Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia Plath’

29 JULY, 2013

10 Famous Creators’ Secret Obsessions and Little-Known Talents

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Feynman’s sketches, Monroe’s poetry, Plath’s drawings, Magritte’s album art, and more.

A recent piece on director David Lynch’s avant-garde visual art sounded the dot-connecting bell and sent me digging through the Brain Pickings archives for more examples of artists famous in one medium or genre who created little-known but wonderful art in another — a living testament to creativity’s medium-blind nature. Here are ten favorite surprises.

RICHARD FEYNMAN’S SKETCHES

Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynmanchampion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, holder of the key to science, adviser of future generations, bongo player — was a surprisingly gifted semi-secret artist. He started drawing at the age of 44, shortly after developing the visual language for his famous Feynman diagrams, after a series of amicable arguments about art vs. science with his artist-friend Jirayr “Jerry” Zorthian — the same friend to whom Feynman’s timeless ode to a flower was in response. Eventually, the two agreed that they’d exchange lessons in art and science on alternate Sundays. Feynman went on to draw — everything from portraits of other prominent physicists and his children to sketches of strippers and very, very many female nudes — until the end of his life. His drawings are collected in The Art of Richard P. Feynman: Images by a Curious Character (public library), edited by his daughter Michelle.

Dancer at Gianonni's Bar (1968)

Female Posing (1968)

Equations and Sketches (1985)

Jirayr Zorthian (date N/A)

In an introductory essay titled But Is It Art?, Feynman recounts his arrangement with Jerry and observes the intersection of art and science:

I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion. It’s analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with a god that controls everything in the universe: there’s a generality aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so different and behave so differently are all run ‘behind the scenes’ by the same organization, the same physical laws. It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is. It’s a feeling of awe — of scientific awe — which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had that emotion. I could remind him, for a moment, of this feeling about the glories of the universe.

See more here.

MARILYN MONROE’S UNPUBLISHED POETRY

Did you ever begin Ulysses? Did you ever finish it? Marilyn Monroe did both. She took great pains to be photographed reading or holding a book — insistence born not out of vain affectation but of a genuine love of literature. Her personal library contained four hundred books, including classics like Dostoyevsky and Milton, and modern staples like Hemingway and Kerouac. While she wasn’t shooting, she was taking literature and history night classes at UCLA. And yet, the public image of a breezy, bubbly blonde endures as a caricature of Monroe’s character, standing in stark contrast with whatever deep-seated demons led her to take her own life.

But her private poetry — fragmentary, poem-like texts scribbled in notebooks and on loose-leaf paper, published for the first time in Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters (public library) — reveals a complex, sensitive being who peered deeply into her own psyche and thought intensely about the world and other people. What these texts bespeak, above all, is the tragic disconnect between a highly visible public persona and a highly vulnerable private person, misunderstood by the world, longing to be truly seen.

Only parts of us will ever
touch only parts of others –
one’s own truth is just that really — one’s own truth.
We can only share the part that is understood by within another’s knowing acceptable to
the other — therefore
so one
is for most part alone.
As it is meant to be in
evidently in nature — at best though perhaps it could make
our understanding seek
another’s loneliness out.

Life –
I am of both of your directions
Life
Somehow remaining hanging downward
the most
but strong as a cobweb in the
wind — I exist more with the cold glistening frost.
But my beaded rays have the colors I’ve
seen in a paintings — ah life they
have cheated you

See more here.

ANDY WARHOL’S CHILDREN’S ILLUSTRATIONS

Andy Warhol may be one of only seven artists in the world to have ever sold a canvas for $100 million, but you might be able to own “a Warhol” for about $5 — that is, if you can get your hands on a used copy of one of the children’s books he illustrated in the late 1950s, while making a living designing book covers and illustrating dry business books as one of Doubleday’s freelance artists. Shortly before halting his love affair with the corporate world in fear of compromising his flirtations with the art world, he illustrated six stories for the classic Best In Children’s Books series, including “The Little Red Hen” in 1958 and “Card Games Are Fun” in 1959.

See more here and here.

RENÉ MAGRITTE’S ALBUM COVERS

Legendary Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte had a little-known early commercial career. Young Magritte made rent by working as a draughtsman at a wallpaper factory and designing graphic ephemera, among which were some 40 sheet music covers he produced in the 1920s, nearly two decades before Alex Steinweiss invented the album cover as we know it today.

'Marche des Snobs,' sheet music cover (1924). 13 3/4x10 1/2 inches, 35x26 3/4 cm. J. Buyst, Brussels

'Arlita / Chanson Lumineuse,' sheet music cover (c. 1925). 13 1/4x10 1/2 inches, 33 1/2x26 3/4 cm.

'Un Rien … (Nothing),' sheet music cover (1925). 13 3/4x10 3/4 inches, 35x27 1/4 cm. Éditions Musicales de l'Art Belge, Brussels.

See more here.

DR. SEUSS’S WWII PROPAGANDA

Dr. Seuss may be best-remembered for his irreverent children’s rhymes and the timeless prescriptions for living embedded in them, but he was also a prolific maker of subversive secret art and the auteur of a naughty book for adults. Though his children’s books have already been shown to brim with subtle political propaganda, during WWII, he lent his creative talents to far more explicit, adult-focused wartime propaganda when he joined the New York daily newspaper PM as a political cartoonist. Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel (public library) collects 200 of Geisel’s black-and-white illustrations, but more than half of his editorial cartoons were never previously made publicly available.

We're just going to knock out the unnecessary floors designed by F.D.R., published by PM Magazine on May 18, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Insure your home against Hitler!, published by PM Magazine on July 28, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

In Russia a chap, so we're told, knits an object strange to behold. Asked what is his gag, he says 'This is the bag that the great Adolf will hold!,' published by PM Magazine on August 11, 1941, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Wipe that sneer off his face!, published by PM Magazine on October 13, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Time to swap the old book for a set of brass knuckles, published by PM Magazine on December 30, 1941, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

See more here.

PATTI SMITH’S POETRY

Patti Smith is a modern-day creative muse of rare eclectic brilliance. The Coral Sea (public library) collects her breathtaking prose poems exorcising the loss of her lifelong spirit-mate, beloved photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989). She describes the collection as “a season in grief” and writes:

All that I knew of him encrypted within a small suite of prose poems. They speak of his love for art, his patron Sam Wagstaff, and his caring for me. But most importantly his resolute will to live, that could not be contained, not even in death.

Here is an exclusive recording of Smith reading my favorite poem from the book, the stirring “Reflecting Robert”:

Blessedness is within us all
It lies upon the long scaffold
Patrols the vaporous hall
In our pursuits, though still, we venture forth
Hoping to grasp a handful of cloud and return
Unscathed, cloud in hand. We encounter
Space, fist, violin, or this — an immaculate face
Of a boy, somewhat wild, smiling in the sun.
He raises his hand, as if in carefree salute
Shading eyes that contain the thread of God.
Soon they will gather power, disenchantment
They will reflect enlightenment, agony
They will reveal the process of love
They will, in an hour alone, shed tears.
His mouth a circlet, a baptismal font
Opening wide as the lips of a damsel
Sounding the dizzying extremes.
The relativity of vein, the hip of unrest
For the sake of wing there is shoulder.
For symmetry there is blade.
He kneels, humiliates, he pierces her side.
Offering spleen to the wolves of the forest.
He races across the tiles, the human board.
Virility, coquetry all a game — well played.
Immersed in luminous disgrace, he lifts
As a slave, a nymph, a fabulous hood
As a rose, a thief of life, he will parade
Nude crowned with leaves, immortal.
He will sing of the body, his truth
He will increase the shining neck
Pluck airs toward our delight
Of the waning
The blossoming
The violent charade
But who will sing of him?
Who will sing of his blessedness?
The blameless eye, the radiant grin
For he, his own messenger, is gone
He has leapt through the orphic glass
To wander eternally
In search of perfection
His blue ankles tattooed with stars.

See more, including Smith’s original handwritten manuscripts, here.

J.R.R. TOLKIEN’S DRAWINGS

In October of 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien delivered to his publisher the manuscript of what would become one of the most celebrated fantasy books of all time. In September of the following year, The Hobbit made its debut, with 20 or so original drawings, two maps, and a cover painting by Tolkien himself. But it turns out the author created more than 100 illustrations, recently uncovered amidst Tolkien’s papers, digitized by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, and released in Art of the Hobbit — a magnificent volume celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit with 110 beautiful, many never-before-seen illustrations by Tolkien, ranging from pencil sketches to ink line drawings to watercolors, as well as conceptual sketches for the now-iconic dust jacket cover painting of the mountains Bilbo Baggins transverses in his adventures.

See more here.

JIM HENSON’S EXPERIMENTAL FILM

The nature and mystery of time is a subject of long-running scientific fascination, but what about its subjective, abstract nature? In 1964, exactly a decade after creating his original Muppets for Sesame Street predecessor Sam + Friends, Jim Henson wrote, produced, directed, and starred in a short experimental film titled Time Piece, exploring in a visceral way the effect time-keeping has on all of us. It premiered on May 6, 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1966.

Originally featured here.

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S GRAPHIC DESIGN

Frank Lloyd Wright is commonly regarded as the most influential architect in modern history, but despite his enormous cultural recognition, the full extent of his contribution to design — posters, brochures, typography, murals, book and magazine covers — remains relatively obscure. In Frank Lloyd Wright: Graphic Artist (public library), Penny Fowler examines Wright’s ingenious and bold graphic work — his covers for Liberty (some of which were so radical that the magazine rejected them), his mural designs for Midway Gardens, his photographic experiments, his hand-drawn typographical studies, the jacket designs for his own publications, including The House Beautiful and An Autobiography, and a wealth more.

Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West, 1955. ©FLW Foundation

From his childhood encounter with Friedrich Froebel’s educational building blocks at the 1876 Centennial Exposition to his experiments with geometric designs long before the Mondrian age to his obsession with the woodblock art of Old Japan, Fowler traces Wright’s inspirations, influences, and singular style as his work dances across aesthetic movements like Bauhaus, Japanisme, Arts and Crafts, and De Stijl.

Hendrikus Theodorus Wijdeveld, 'Architectuur/Frank Lloyd Wright,' 1930.

Printed by Jon Enschede en Zonen, Harlem, Netherlands. Color lithograph ©The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MIA

Magazine cover, Town and Country, July 1937.

One of the designs that Wright originally proposed for Liberty, it is the only one ever published as a magazine cover. ©FLW Foundation

Hendrikus Theodorus Wijdeveld, wrapper design for the Wendingen Wrightnummers (fourth paper, January 1926).

Published by C. A. Mees, Santpoort, Netherlands. Black and red ink on white paper. This wrapper design was used (with minor variations) for all of the Wrightnummers (October 1925–April 1926). ©FLW Foundation

See more here.

SYLVIA PLATH’S DRAWINGS

Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer — had a few creative surprises up her sleeve. In addition to her little-known artist and children’s books, she was also a strikingly adroit artist. The pen and ink drawings collected in Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (public library) capture the literary icon’s “deepest source of inspiration”: art. They reveal Plath’s exceptional attention to detail and her diverse yet introspective curiosity about the world, from nature to architecture, from intimacy to public life.

Cow near Grantchester

The Bell Jar

Untitled (Male Portrait in Profile)

Tabac Opposite Palais de Justice

See more here.

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16 JULY, 2013

Poets in Partnership: Rare 1961 BBC Interview with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on Literature and Love

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“Two people … who are compatible in this sort of spiritual way, in fact make up one person … one source of power, which you both use and you can draw out material in incredible detail from the single shared mind.”

In 1960, Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, little-known but masterful artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer, editorial party girl, bed classifier — began recording a series of broadcasts for BBC’s celebrated series “The Poet’s Voice.” At least 17 known broadcasts were produced between November of 1960 and January of 1963, just weeks before Plath took her own life. From The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the magnificent collection of the surviving BBC recordings, preserved by the British Library Sound Archive, which also gave us Plath’s beautiful reading of her poem “Tulips” — comes this fascinating 20-minute interview with Plath and her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, by BBC’s Owen Leeming. Titled “Two of a Kind: Poets in Partnership,” it was recorded on January 18, 1961, and aired on January 31.

Though their actual first encounter was decidedly steamy and salacious, the couple concocts an intellectually revisionist history:

Plath: We kept writing poems to each other, and then it just grew out of that, I guess — a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided we should keep on.

Hughes: The poems haven’t really survived, the marriage, it took a hold. [laughs]

When asked about her childhood, Plath traces the psychoemotional backdrop against which her love of writing developed — the source of both her genius and her tragedy:

I think I was happy up to the age of about nine — very carefree — and I believed in magic, which influenced me a great bit. And then, at nine, I was rather disillusioned — I stopped believing in elves and Santa Claus and all these little beneficent powers — and became more realistic and depressed, I think, and then, gradually, became a bit more adjusted about the age of sixteen or seventeen. But I certainly didn’t have a happy adolescence — and, perhaps, that’s partly why I turned specially to writing — I wrote diaries, stories, and so forth. I was quite introverted during those early years.

When Leeming asks Hughes whether he thinks their two temperaments are “parallel” or “in conflict” — a “marriage of opposites” — the poet gives an answer that is at once mystical, poetic, and strangely ominous in the retrospective context of what the imminent future was to bring:

We’re very alike — we like the same things, live at the same tempo, have the same sort of rhythm in almost every way. But obviously this is a very fortunate covering for temperaments that are extremely different. But they lead secret lives, you see — they content themselves in an imaginative world, so they never really come into open conflict.

In discussing the various ways in which the two have been making ends meet, Plath articulates something that would resonate deeply with most writers:

We actually look ahead from year to year, and try very hard not to look ahead beyond that … when you’re writing, you don’t do any twenty-year pension plans or anything of that sort, and need a bit more faith and brazenness perhaps than if one has a steady job. [But] I wouldn’t [have it any other way], even being a very practical and domestic housewife as I am — I think the advantages are too great to want to change.

Though jokingly offered, Hughes touches on the “hedonic treadmill” of consumerism and contributes a sad insight on material culture:

You begin to worry about money when you get a job.

(Cue in this wonderful guide to how to worry less about money.)

When asked at what stage they are going to start introducing their nine-month-old daughter Frieda to poetry, Plath, who had herself just authored a couple of little-known and lovely books of children’s verse, argues that there is no room for snobbery when it comes to priming children for poetry:

She already has listened to nursery rhymes, which I consider a poetry — I don’t believe in being self-conscious about it. I think that everything from little nursery rhymes and songs to Eliot’s Practical Cats is perfect material.

Hughes offers a beautiful meditation on the power of creative intimacy — something manifested in this lovely modern-day example — in which two people who are romantically intertwined also serve as springboards for each other’s interpretation of reality:

What she writes out needn’t be at all the contents of her own mind — it needn’t be anything she knows — but it’s something that somebody in the room knows, or somebody that she’s very close to knows. And, in this way, two people who are sympathetic to each other and who are right, who are compatible in this sort of spiritual way, in fact make up one person — they make up one source of power, which you both use and you can draw out material in incredible detail from the single shared mind. … It’s not that you choose the same things to write about, necessarily, and you certainly don’t write about them in the same way — it’s that you draw on an experience, it’s as though you knew more about something than you, from your own life, have ever really learned. . .

It’s a complicated idea to get across, because you’ve first of all to believe in this sort of telepathic union exists between two sympathetic people.

Pair The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath with Plath on life, death, hope and happiness and Hughes’s exquisite letter of existential advice to their son.

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09 JULY, 2013

Sylvia Plath Reads Her Moving Poem “Tulips”: A Rare 1961 BBC Recording

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“I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.”

Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, little-known but masterful artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer, editorial party girl, bed classifier — endures as one of the most influential yet poorly understood figures in literary history.

In 1957, Plath approached the BBC, submitting a few of her poems for consideration for broadcast in the celebrated series The Poet’s Voice. They were rejected. Plath kept trying. By the summer of 1960, she finally broke through and two of her new poems were accepted for broadcast. Between November 20, 1960 and January 10, 1963 — just four weeks before she took her own life — Plath’s voice regularly graced the BBC airwaves, producing at least 17 known broadcasts. From The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the magnificent collection of the surviving BBC recordings, preserved by the British Library Sound Archive — comes Plath’s exquisite reading of her poem “Tulips,” written in 1961 and published in Plath’s posthumous volume Ariel (public library), one of the most memorable and important poetry collections in modern literature.

Penned two years after Plath’s lovely children’s story about the perils of self-consciousness and two years before her suicide, “Tulips” was inspired by a bouquet of flowers the poet received while recovering from an appendectomy at the hospital and bespeaks in equal measure a serene inner stillness and a subtle existential emptiness, which Plath’s evocative voice, at once sensual and stern, channels with unequaled mesmerism:

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage —
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free —
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.

All tracks on The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath are an absolute treasure, and Ariel remains an indispensable piece of literary history.

Complement with the only surviving sound of Virginia Woolf speaking, also for the BBC, and the only known recording of Walt Whitman’s voice. Also enjoy Plath reading “A Birthday Present.”

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