Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Provensens’

04 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Provensens’ Gorgeous Vintage Illustrations of Aesop’s Fables

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Timeless visual exorcism of our greatest moral shortcomings, bridging antiquity and today.

Predating both Arabian Nights and the Grimm fairy tales by centuries, the fables of Aesop, an ancient Greek slave and storyteller who lived between 620 and 560 BCE, endure as some of humanity’s most influential narratives. “He made use of humble incidents to teach great truths,” wrote the Greek philosopher Philostratus of Aesop, and indeed these fables explore the most complex facets of human morality and its failings — deceit, greed, vanity, impatience, egotism, cowardice — through seemingly simple stories featuring animal protagonists. The fables themselves weren’t recorded in writing during Aesop’s lifetime and how exactly they made their way from ancient Greece to world domination remains uncertain. Though the core morality tales have endured over the centuries, the stories have been retold and reimagined over and over, and among the most magical aspects of their constant reinvention has been the art that has accompanied them.

There is hardly a more wonderful, or better-matched, visual take on the tales than that by Alice and Martin Provensen, whose gift for translating history’s greatest storytelling into visual magic spans from Homer to classic fairy tales to William Blake.

In 1965, nearly a decade after their adaptation of the Iliad and Odyssey, they illustrated Louis Untermeyer’s version of Aesop’s Fables (public library) — sadly, another ghost from the cemetery of out-of-print gems, but one summoned back to life here for a new round of admiration and appreciation, thanks to my own surviving copy of the magnificent tome and some generous friends’ large-format scanner. From The Boy Who Cried Wolf to The Fox and the Grapes to The Tortoise and the Hare to The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs, these familiar, beloved tales shine with uncommon warmth and wisdom under the Provensens’ vibrant touch and expressive elegance.

Aesop’s Fables is sublime in its entirety, and the few remaining copies still findable online and off are very much worth the scavenger hunt.

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14 AUGUST, 2013

Homer for Young Readers: The Provensens’ Vibrant Vintage Illustrations for the Iliad & Odyssey

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Ancient Greek mythology meets mid-century art.

Few artists have done more to enchant generations of children with storytelling than wife-and-husband duo Alice and Martin Provensen, whose vibrant mid-century illustrations span everything from classic fairy tales to an homage to William Blake. (Their 1944 gem The Animal Fair was featured in my recent collaboration with The New York Public Library as one of 10 favorite books about animals.) Born on August 14, 1917, Alice plowed through the era’s tragic bias against female artists; she survived Martin, who died in 1987, by more than two decades and continues to draw well into her nineties.

In 1956, New York’s Golden Press — makers of the fantastic Little Golden Books series — commissioned the Provensens to illustrate an adaptation of Homer for young readers, and The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book (public library) was born — a stunning large-format volume, sadly relegated to the tragic out-of-print corner of culture, but still obtainable used. Enjoy some of the Provensens’ timelessly wonderful drawings:

The Iliad and the Odyssey is delightful in its entirety and could have easily inspired The Ancient Book of Myth and War, that lovely side project by four Pixar animators.

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16 JULY, 2013

Alice and Martin Provensen’s Stunning Vintage Illustrations for Twelve Classic Fairy Tales

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From “The Happy Prince” to “The Beauty and the Beast,” by way of feminism and art history.

As a hopeless fan of Alice and Martin Provensen and a lover of fairy tales, especially ones featuring exquisite illustrations and beautiful reimaginings of the classics, I was delighted to come across The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales (public library) — an out-of-print gem published in 1971, in which the creative duo bring their singular whimsy to twelve beloved fairy tales. From classics like “The Beauty and the Beast” to literary tales like Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” to a recasting of Grimm’s goose girl as a heroine driven by the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, it is at once a timeless treasure trove of storytelling and a subtle time-capsule of cultural history.

'The Swan Maiden' by Howard Pyle

'The Swan Maiden' by Howard Pyle

'The Forrest Bride' by Parker Fillmore

'The Forrest Bride' by Parker Fillmore

'Feather O' My Wing' by Seamus MacManus

'Feather O' My Wing' by Seamus MacManus

In the foreword, Joan Bodger makes an important distinction, which Philip Pullman would come to echo in his retelling of The Brothers Grimm:

The stories in this book are literary fairy tales and thus may seem both familiar and unfamiliar. They are literary fairy tales because they are consciously created pieces of literature. The folk fairy tale is much more ancient, handed along through time (inheritance) and space (diffusion). Folk tales are so transformed by many tellings that no one knows for sure where they began, or how, or why. Certain it is that men and women in every time and every place have tried to impart what is most powerful or complicated or downright funny about the human condition by making up stories to explain the inexplicable.

The literary tale borrows shamelessly from the folk tale but gives it a new twist or dimension… Literary tales are filched from the seething cauldron of folklore, but the best bits and pieces of them are thrown back into the pot to be used again and again.

'The Prince Rabbit' by A. A. Milne

'The Prince Rabbit' by A. A. Milne

'The Prince Rabbit' by A. A. Milne

'The Prince and the Goose Girl' by Elinor Mordaunt

'The Happy Prince' by Oscar Wilde

'The Lost Half-Hour' by Henry Beston

'The Nightingale' by Hans Christian Andersen

'The Seven Simons' by Ruth Manning-Sanders

'The Beauty and the Beast' by Arthur Rackham

Martin Provensen died of a heart attack in 1987, but Alice has continued to write and illustrate well into her nineties. Their artwork has inspired generations of children and its influence quietly reverberates through styles of some of today’s most celebrated artists and illustrators like Vladimir Radunsky. (That their Wikipedia page is so incomplete and out-of-date is truly a shame.)

Complement The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales with Edward Gorey’s take on three classic fairy tales and Kay Nielsen’s stunning 1914 illustrations for Scandinavian fairy tales.

Thanks, Gjela

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