Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

03 OCTOBER, 2013

Alone in the Forest: Exploring Fear & Courage in Stunning Illustrations Based on Indian Folk Art

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Exquisite visual storytelling that speaks both to our crippling fear of the unfamiliar and our ability to transcend it, emerging enriched by the experience.

For nearly two decades, Indian independent publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautiful books based on Indian folk art traditions, including some extraordinary handmade gems that made it into my recent collaboration with the New York Public Library. Now comes Alone in the Forest (public library), illustrated by the celebrated Gond tribal artist Bhajju Shyam. It tells the tale of Musa, a young Indian boy, and his frightening foray into the dark forest to fetch firewood after his mother falls sick. Somewhere between Lemony Snicket’s The Dark and Tara’s magnificent The Night Life of Trees — in which Shyam’s expressive illustrations also appear — this exquisite piece of storytelling speaks both to our crippling fear of the unfamiliar and our ability to transcend it and emerge somehow enriched by that experience.

The Gonds of central India, among whom Shyam came of age, are a community of exceptionally visual people with a heritage of forest-dwellers. Though their art tradition originates from the decorative patterns painted on the mud floors and walls of their homes — a medium widely used across rural India and also employed by the Warli and Meena tribes — it has blossomed over the centuries into a visual language of extraordinary richness and storytelling capacity.

Complement Alone in the Forest with more of Tara’s treasures, including their two crown jewels, The Night Life of Trees and Waterlife, their homage to cats, and my personal favorite, the ever-empowering Drawing from the City.

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02 OCTOBER, 2013

The Secret Museum: Van Gogh’s Never-Before-Seen Sketchbooks

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A bittersweet record of artistic genius and unlived dreams.

Given my soft spot for the sketchbooks of famous artists and private notebooks of great creators, I was delighted to discover that, unbeknownst to most, Vincent van Gogh kept one. In an 1882 letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: “My sketchbook shows that I try to catch things ‘in the act.’” This private record of the artist’s genius, however, has remained obscured from public view. Thankfully, Molly Oldfield brings this hidden gem to light in The Secret Museum (public library) — the same magnificent tome that gave us the surprisingly dark story of how the Nobel Prize was born — which culls sixty never-before-seen “treasures too precious to display” from the archives and secret storage locations of some of the world’s top cultural institutions.

At Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, Oldfield finds the artist’s seven surviving sketchbooks, only four with their original cover, meticulously stored in the prints and drawings archive. The early sketchbooks bespeak Van Gogh’s religious upbringing and how he transformed that spiritual intensity into a creative practice. Oldfield writes:

Van Gogh had been all set for a deeply religious life but, aged 26, he transferred his religious zeal to art. He decided to become an artist instead, as he felt he wanted to leave “a certain souvenir” to humankind “in the form of drawings or paintings, not made to comply with this or that school but to express genuine human feeling.”

He moved to a rural town called Nuenen to live with his parents and begin learning his craft.

The first sketchbook

Leafing through countless pages of his sketchbooks, Oldfield reflects on this record of the artist’s creative journey and the bittersweet memento the sketchbook provides:

The first sketchbook has a royal blue, marbled inside cover and an empty pocket at the back. The first image he sketched in it was a church in Nuenen. He later painted this church in View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen.

‘View of the Sea at Scheveningen’ by Vincent van Gogh, 1882

Curiously, the two paintings once hung in the Amsterdam museum but were stolen in 2002. It remains unknown where they are or who took them, and the pencil sketch from Van Gogh’s notebook endures as the only trace of the missing masterpieces.

‘Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen’ by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

The remaining pages of the first notebook are filled with drawings of people and places, capturing rural life in Nuenen. The second sketchbook, with a black cover, continues with glimpses of Nuenen, then turns to Antwerp, where Van Gogh moved in November of 1885. It was there he developed his passion for Japanese woodblock prints. Soon, however, the artist — who had been sustaining himself primarily on bread, coffee and absinthe — fell ill and moved to Paris to live with his brother, beginning his third sketchbook — a rectangular giant compared to his previous pocket-sized books lined in linen — which he filled with drawings of Parisian people and museum sculptures, as well as the female nudes who posed for him. Oldfield marvels:

In one pencil sketch, I recognized the windmill at Montmartre — a rural village at the time — which appears in lots of his paintings. Also in this book are sketches of flowers, Theo van Gogh’s laundry list and a letter from Vincent to Theo written in chalk. There is only one stray sheet, which the artist tore out in order to write a note to his brother announcing his arrival in the city.

Still enchanted by the countryside, however, Van Gogh left Paris in 1888 and settled in Arles in the south of France. There, she met a thirteen-year-old girl named Jeanne Calment, who sold the artist colored pencils at her uncle’s shop. She described Van Gogh as “dirty, badly dressed, and disagreeable.” (Curiously, Jeanne outlived the artist by more than a century and died in 1997 at the age of 122.) Disagreeable as he might have been, however, Van Gogh felt lonely and aspired to create an artist colony in Arles. Eventually, Paul Gauguin joined him and the two artists lived together in the famed Yellow House, with a painting of sunflowers gracing Gauguin’s room.

Van Gogh's sunflower sketches from the final sketchbook

It was only in the final sketchbook — an elegant one with a linen jacket and a tie to keep it closed — that Van Gogh sketched the first versions of his iconic series Sunflowers. Oldfield laments:

Having never sold a painting in his life, at that moment, Van Gogh would never have conceived of a time when his sunflowers would be instantly recognized across the planet.

Van Gogh’s artistic dream, however, soon became a nightmare. Residents of Arles petitioned that he be evicted from the Yellow House on account of his madness and he soon moved into an asylum, where he continued to paint. In May of 1890, he left the clinic and move to the Auvers-sur-Oise commune in northwestern France to be close to his physician and his brother. Two months later, he shot himself, believing he was a failure and leaving behind his final sketchbook as the forlorn ghost of his unlived dream. Oldfield ponders:

There are two sketches of sunflowers in the final book. One shows 16 sunflowers in a vase; the other 12 stems in a vase. The drawings match up with two paintings that belong to the Van Gogh Museum; they have the same number of flowers in the vases. Perhaps he was sketching and remembering happier times.

[…]

I wonder, if he had known what would become of his paintings, would he have shot himself? And, if he had not, what other paintings might he have produced?

The Secret Museum absolutely fascinating in its entirety, featuring such rare cultural treasures as a piece of Newton’s apple tree painstakingly preserved at London’s Royal Society, an original Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum at New York’s Morgan Library, and Nabokov’s cabinet of butterfly genitalia held at Harvard.

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30 SEPTEMBER, 2013

How To Be a Nonconformist: 22 Irreverent Illustrated Steps to Counterculture Cred from 1968

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“Avoid socks. They are a fatal giveaway of a phony nonconformist.”

“Why do you have to be a nonconformist like everybody else?,” James Thurber asked in the caption to a 1958 New Yorker cartoon depicting a woman fed up with her artist partner. It remains unknown whether the cartoon itself, or this cultural dismay shared by some of the era’s counterculture thinkers, inspired the 1968 gem How To Be a Nonconformist (public library) by Elissa Jane Karg. One could easily imagine that if Edward Gorey, master of pen-and-ink irreverence, and Patti Smith, godmother of punk-rock, had collaborated, this would’ve been the result. But what’s most impressive is that Karg was only sixteen at the time, a self-described “cynical & skeptical junior at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Connecticut,” qualified to examine nonconformity as “an angry and amused observer” of her “cool contemporaries.”

With her irresistibly wonderful black-and-white drawings and hand-lettered text, which originally appeared in her school newspaper and were eventually published by Scholastic, she offers 22 rules for becoming “a bona fide nonconformist,” poking fun at so many archetypes still strikingly prevalent — perhaps even amplified — today: the misunderstood artist-hipster, the troll grubbing for clout by spewing curmudgeonly comments, the protester-for-the-sake-of-protesting, the musician flaunting her mental health issues as a badge of genius. Rather than derision, however, Karg’s subtler message is a reminder that, as Toni Morrison memorably wrote in Beloved, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” that a full life is about “allowing the various petals of our identity to fully unfold,” and that adhering to any prescriptive mode of living, even if it’s one that rejects the herd of mainstream culture, only flattens us into caricatures of our complete selves and transforms us into a herd of a different kind, one the cultural critic Harold Rosenberg famously called “the herd of independent minds.”

Karg, in true counter-nonconformist fashion, didn’t end up moving to New York City and commodify her brand of creative cynicism. Instead, she moved to Detroit, had two daughters, joined the socialist party, became a nurse, and led an earnest life as an avid advocate for women’s rights on the cusp of the second wave of feminism. Tragically, though perhaps poetically given her life choices, she was killed in 2008 at the age of 57 while riding her bicycle back from a socialist party meeting. She never authored another book, but did co-author the 1980 handbook Stopping Sexual Harassment.

Immeasurably wonderful, How To Be a Nonconformist is long out of print but surviving copies of can be found online. Complement it with Exactitudes, the modern-day photo-anthropological record of the cultural phenomenon Karg satirizes.

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