Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

02 OCTOBER, 2013

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


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


“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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26 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Four Types of Jaywalkers: An Illustrated Morphology of Bad Pedestrians circa 1924


“The Confusion of Our Sidewalkers: And the Traffic Problem of the Future in the Erratic Pedestrian.”

Walkability might be the key to what makes a great city, but it comes with an inevitable double edge: More walkers means more bad walkers. But while the advent of smartphones has certainly exacerbated the epidemic, the history of pedestrian nuisances is a long and colorful one. The very term “jaywalker” — after jay, a silly person — was coined on August 3, 1924, in a New York Times editorial about the proliferation of pedestrian menaces — something I learned from a passing mention that Alexandra Horowitz, who knows a thing or two about the art-science of urban walking, makes in her unspeakably fantastic meditation on learning to see the familiar city with new eyes. Alexandra was kind enough to help me track down the original archival article, and I was immediately taken with the marvelous morphology of bad walkers that it paints. So I teamed up with my friend Wendy MacNaughton — brilliant visual storyteller and frequent Brain Pickings contributor — and asked her to do for the taxonomy of pedestrian perils what she did for Gay Talese’s taxonomy of street cats, illustrating the archetypes of walkers described in the New York Times article. Please enjoy.

Titled “The Confusion of Our Sidewalkers: And the Traffic Problem of the Future in the Erratic Pedestrian,” the original 1924 article by M. B. Levick presages the urban density of our present and examines it through the eyes of an imagined Uncle Jay Walker, a sort of patron saint of sidewalk orderliness and pedestrian manners. Levick writes:

The speeding and erratic pedestrian is a problem of the present but nothing is but thinking makes it so and the town has not come to realize it yet. Envisage the Manhattan of distant aeons — say 1926, after the fashion of popular prophecy — and the picture shows motors by the million, of bizarre design, closely packed but orderly and docile to semaphores on roadways, sunken, raised, suspended or maintained by radio. In this picture the pedestrians file as orderly as a column of troops along Utopian footways. But what of reality then — and now? The question is not of the jaywalker, but of the master anarchist in all his varieties (and hers), who is creating new and ineluctable hazards in the process of getting from place to place. Here is a problem that has been only touched upon by the “Keep Moving” signs along Fifth Avenue.

Does the world offer worse sidewalk manners than those of Manhattan? Savages in distant isles stroll more urbanely through nine-mile streets like the jungle trail of Typee and never elbow their way with a war club. Medieval streets two feet wide, with the rooftops over hanging, give the Old World traffic cop nothing to do save to help the occasional plump pedestrian who sticks between the walls. Look at the Bund and you see benighted Chipamen trailing single file, and if for them the right side is the wrong side, as for the Englishman, at any rate, the sides are recognized. But New York, orientation smitten from it, rushes in where angels fear, and if there is anything in the transmission of acquired characteristics it bodes ill for the future.

Levick then outlines the types of bad walkers:

There are the veerers who come up sharply in the wind and give no signal. The runners who dash to a goal and then dash back again without even tagging another “it.” The retroactive, moving crabwise. Those who flee and turn swiftly to victory, making a commonplace of the ruse that gave Joe Choynski his fame in the ring. Left-ends and butters, the people who never met the Marquis of Queensberry and to whom Greco-Roman is more foreign than jiu-jitsu.

As mad as the satellite particles of an atom and amid each group, like a nucleus, a static type. The plodder, trudging through Times Square as o’er the lee and knowing neither near side nor off side. The inferiority complexes whose only sense of power is to make the world walk around them. Children of the cigar store Indians standing stock still, so that a couple passing must say “Bread and butter!” Others who are to movement what the color blind are to light and the swaggerers who in an earlier age would take the wall, but in this present confusion must take wall and gutter and all between to assert their precedence.

Conceding that punishment is not enough, Levick — who laments that New York can’t afford the Southern disposition that “the woman pedestrian is a concern of gallantry and not of self-defense” — proposes some solutions:

Control is Uncle Jay Walker’s real work. Perhaps he should devise a speed law and a minimum speed law. Or traffic lights on every house front. If you believe that Western delegate, New Yorkers never knew the rules of the road. Is it too late now? They could be taught in school in rhymes like the doggerel which helps sailors on pathed waters:

From three short blasts ‘tis yours to learn
That she is going full-speed astern.

The verse has a hint; remember it when a determined stout woman comes at you like a skittish battleship. Horns and sirens, to be supplemented with side lights and range lights and a masthead light “at a height above the hull not less than the breadth of the vessel.” All this would have a practical value, and think, too, of the aesthetic appeal. The sober, hurrying crowd would become as gay as a convention of fireflies: the dandy could spend on matching the lights of lapel and coat tail what time he now give to his tie, and mankind, like taxicabs decorated in the latest manner, would burgeon like a Christmas tree, red, green, yellow and blue.

What would be the effect on the traffic accident rate if pedestrians bore false arms for warning, like the grotesque red hands that truck drivers work with strings? It would be a training whose results would be apparent in the roadways no less than on the sidewalks. He who has learned to jaywalk on the sidewalk would be less apt to jaywalk in the street and Special Deputy Policy Commissioner Baron Collier could doubtless point to an even greater saving of life that the street fatality ration between the first half of last year and the same period in 1924. Last year’s rate for the six months was fifteen persons killed to each 10,000 registered vehicles, while the rate to July 1 of the present year was twelve. Of this year’s deaths 82 occurred at crossings and 130 away from crossing, from which Commissioner Collier draws a moral for the jaywalker, at the same time wishing for a law that would give the police regulation over pedestrians as well as vehicles.

And yet, Horowitz tells us in On Looking, though jaywalking may be a civic traffic violation, it could actually be safer because it relies on shared attention rather than mindlessly following traffic signals, which means you’re making judgments based on eye contact rather than autopilot — which, of course, is no reason to plod or veer across city streets.

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