Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

13 FEBRUARY, 2014

William Blake’s Mesmerizing Illustrations for John Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Aesthetic rapture between heaven and hell.

There is a rare confluence of joys about celebrated artists’ illustrations for literary classics, from Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy to Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses to Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo & Juliet in 1975. But among the most breathtakingly beautiful are William Blake‘s illustrations for John Milton’s Paradise Lost (public library). Blake created three different sets of artwork for the Milton classic — one in 1807, at the age of 50, under a commission by the Reverend Joseph Thomas; one in 1808, commissioned by Blake’s patron Thomas Butts; and one in 1822, commissioned by John Linnell, the same patron who facilitated Blake’s stunning illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first two sets contained twelve paintings each; the Linnell set was incomplete, with only three finished works surviving to this day.

Even though Blake created all of the Paradise Lost paintings late in life, Milton was his greatest influence and the writer whose work he illustrated more than any other. In a letter to his friend John Flaxman from September of 1800, Blake wrote:

Milton lovd me in childhood & shewd me his face.

And how beautifully Blake reciprocated that love — however one may feel about religion, there is something undeniably and immeasurably powerful about Blake’s paintings, an ineffable magic that sparks its very own source of divinity:

'Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels' (Butts set)

'Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell' (Thomas set)

'The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden' (Butts set)

'The Rout of the Rebel Angels' (Thomas set)

'Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve' (Linnell set)

'Adam and Eve Asleep' (Butts set)

'Satan Spying on Adam and Eve's Descent into Paradise' (Thomas set)

'Raphael Warns Adam and Eve' (Thomas set)

'The Temptation and Fall of Eve' (Butts set)

In 1976, a gorgeous leather-bound limited edition of Paradise Lost was published, collecting Blake’s work from the various sets. Complement it with Blake’s art for Dante’s Divine Comedy, on which he worked until his dying day.

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16 JANUARY, 2014

The Gorgeous Art of Norah Borges, Jorge Luis Borges’s Younger Sister

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Soulful drawings by a little-known pioneer of modern art.

Few people know that literary titan Jorge Luis Borges had a sister, and even fewer that Leonor Fanny Borges Acevedo (1901–1998), better-known under the pseudonym Norah Borges, was an acclaimed artist in her own right, who emerged in the 1920s as one of the female pioneers of modern art. (In many regards, Norah was to Jorge Luis what the acclaimed Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell was to her sister, Virginia Woolf.) During her lifetime, Borges illustrated close to eighty books, including some of her brother’s, in addition to editorial illustrations for a number of avant-garde magazines belonging to ultraísmo — the first major avant-garde movement in Spain, comprising an eclectic group of writers and artists influenced by Italian futurism.

Norah (age 7) and Jorge Luis (age 9) at the Buenos Aires zoo, 1908

Her soulful paintings and drawings, the earliest of which is collected in the out-of-print Spanish-language volume Norah Borges: Obra Gráfica [Norah Borges: Graphic Work] (public library; AbeBooks), spans more than seven decades and is nothing short of breathtaking:

Complement these with MoMA’s Modern Women, a celebration of pioneering women in modern art.

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15 JANUARY, 2014

How to Make Love: A 1936 Guide to the Art of Wooing

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“Although we live in a modern age, we seem unable to throw off the yoke of Puritanism.”

“Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together,” Susan Sontag observed in her fantastic meditation on love, sex, and the world between, “and probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t.” And yet we still refer to sex as “making love.”

In 1936, the year my grandmother was born, a man by the name of Pietro Ramirez Sr. took that delightful vintage guide to the art of kissing published the same year one step further and released How to Make Love — an illustrated compendium of advice on “the secrets of wooing,” featuring the same amusingly dated ideas on gender norms, social etiquette, and conventions of courtship. Ramirez boasts in the foreword:

Although we live in a modern age, we seem unable to throw off the yoke of Puritanism. [Older books] concerned themselves with the language of flowers as practiced between lovers, the language of fans, the language of parasols and, in fact treatises on the symbolic language of everything but the language of love.

What has been vitally necessary is a book written by a modern writer for modern people who live and love in a modern way.

Clearly, of course, not that modern, for the advice is restricted to the era’s only definition of love as heterosexual love. But therein lies the prescience of this vintage gem: It offers a meta-reminder that much like we see the “progressive” ideas of the 1930s as laughably outdated and restrictive, our present conventions about matters of the heart and body — as well as our efforts to legislate those — will one day become equally dated. Ramirez puts things in perspective:

The restrictions that bound us in the past, in the matter of social etiquette, have all been washed away by the cleansing waters of time. Not many years ago, our girls were warned to keep their young men from placing their arms around the seat of the buggy when riding or else suffer the ignominy of being classed as fallen women. Nowadays, we look upon such things more calmly. With the change in social customs there has been a need for a book which dealt with the art of love. This book is intended to aid you in your love-making.

One of the gifts of hindsight is precisely that: We come to see the natural arc of ideas as they pass from scandalous propositions to cultural givens to outdated norms, and in the process we remember that even the ideas that rile our greatest political convictions today will one day become fossils of progress in a more evolved culture. Here, for instance, is what Ramirez writes in the opening chapter, which considers the eternal question of what love is — a particularly emblematic fossil of cultural evolution today, in the age of marriage equality:

Marriage is the culmination of love. Two people should never fall in love with each other unless they understand thoroughly that their love for each other is to eventuate into a future marriage.

Bear in mind that in 1936 America, this automatically precluded interracial couples from ever falling in love, since the interracial marriage ban wasn’t lifted until 1967, as well as same-sex couples, who only just won the legal right to marry in 2013’s historic ruling.

Ramirez argues that the sole purpose of marriage, and thus of love, is procreation and that “the birth of a child demands that man and woman participate in the creation.” Oh, but it gets better:

Man was created strong. Woman was created weak. Therefore, it is up to the man to protect his woman. Woman is so physically constituted that she needs man’s strong protection.

(Ramirez, apparently, never met any of these ladies — or these, for that matter.)

From this basic “given,” Ramirez argues, springs every difference between man and woman. For instance:

There is the difference in the attitude of man and woman toward the culmination of love. Woman, although she is just as anxious for love as man, must never betray her anxiety. She must always be passive. Man, it is, who must be the active partner. It is he who makes love to woman. He chases the woman who was made to be chased. The success of love depends entirely on the understanding of this basic relationship.

[…]

That accounts for woman’s coyness, her shyness. That also accounts for her sometimes illogical habits of putting her man off. She realizes intuitively that, in order to make herself more desirable to her man, she must make herself less accessible. She must, in other words, establish the chaser-chased relationship between them.

And just to be sure we got the point, he adds:

A reversed relationship, that is where the woman is the physical superior of the man, is not only devoid of love but is ludicrous. … If the strong-weak attitude between man and woman is kept up throughout the entire period of lovemaking, courtship and marriage, the result will be a happy marriage that will bear fruit in love, children and marital bliss.

To be sure, not all of it is outrageously misguided — there is, as in all antiquated ideologies, a kernel of eternal human truth in some of Ramirez’s theories. He is, for instance, skeptical of the mythology of love at first sight:

It is in the understanding of each other that true love is born and nurtures and lives. For that is the secret of a lasting love, the one word: understanding. Only when there is this understanding, this common sympathy for each other, can true love function. … So it can be seen that the love which grows out of a long friendship is more desired than the love which is generated suddenly at first sight. If, after the sudden burst of first love, the lovers realize that they must learn to know each other thoroughly and they go about learning each other, then their love will be lasting. But, experience has proven that, usually, those lovers who are catapulted into a lover affair at first sight are usually those who are quick-tempered. A hair-trigger emotion such as love at first sight can only be possessed by people with hair-trigger temperaments.

Another whiff of sense comes from a related section on embracing imperfection, titled “To Err is Human”:

Understanding your lover is something that is required of you if your love affair is to continue to marriage. Realize that no one is perfect and that each of us is likely to err. If the faults irritate you, remember, try to remember the things about your lover that have made him so lovable to you. Balance of the bad with the good. See the big things only and let the little things go hang. Or else, if you discover some shortcomings in your lover that disturb you, think back on your own shortcomings and realize that, the things about him that are annoying to you are just as bad as the things about you that are annoying to him.

Ramirez goes on to offer a diagnostic test for how to know you’re in love, a set of guidelines for introducing your lover to your parents, and various other how-to’s of romance, until he gets to the down-and-dirty: In a section titled “How to Approach a Girl,” he presents a guide to that coveted first kiss:

In kissing a girl whose experience with osculation is limited, it is a good thing to work up to the kissing of the lips. Only an arrant fool seizes hold of such a girl when they are comfortably seated on a sofa, and suddenly shoves his face into hers and smacks her lips. Naturally, the first thing he should do is to arrange it so that the girl is seated against the arm of the sofa while he is at her side. In this way, she cannot edge away from him when he becomes serous in his attentions. This done, on some pretext or other, such as a gallant attempt to adjust the cushions behind her (tenderness, you see) he manages to insinuate his arm, first around the back of the sofa and then, gradually, around her shoulders.

If you suspect this might be getting dangerously close to date-rape territory, hold the premature evaluation — we’re getting there:

If she flinches, don’t worry. If she flinches and makes an outcry, don’t worry. If she flinches, makes an outcry and tries to get up from the sofa, don’t worry. Hold her, gently but firmly, and allay her fears with kind, reassuring words. … However, if she flinches, makes an outcry, a loud stentorian outcry, mind you, and starts to scratch your face, then start to worry or start to get yourself out of a bad situation. Such girls are not to be trifled with … or kissed.

Provided no face-scratching has taken place, this is what you should do:

Tell her she is beautiful. Then take a deep sniff of the perfume in her hair and comment on it. Tell her that the odor is like “heady wine.” Tell her that her hair smells like a garden of roses. Tell her anything, but be sure to tell her something complimentary. This done, it is only a natural thing for you to desire to sink your nose deeper into her hair so that you can get the full benefit of its bouquet.

Then, time for “The Technique of Kissing”:

Now is your chance! The moment you feel the tip of your nose touch her scalp, purse your lips and kiss her, the while you inhale a deep breath of air that is redolent with the exquisite odor of her hair. It is then but a few inches to her ear. Touch the rim of her ear with your lips in a sort of brushing motion. Breathe gently into the delicate shell. Some women react passionately to this subtle act. Brush past her here in this way again and note her reaction. If she draws her head away, return to the hair and sniff luxuriously of it. Then settle back to her ear, the while you murmur “sweet, airy nothings” into it. From the ear to her neck is but another few inches. Let your lips traverse this distance quickly and then dart into the nape of the neck and, with your lips well pursed, nip the skin there, using the same gentleness as would a cat lifting her precious kittens.

Then, with a series of little nips, bring your lips around-from the nape of her neck to the curving, swerve of her jaw, close to the ear. Gently kiss the lobe of her ear. But be sure to return to the tender softness of her jaw. From then on, the way should be clear to you. Nuzzle your lips along the soft, downy expanse until you reach the corner of her lips. You will know when this happens, because, suddenly, you will feel a strange stiffening of her shoulders under your arm. The reason for this is that the lips constitute one of the main erogenous zones of the body.

All right. You have subtly kissed the corner of her mouth. Don’t hesitate. Push on further to more pleasurable spots. Ahead of you lies that which had been promised in your dreams, the tender, luscious lips of the girl you love. But don’t sit idly by and watch them quivering.

But before letting young lovers get carried away in the quivering — in the attainment of “the culmination of love: connubial bliss” — Ramirez reminds them of the ultimate goal:

One thing you must always remember: love, above all, builds for future happiness. And this future happiness is a successful marriage. Nothing should be done in this pre-marital state that might injure the marriage relationship. Remember that ahead of you lies a life together, a life that will be built on a happy home, healthy children, congenial companionship and, above all, loyalty. And, always, in the back of your head, while you are courting, while you are kissing, while you are fondling each other, while you are enjoying each other, you should have the thought of this idea of building for permanence.

Ramirez also offers some practical advice on a crucial element of courtship — the love letter:

Most men consider it effeminate nowadays to write mushy, gushy love letters but they are absolutely essential.

[…]

In writing a love letter, try to imagine that your loved one is seated next to you on the sofa and that you are whispering sweet nothings into her ear. Then, instead of speaking those things to her, write them down on a paper (never typewrite them because type is too impersonal for as personal a missive as a love letter). Don’t write the letter as though it were a guidebook. Don’t be too brief. Go into complete detail about the things you’ve done and seen. And try, always, when possible to connect up those things with something parallel that happened to the two of you.

Despite the dated and outlandish assertions, however, Ramirez ends on a surprisingly sensible and timeless (albeit grammatically questionable) note:

When you are in love, ask yourself whether there is anything about the character of your mate that might injure your relationship in years to come. If you can truthfully and honestly say “no” to this question, then you will have before you a lifetime of happiness such as the most richest of millionaires has ever experienced.

Overwhelmingly amusing, frequently appalling, and occasionally astute, How to Make Love is well worth the used-books hunt. Complement it with another vintage treat on mastering a different aspect of the art of courtship, The Seducer’s Cookbook, then revisit the equally amusing The Art of Kissing.

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