Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

26 NOVEMBER, 2014

Little Red Riding Hood, Reimagined in Unusual Die-Cut Illustrations

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“What big eyes you have!”

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have a long history of reimaginings over the centuries, spanning the full spectrum between the dark and the delightful — from David Hockney’s vintage take to, most recently, artist Andrea Dezsö’s enchanting black-and-white illustrations and Neil Gaiman’s wonderful retelling of Hansel and Gretel. But perhaps no other Grimm tale has bewitched the popular imagination more than Little Red Riding Hood (public library | IndieBound), newly interpreted by French children’s book author and illustrator Clementine Sourdais in an unusual little book that nourishes my hunger for all things die-cut. It is undoubtedly the most refreshing take on the classic tale since Edward Gorey’s reimagining.

Sourdais renders tangible the interplay of light and shadow that makes the tale so beloved: The story unfolds, quite literally, across a series of black-white-and-red vignettes, delicately detailed in cut-outs, with a sensibility partway between mid-century pop-up and contemporary comic.

Supplement Sourdais’s Little Red Riding Hood, which makes a fine addition to the year’s best children’s books, with this minimalist infographic animation based on the beloved story, then revisit the little-known original edition of the Grimm tales.

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25 NOVEMBER, 2014

Maria Merian’s Butterflies: The Illustrated Story of How a 17th-Century Woman Forever Changed the Course of Science Through Art

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A heartening homage to a courageous woman who fought superstition with science and love.

While putting together the annual omnibus of the year’s best children’s books, I was reminded of how woefully rare inspired children’s books about science are in our culture — as rare, perhaps, as are homages to pioneering female scientists and celebrations of the intersection of art and science. The confluence of these three rarities is what makes Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian (public library | IndieBound) so wonderful. Writer Margarita Engle and artist Julie Paschkis — the talent behind the gorgeous illustrated tale of Pablo Neruda’s life — tell the story of 17th-century German naturalist and illustrator Maria Merian, whose studies of butterfly metamorphosis are among the most important contributions to the field of entomology in the history of science and forever transformed natural history illustration.

There are many ennobling and empowering threads to the story of Merian’s life — how she began studying insects as a young girl, two centuries before the dawn of science education for women; how she trained tirelessly in art, then brought those skills to illuminating science, all while raising her daughters; how she traveled to South Africa with her young daughter in an era when women had practically no agency of mobility; how she continued to work even after a stroke left her paralyzed.

But perhaps most pause-giving of all is the reminder of just how much superstition early scientists had to overcome in the service of simple truth: In Merian’s time, people considered insects evil and found the “supernatural” process of metamorphosis particularly ominous, believing it was witchcraft that transformed the insect from one state to another.

By meticulous and attentive observation, Merian proved that the process was very much a natural one, and beautifully so. She was only thirteen. Her groundbreaking work was a prescient testament to Richard Feynman’s famous assertion that science only adds to the mystery and the awe of the natural world.

When people understand the life cycles of creatures that change forms, they will stop calling small animals evil. They will learn, as I have, by seeing a wingless caterpillar turn into a flying summer bird.

On her site, Paschkis shares her research process and offers a fascinating history of insect illustration.

For a grownup take on Merian’s legacy, complement Summer Birds with Taschen’s lavish volume Maria Sibylla Merian: Insects of Surinam.

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24 NOVEMBER, 2014

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Catalog of Beautiful Untranslatable Words from Around the World

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The euphoria experienced as you begin to fall in love, the pile of books bought but unread, the coffee “threefill,” and other lyrical linguistic delights.

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf said in the only surviving recording of her voice, a magnificent meditation on the beauty of language. But what happens when words are kept apart by too much unbridgeable otherness? “Barring downright deceivers, mild imbeciles and impotent poets, there exist, roughly speaking, three types of translators,” Vladimir Nabokov opened his strongly worded opinion on translation. Indeed, this immeasurably complex yet vastly underappreciated art of multilingual gymnastics, which helps words belong to each other and can reveal volumes about the human condition, is often best illuminated through the negative space around it — those foreign words so rich and layered in meaning that the English language, despite its own unusual vocabulary, renders them practically untranslatable.

Such beautifully elusive words is what writer and illustrator Ella Frances Sanders, a self-described “intentional” global nomad, explores in Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World (public library | IndieBound), published shortly before Sanders turned twenty-one.

Norwegian, noun

Japanese, noun

From the Japanese for leaving a book unread after buying it to the Swedish for the road-like reflection of the moon over the ocean to the Italian for being moved to tears by a story to the Welsh for a sarcastic smile, the words Sanders illustrates dance along the entire spectrum of human experience, gently reminding us that language is what made us human.

Arabic, noun

Norwegian, noun

Japanese, noun

In addition to the charming illustrations and sheer linguistic delight, the project is also a subtle antidote to our age of rapid communication that flattens nuanced emotional expression into textual shorthand and tyrannical clichés. These words, instead, represent not only curiosities of the global lexicon but also a rich array of sentiments, emotions, moods, and cultural priorities from a diverse range of heritage.

Yiddish, noun

Hindi, noun

These words invariably prompt you to wonder, for instance, whether a culture lacking a word for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees is also one lacking the ennobling capacity for such quality of presence, for the attentive and appreciative stillness this very act requires. Our words bespeak our priorities.

Japanese, noun

Sanders writes in the introduction:

The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive or indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d forgotten. If you take something away from this book … let it be the realization or affirmation that you are human, that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and feelings.

Swedish, verb

Portuguese, noun

Tagalog, noun

Italian, verb

Yiddish, noun

Swedish, noun

Complement Lost in Translation with Orin Hargraves on how to upgrade our uses and abolish our abuses of language, then treat yourself to this illustrated dictionary of unusual English words.

Illustrations courtesy of Ella Frances Sanders

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