century Swiss design, here are some gorgeous stamps from the collection of obsessive digital philatelist Karen Horton.

More of the Swiss postage design tradition can be found in Swiss Stamps, La Collection Suisse.

Thanks, Sarah + Alexis

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