Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

19 OCTOBER, 2011

Depression-Era Woodcuts by Lynd Ward, Father of the Graphic Novel

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What vintage woodcut engravings have to do with #OccupyWallStreet.

Some time ago, we marveled at the work of graphic novel pioneer Lynd Ward (1905-1985), whose stunning wordless woodcuts sparked a new dawn of visual storytelling. The genre has since expanded across everything from Hollywood to serious nonfiction — cue in these 10 masterpieces of graphic nonfiction or the recent Richard Feynman graphic biography. From the Library of America comes a fantastic celebration of Ward’s legacy: Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts collects the artist’s most seminal work in a treasure trove of woodcut goodness created between 1929 and 1937, incredibly costly and near-impossible to find prior to the publication of this volume.

More than mere eye candy — which the stark, bold, intensely detailed wood engravings certainly are — Ward’s work is also a thoughtful meditation on both the nature of art and the nature of society before and during the Great Depression, exploring a number of social and labor issues that have found a Renaissance in today’s #OccupyWallStreet movement and the general socioeconomic tensions of our time.

An introduction from the one and only Art Spiegelman adds an appropriate dose of entertaining snark and perceptive cultural commentary.

[Ward] is one of only a handful of artists anywhere who ever made a ‘graphic novel’ until the day before yesterday.” ~ Art Spiegelman

The Library of America has an excellent interview with Spiegelman (PDF):

All novels require some mental adjustment in order to understand a writer’s meaning. But yes, in Ward’s books you have something that has its own operating system. This requires slowing down to understand it. Come at it from one angle and you’re looking at a bunch of incoherent, unconnected pictures. From another angle you see a very tightly woven narrative that rewards contemplation and a revisiting of how it’s told as well as what’s being told. Each of his books teaches itself.”

At the end of each wordless story you’ll find the artist’s comments about his creative process and inspiration for the story, which adds another layer of fascination as you compare and contrast those with your own visceral interpretation of the narrative.

In keeping with this revived interest in Ward’s work, independent filmmakers 217 Films are currently working on a documentary about the artist, titled O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward and scheduled to release in December.

Wordless yet speaking volumes about art and social justice, Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts is a beautiful and layered piece of cultural history, the kind of work you return to again and again only to find new dimensions each time.

Images courtesy of the Library of America

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13 OCTOBER, 2011

Rare Images from the Golden Age of Circus, 1870-1950

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From Ancient Egypt to Lady Gaga, or what P. T. Barnum has to do with Stanley Kubrick.

Since ancient times, spectacles and public performances have transfixed, entertained, and socialized audiences. Between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s, the American circus swelled into the largest show-biz industry in the world and Circus Day became the year’s biggest event, captivating imaginations with its marvelous minstrel shows, audacious acrobats, and crazy clowns. What made the circus extraordinary isn’t merely that it was the birth of American pop culture, the Super Bowl, Macy’s Parade, and the Olympics all rolled up into one, it’s that it created a place for outsiders to become the superheroes of their day, for women to showcase their physical strength in ways that would be socially unacceptable elsewhere, and for audiences to experience cultures from around the world long before the age of global citizenship.

The Circus Book: 1870-1950 is a magnificent volume from Taschen () exploring the circus as a living organism and a way of life, from its history and sociology to its glamor and discipline, through 650 stunning images, culled from a collection of 30,000 spanning 40 different sources, including many of the earliest photographs ever taken of the circus, as well as rare images by Stanley Kubrick and Charles and Ray Eames. More than 80% of the images have never been published, and most have never even been seen before.

The images in this book capture the entrepreneurial audacity for which the circus became famous, and also the remarkable personality and energy of its performers.” ~ Noah Daniel

Alongside the images are fascinating micro-essays that frame the photos, illustrations, and other visual ephemera in a sociocultural context, exploring everything from the ancient origins of public spectacles to how the circus paved the way for film and television.

A time-capsule of a bygone era and priceless artifact of cultural anthropology, The Circus Book: 1870-1950 is both a visual treasure for design- and photography-lovers alike, and an essential primer on understanding the evolution of contemporary pop culture.

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12 OCTOBER, 2011

How Radio Broadcasting Works: An Animated Explanation from 1937

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From oscillator to audience, or how the music of the orchestra travels from the studio to your home.

In 1909, radio pioneer Charles “Doc” Herrold made his first broadcast in what would soon become KCBS news radio, the world’s first broadcasting station. Even though he didn’t invent radio itself — Marconi did — Radio quickly became a powerful disseminator of culture, entertainment and, as 40 years of NPR attest, necessary critical thinking. But how does radio broadcasting actually work? In 1937, the Handy (Jam) Organization (which you might recall) produced On The Air, a fascinating piece of vintage edutainment explaining exactly that, from how the microphone converts sound waves into electrical currents to how audio waves travel from studio to audience, in under 10 minutes.

For more on how radio revolutionized modern communication, see Anthony Rudel’s excellent Hello, Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio.

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