Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

01 JUNE, 2015

The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, Reimagined in Uncommonly Soulful Illustrations by Austrian Artist Lisbeth Zwerger

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“Once upon a time, when wishes could still come true…”

Few feats of storytelling have possessed the popular imagination more powerfully or enduringly than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. In the two centuries since the publication of the little-known original edition, penned by Jacob and Wilhelm when they were in their twenties, some of humanity’s most celebrated artists and writers have retold and reimagined these bewitching tales, producing masterpieces like Maurice Sendak’s illustrations a decade in the making, David Hockney’s wonderfully weird vintage visual vignettes, Neil Gaiman’s mesmeric retelling of Hansel and Gretel, and Shaun Tan’s uncommonly haunting sculptural interpretation.

Among the most enrapturing visual reimaginings is one by the celebrated Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger. Having previously illustrated such beloved classics as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Selfish Giant, she brings her singular vision to eleven of the Grimm stories in the absolutely gorgeous volume Tales from the Brothers Grimm: Selected and Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger (public library), translated by Anthea Bell.

The Frog King or Iron Henry

The Brave Little Taylor

The Children of Hamelin

Zwerger’s distinctive pictorial language resonates deeply with the storytelling sensibility of the Brothers Grimm — there is a shared mastery of the interplay between darkness and light, subtlety and drama; a common quietude that bellows as the story breaches the surface of awareness and penetrates the psyche.

Hans My Hedgehog

The Children of Hamelin

The Children of Hamelin

The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids

The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids

The Brave Little Taylor

Hans My Hedgehog

Hans My Hedgehog

There is something particularly wonderful about the juxtaposition of the tales’ unabashed strangeness, which lends itself more readily to stark black-and-white illustrations and literal visual narration, and Zwerger’s soft watercolors, full of delicate abstraction. What emerges is a dialogue — an embrace, even — between the sharp outer edges of the stories and their interior sensitivity, bespeaking their dimensional enchantment.

The Bremen Town Musicians

The Bremen Town Musicians

The Bremen Town Musicians

The Bremen Town Musicians

Briar Rose

Briar Rose

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

Complement Zwerger’s impossibly beautiful Tales from the Brothers Grimm with trailblazing female children’s book artist Wanda Gág’s early-twentieth-century illustrations, then revisit Zwerger’s interpretations of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and Oscar Wilde.

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29 MAY, 2015

Rothko on Beauty, Friendship, and How the Emotional Exaltation of Art Mirrors Human Relationships

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“Beauty conforms to the demands of the spirit.”

People often weep before the paintings of Mark Rothko (September 25, 1903–February 25, 1970) — something he believed was a different side of the same spiritual transcendence he himself experienced while painting them.

In The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art (public library) — that remarkable compendium of Rothko’s little-known writings on art and storytelling, published by his children three decades after his death — the beloved painter examines how this contagious rapture of art works its magic on the beholder and, in doing so, exposes the invisible mesh of mutuality binding us together in a web of human affection.

Mark Rothko

Writing nearly a century after Leo Tolstoy’s insightful assertion that “emotional infectiousness” is the most important criterion for good art, Rothko considers the function of beauty not only as a deeply emotional experience but as a bonding agent that creates deep resonance between those beholding it:

The perception of beauty is definitely an emotional experience. That does not mean exclusively the human emotionalism of sentiment or sensuousness (as has already been shown), but instead that the process involves an exaltation which is communicated to us through the emotional system. This exaltation is usually composed of sentiment, sensation, and, in its highest state, intellectual approbation… Beauty conforms to the demands of the spirit. The experience of beauty may also be a sign of the reception of the creative impulse.

Rothko is careful to point out that technique alone doesn’t make for transcendence:

Skill itself is not an index to beauty. Of course, the artist must have sufficient means at his command to achieve his objective so that his work becomes convincingly communicative. But clearly it is something else which the art must communicate more than this before its author is seated among the immortals.

Noting that a wide range of creative stimuli can elicit the experience of beauty — from sculptures to sonatas, from paintings to people — Rothko examines to the undergirding psychological commonality:

Beauty … is a certain type of emotional exaltation which is the result of stimulation by certain qualities common to all great works of art.

Mark Rothko, 'Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red' (1949)

But Rothko’s most delicate point deals with the parallel between beauty and friendship — both the emotional exaltation of aesthetic pleasure, he suggests, and the warm resonance of human affection require an intimate tango between abstraction and particularity, between infinity and finitude. With an eye to Plato’s definition of beauty, Rothko writes:

Plato … states that somewhere in nature there exists an actual prototype, an abstract absolute of beauty, of which all the manifestations are simply different facets.

[…]

To feel beauty is to participate in the abstraction through a particular agency. In a sense, this is a reflection of the infiniteness of reality. For should we know the appearance of the abstraction itself, we would constantly reproduce only its image. As it is, we have the exhibition of the infinite variety of its inexhaustible facets, for which we should be thankful.

Let us consider the case of our relationship to our friends. We love them with a common love because we all participate in the common prototype of humanity, but because each human being is a new and different manifestation of this prototype we want to know more about each one. Yet we should not be able to enjoy our friends at all if they could not be referred to the common prototype, for through the recognition of this identity with the prototype are we able to make sensible observations of differences.

[…]

Our notions of beauty today are essentially Platonic.

One is reminded of Anne Lamott’s moving meditation on friendship and the difficult art of letting yourself be seen, in which she urged: “Trappings and charm wear off… Let people see you.” How often do we find ourselves too afraid to let others see beyond the neatly packaged prototype of what we appear to be and into the particular manifestations of our singular humanity, the very source of our beauty?

The Artist’s Reality, more of which you can devour here, is a beautiful read in its totality — a rare and revelatory glimpse of the convictions and creative credos from which some of the most powerful paintings in human history sprang. Complement it with Selden Rodman’s fantastic forgotten interview with Rothko, Oscar Wilde on art and temperament of receptivity, and Jeanette Winterson on why reaping art’s most transcendent rewards requires the paradoxical experience of active surrender.

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29 MAY, 2015

Gorgeous 19th-Century Illustrations of Owls and Ospreys

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The science of the familiar “owl-face” and the art of its varied permutations.

In his glorious meditation on science and spirituality, Alan Lightman writes beautifully of finding transcendent experiences in our quotidian existence — experiences like his life-altering half-second encounter with two baby ospreys. Indeed, birds of prey like ospreys, owls, hawks, eagles, and falcons have long possessed the human imagination. A fixture of fables and fairy tales — in other words, a symbolic centerpiece of our civilizational proclivity for thinking with animals — they have continued to enchant storytellers and scientists alike.

Nowhere does the transcendent magnificence of this avian family come more fully alive than in the fourth volume the the six-volume masterwork The Royal Natural History (public library | public domain) by English naturalist, geologist, and writer Richard Lydekker, originally published in 1893.

The fifth chapter of the volume explores owls and ospreys, with engravings at once scientifically scrupulous and wonderfully expressive, emanating a warm celebration of the splendid biodiversity of our world.

Barn-owls

Snowy owl and Lapp owl

Ural owl

The beautiful art, of course, is but a complement to the scintillating science:

[The] characteristic “owl-face” is due, firstly, to the forward direction of the eyes; and, secondly, to a circular disc of radiating feathers, more or less distinctly developed round each eye, and which may be bounded by a ruff of closely-set feathers. In common with many diurnal birds of prey, the owls have a short, stout beak, of which the upper ridge is strongly curved, and the tip deflected in a perpendicular direction ; at its base is a cere, usually covered with stiff bristles concealing the nostrils. The feet are furnished with strong, curved, and sharp claws, and have the fourth toe reversible.

Short-eared owl

Scops owl and long-eared owl

Little owl

Hawk-owl

Tengmalm's owl and pigmy owl

Tawny owl

Eagle-owl

Indian fish-owl

Burrowing owl

Osprey and young

Complement Lydekker’s The Royal Natural History with this showcase of some of the rarest and most beautiful natural history illustrations of the past 500 years.

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25 MAY, 2015

The Brothers Grimm in Three Transcendent Dimensions: Shaun Tan’s Breathtaking Sculptural Illustrations for the Beloved Tales

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Hauntingly beautiful visual vignettes in paper and clay.

In his magnificent meditation on fairy tales and the psychology of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” — something that has since been echoed by C.S. Lewis, who admonished against considering children a special species, E.B. White, who insisted that one should write up to children rather than down, and Neil Gaiman, who believes that we do a disservice to children by shielding them from darker elements. Hardly any other form of storytelling honors children’s inherent intelligence more than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, which have been extending a luminous invitation into the dark for more than two centuries.

Perhaps because they bewitch the ageless dimension of the human imagination, a range of celebrated artists have reimagined these beloved tales over the years: Maurice Sendak for a spectacular 150th-anniversary edition, David Hockney for an unusual vintage volume, Andrea Dezsö for the little-known original tales, Edward Gorey for three of the best-known ones, and Lorenzo Mattotti for a retelling by Neil Gaiman. But one of the most uncommon and imaginative comes from Australian artist and author Shaun Tan, creator of such modern masterpieces as The Lost Thing and The Arrival.

In 2012, shortly after the release of Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm classics, which was published unillustrated in the UK and the US, a publisher approached Tan about creating a cover and possibly some internal artwork for a German edition of Pullman’s fifty tales.

Tan was at first reluctant — he had toyed with the idea of illustrating fairy tales over the years and had invariably ended up convinced that these highly abstract masterworks of storytelling, abloom at the intersection of the weird and the whimsical, didn’t lend themselves to representational imagery. In fact, Pullman himself notes this in the introduction, remarking on the flatness of the Grimms’ characters and the two-dimensional, cardboard-cutout-like illustrations of the early editions, which served as mere decoration and did little to enhance the storytelling experience.

But the challenge is precisely what captivated Tan. He found himself suddenly transported to his own childhood — a time when he was obsessed not with painting and drawing but with the imaginative materiality of sculpture. His long-lost love for clay, papier mache, and soapstone was reawakened and magically fused with his longtime interest in Inuit and Aztec folk art.

The result of this testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity is Grimms Märchen (public library) — a glorious German edition of Pullman’s retelling, illustrated in Tan’s breathtaking visual vignettes. Sometimes haunting, sometimes whimsical, always deeply dreamlike, these miniature handcrafted sculptures made of paper, clay, sand, and wax give the Grimm classics a new dimension of transcendent mesmerism.

Rapunzel

The Fisherman's Wife

The Golden Bird

Hansel and Gretel

Godfather Death

Faithful John

The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear

Cat and Mouse in a House

The Frog King

Complement Tan’s beguiling Grimms Märchen with the decidedly different but no less important early-twentieth-century illustrations by artist and diarist Wanda Gág, who influenced creative legends like Maurice Sendak, then revisit Sendak’s own remarkable vintage Grimm illustrations.

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