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Posts Tagged ‘art’

23 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Velveteen Rabbit, Reimagined with Uncommon Tenderness by Beloved Japanese Illustrator Komako Sakai

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A tender tale of how the soft bonds of love confer realness upon our existence.

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in his exquisite 1950s meditation on becoming who you are. But as is the case with life’s most enduring perplexities, this wisdom was best delivered three decades earlier, not by a philosopher but by a children’s book author. “Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you,” Margery Williams wrote in 1922 in what would become one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, part of the canon that contains such masterworks as The Little Prince, Winnie the Pooh, and Where the Wild Things Are.

This quiet aliveness of truth and tenderness is what Japanese illustrator Komako Sakai brings to a bewitching and unusual adaptation of The Velveteen Rabbit (public library) nearly a century later — the loveliest take on the Williams classic since Maurice Sendak’s little-known 1960 illustrations.

Timeless as the book may be, it is also one of extraordinary timeliness today — a story that speaks to our deepest anxieties about the effects of technological progress on our humanity.

A soft stuffed rabbit is given to a little boy at Christmas, enjoyed for a fleeting moment, then quickly ignored in favor of other gifts far more modern and mechanical — wind-up toys that move like the real-life objects they miniaturize.

And yet when the wise old Skin Horse — the oldest toy in the nursery — assures the rabbit that toys are made real by children’s love, and the rabbit is emboldened by this notion despite feeling at a grave disadvantage compared to the modern toys, we too are reminded that however the cultural odds are stacked, our imperfect humanity is not merely the thing that makes life livable but the only thing that makes it worth living.

After the little boy’s Nana gives him the humble toy one restless night, the Velveteen Rabbit grows to be his most beloved companion.

They become inseparable — the boy even brings his soft friend into the woods behind the house, where one day the Velveteen Rabbit meets a pair of wild rabbits. Perplexed by his stiffness, they tease him about not being “Real” — he can’t even hop! — but although the taunting hurts him, the Velveteen Rabbit takes comfort in knowing that the little boy thinks he is Real, and loves him, and that’s realness enough.

Ever so gently, another subtle and profound undercurrent emerges — the finitude of childhood and the impermanence of life itself.

When the boy falls ill, the Velveteen Rabbit is by his side as doctors and parents hover anxiously. And when the boy recovers, the doctor instructs the boy’s mother to burn all of his belongings — books, toys, and especially that bedraggled stuffed rabbit — that may have been infected during his illness.

As the Velveteen Rabbit awaits his heartbreaking fate in a sack at the end of the garden, drowned in wistful reminiscence about all the joyful moments he and the little boy shared over the years, one very real tear rolls down his cheek and drops to the ground.

Why should it all end like this for someone who had been loved so much and become Real?

And then something magical happens — a flower emerges from the ground where the tear had fallen, and it blossoms to reveal the beautiful nursery fairy, who takes care of the most beloved toys after their children outgrow them.

With one kiss on the nose, the fairy transforms the Velveteen Rabbit into a Real rabbit — real not only to the boy who loved him, but real to the world, to all who judge the realness of others.

The seasons turn and when spring arrives again, the little boy treks back into the woods, where he has a strange and wonderful encounter with a wild rabbit that looks remarkably like his beloved lost toy. The rabbit looks at the boy, and the boy at the rabbit, they are elevated in a quiet moment of recognition — the mutual beholding of another’s realness of which all love is made.

Sakai’s take on The Velveteen Rabbit comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion, maker of some of the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books of our time — including such endlessly rewarding treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical, The Jacket, and Wednesday.

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20 FEBRUARY, 2015

Nature Anatomy: A Glorious Illustrated Love Letter to Curiosity and the Magic of Our World

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A loving celebration of sunsets and salamanders, ferns and feathers, mountains and mushrooms, and the whole enchanting aliveness in between.

“A writer is a professional observer,” Susan Sontag noted in her spectacular lecture on literature. So is any great storyteller — including the artist. After turning her professional-observer powers and their visual record to the city and the farm, illustrator extraordinaire Julia Rothman now directs them at what Virginia Woolf believed was the source of all the arts: nature.

In Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of the Natural World (public library), she fuses the curious scrutiny of science with the loving gaze of art to explore everything from sunsets to salamanders, ferns to feathers, mountains to mushrooms, and the whole enchanting aliveness in between.

Rothman — who also dreamt up the most generous book in the world — embraces the natural world with the same generous attention to its monumental wonders, like volcanos and orcas, and its quietly bewitching details, like snowflakes and butterfly metamorphosis. With great elegance and simplicity, she makes visible and intelligible some of the most complex questions that have occupied humans, both little and big, since our species first laid eyes on the glorious “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” we call home.

What emerges is at once a treasure trove of trivia — who knew that the 1,000 known species of bats, the only mammals capable of flight, constitute 20% of all classified mammals? — profoundly untrivial in its larger message: We are part of this glorious world we share with creatures manyfold more magnificent than us, and to know it is not only to love it, not only to be fully agape with awe, but to hold its future with utmost tenderness of heart and firmness of moral responsibility.

Rothman, the daughter of a science teacher, writes in the introduction:

I grew up on City Island in the Bronx, in New York City, on a block that ends with a beach, as most of the streets on the island do. Collecting and categorizing shells, studying horseshoe crabs’ undersides, and swallowing saltwater were part of my childhood, even though we could see iconic skyscrapers glowing across the water. My sister and I spent summers and camp, hiking in the woods in upstate New York, and sleeping in tents outfitted with lots of bug spray to satisfy my over-protective mother.

I really loved nature as a kid… But as I got older, I became a city girl at heart.

Rothman spent her teenage years as a normal city adolescent — sneaking into nightclubs and being rebellious in all those other predictable teenage ways that every generation believes it is inventing. Now, she lives near Prospect Park. Reflecting on that seemingly small yet miraculous contact with urban wildlife — of which there is far more than most people realize, well beyond parks — Rothman considers the transformative power of her mini “nature walks” in the park and how they shaped this project:

I cherish being surrounded by greenery for just a small period of time each day. It keeps me sane to be able to smell some grass after being squashed like a sardine in a subway car. I really look around the park wanting to know more. What is that tree with the beautiful leaves called? When will those flowers I saw last year show up again? Are those really bats flitting above our heads? How funny to see so many dragonflies attached, making love!

My curiosity continues to grow, and that’s how the idea for this book took shape.

Rothman notes that the book — in which she enlisted the help of friend and nature-expert John Niekrasz — is no more a “nature book” than her walks in the park are true “nature walks,” for there is no way to contain all of the living world between the covers of a single book. And yet it’s her nature book — a visual record of those aspects of our world that most sang to her and tickled her curiosity.

And that, I think, is precisely the point — we miss most of what is going on around us anyway, but it’s the act of looking that creates our reality, which is invariably subjective. Looking at nature in this way reminds us both that we are finite beings limited in the reach of our seeing abilities and that we belong to a world of infinite complexity and beauty — an awareness at once immensely grounding and immensely elevating. It calls to mind the opening of that unforgettable Mary Oliver poem:

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

Complement Nature Anatomy with some 500 years of rare and gorgeous natural history illustrations and the story of how bees gave Earth its colors, then revisit Rothman’s unbearably wonderful Farm Anatomy and Hello NY.

Illustrations courtesy of Julia Rothman; photographs my own

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18 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Magic Boat: Brilliant Vintage “Interactive” Children’s Book by Freud’s Eccentric Niece Named Tom

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Visionary interactive storytelling designed to “delight and surprise,” with human tragedy on the side.

As a lover of vintage children’s books and analog “interactive” treasures, I was delighted to discover the unusual 1929 gem The Magic Boat: A Book to Turn and Move (public library) — a collection of poems, stories, puzzles, and interactive games designed to “delight and surprise” by Austrian illustrator, Art Nouveau artist, and children’s book author Tom Seidmann-Freud (November 17, 1892–February 7, 1930).

The book is remarkable for a number of reasons, including the author’s last name — while it’s reasonable to guess that Tom was related to the Freud, it’s rather surprising to find out that Tom was indeed the legendary psychoanalyst’s eccentric niece Martha, born Gertrud Martha Freud, who adopted a male first name and began wearing men’s clothing at the age of 15. In her late twenties, Tom met and fell in love with the writer Jacob (Jankew) Seidmann, and the two had a daughter. In 1929, Jacob’s publishing venture failed and he committed suicide. Several months later, Tom too took her own life. She wrote and illustrated The Magic Boat during that final year. A new edition was released in 1981 but the book is, sadly, no longer in print.

From a series of inventive word games to an unusual take on Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare to a promiscuous punching face-off, here is a woman whose ingenious interactive storytelling and paper engineering predated Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes by more than eight decades and Bruno Munari’s pioneering masterworks by three.

As I tend to do on occasion with such interactive vintage treasures, I’ve adapted the book’s movable magic in animated GIFs — which, of course, are not a substitute for its analog whimsy but, in lieu of surviving copies, a fun friendly ghost.

A pull-tab game of “Punch Judy” pits eight opponents — a sultan, a devil, a grandmother, a rich man, a Turk, a crocodile, a jester, and Judy — in sixteen possible punch-pairings.

The story after which the book is titled is a fable about a Chinese man who catches fish that magically transform into other things as soon as he pulls them onto his boat. But as soon as he takes his boat ashore, the magic disappears and all the wild characters transmogrify back into fish. To preserve this irresistible excitement, the old fisherman decides to live the rest of his life on the boat. Passers-by gather every day on the bridge to watch, bemarveled, as he catches fish that turn into “all kinds of wonderful things.” One can’t help but see a parallel to Tom’s own life in this story — a tale of transforming one’s assigned version of reality and choosing to live in that magical new version despite the real world’s disenchanted demands.

Complement The Magic Boat, which is hard but not impossible to find, with a graphic biography of the author’s famous uncle and this delightful vintage pop-up book about Leonardo’s life.

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17 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Artist’s Reality: Mark Rothko’s Little-Known Writings on Art, Artists, and What the Notion of Plasticity Reveals about Storytelling

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“While the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done.”

“Artists have no choice but to express their lives,” Anne Truitt wrote in her endlessly insightful diary. If it’s true that what everybody wants more than anything is to be understood, then artists need that understanding more than anyone else and yet run the greatest risk of being misunderstood with every work they put into the world. What E.E. Cummings called “the agony of the Artist (with capital A)” is thus a product of being constantly haunted by the specter of that anguishing potential for being repeatedly misunderstood.

Few artists create work that embodies Leo Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness” more perfectly than Mark Rothko (September 25, 1903–February 25, 1970). People frequently weep before his paintings — something Rothko saw as the same spiritual experience he was having while painting them, the ultimate act of understanding. And yet he knew all too well the other side of this coin, which he articulated beautifully in a 1947 interview in Tiger’s Eye magazine: “A painting lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.”

Mark Rothko

Unbeknownst to the world, and rather contrary to the Abstract Expressionist notion that paintings should speak for themselves, Rothko had begun crafting his own hedge against this death-by-misunderstanding several years earlier, in a series of philosophical reflections on art. Even his children were only vaguely aware of the manuscript, which was written sometime in 1940 and 1941 — long before Rothko reached critical acclaim — but wasn’t discovered until after his death three decades later. It was eventually published as The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art (public library) — a remarkable and revelatory catalog of the ideas that preoccupied the legendary artist’s mind, setting forth his views on beauty, reality, myth, sensuality, the artist’s dilemma, the role of unconscious processes in creative work, and more. What makes these writings especially interesting is that Rothko produced them more than a decade before the paintings for which he is best known, at a time when he was still swirling around his own center and finding his voice as an artist — and yet the seeds for what he would blossom into are so strikingly evident in these texts.

Christopher Rothko — the artist’s son, who was six at the time of his father’s death — considers the book’s significance in the introduction:

Like music, my father’s artwork seeks to express the inexpressible — we are far removed from the realm of words… The written word would only disrupt the experience of these paintings; it cannot enter their universe.

And yet these writings compel and fascinate us in a way that my father surely would have wanted… His words might be outside his artwork, but they communicate philosophies he still held dear even after paint became his sole vehicle for expression.

Mark Rothko, 'Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red' (1949)

Although Rothko was “explicitly a painter of ideas” and his works held “only the most general clues,” his son likens the magic of this book to “being given the keys to a mystical city that one has been able to admire only from afar.” And yet he cautions that these writings were never intended, nor should they be interpreted, as a guide to understanding Rothko’s own art:

Divining meaning from a painting is not so simple that it can be codified in a book, and Rothko certainly would not have wanted such a guide to his work. So much of understanding his work is personal, and so much of it is made up of the process of getting inside the work… He cannot tell you what his paintings, or anyone else’s, are about. You have to experience them. Ultimately, if he could have expressed the truth — the essence of these works — in words, he probably would not have bothered to paint them. As his works exemplify, writing and painting involve different kinds of knowing.

[…]

I think he kept the book to himself because he feared that by offering people the beginning of an answer, or the illusion of an answer, to his artwork, they would never find a more complete one, perhaps never even ask the necessary questions. Regarding his own work, at least, he would have been concerned that he could set people running down the wrong paths, moving blindly with their little bit of knowledge, when ultimately, if carefully regarded, his painting spoke for itself. He knew of this danger and was therefore guarded in discussing his work, often finding that, the more he said, the more misunderstanding he generated. He did not wish to short-circuit the process by which people came to know the work [because] he knew just how rewarding the process could prove when one was fully engaged in it.

Original manuscript page from 'The Artist's Reality'

This might explain why the artist never made the manuscript public in his lifetime, although he did promise it to his chosen biographer — an expression of Rothko’s ambivalence, which his son captures elegantly:

Even as he feared the public, he desperately needed them to bring meaning to his paintings. [And yet] even after he had received significant adulation, he still feared, constantly, that his painting would be misunderstood and ultimately violated by an uncaring public.

That is perhaps why one of the book’s strongest undercurrents is Rothko’s nostalgia for Renaissance art, coupled with almost an envy for the veneration conferred upon those artists by their culture and “the way in which [they] could draw upon a cosmos ordered by its own internal logic.” His son writes:

This is what Rothko wished for: to paint the truth as one feels it and to win love and respect in one’s own time. He, too, wanted, a world where the artist is king and his output a matter of great expectation and excitement.

[…]

My father was first and last a painter… His painting always was, and would remain, about ideas. The writing of the book was simply a different way to get them out into the world.

[…]

He discusses art as an observer, not as one actively engaged in the processes he describes.

And yet the book is all about his artwork.

Mark Rothko, 'Orange and Yellow' (1956)

In the first essay, titled “The Artist’s Dilemma,” he considers the cultural stereotypes surrounding the artist:

What is the popular conception of the artist? Gather a thousand descriptions, and the resulting composite is the portrait of a moron: he is held to be childish, irresponsible, and ignorant or stupid in everyday affairs.

The picture does not necessarily involve censure or unkindness. These deficiencies are attributed to the intensity of the artist’s preoccupation with his particular kind of fantasy and to the unworldly nature of the fantastic itself. The bantering tolerance granted to the absentminded professor is extended to the artist.

[…]

This myth, like all myths, has many reasonable foundations. First, it attests to the common belief in the laws of compensation: that one sense will gain in sensitivity by the deficiency in another. Homer was blind, and Beethoven deaf. Too bad for them, but fortunate for us in the increased vividness of their art. But more importantly it attests to the persistent belief in the irrational quality of inspiration, finding between the innocence of childhood and the derangements of madness that true insight which is not accorded to normal man.

Of course, based on what the decades since Rothko’s writings have revealed about the relationship between creativity and mental illness, we now know that behind society’s “persistent belief in the irrational quality of inspiration” is a more complex reality. But Rothko’s most urgent point has to do with a different kind of myth surrounding the artist — society’s often ungenerous assessment of the artist’s legitimacy as a worthy member of it, which Jeanette Winterson touched on in her brilliant remarks about “the arrogance of the audience” and which Amanda Palmer captured in asserting that “when you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy.” Rothko writes:

The constant repetition of falsehood is more convincing than the demonstration of truth. It is understandable, then, how the artist might actually cultivate this moronic appearance, this deafness, this inarticulateness, in an effort to evade the million irrelevancies which daily accumulate concerning his work. For, while the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done.

Reflecting on his previous eras — particularly his beloved Renaissance period, which he saw as “an age when the rapport between the artist and the world seemed to have been ideal” — Rothko considers how the role and status of the artist differed then:

What abetted the artist in his little game was the dogmatic unity of his civilization. For all dogmatic societies have this in common: they know what they want. Whatever the contentions behind the scenes, society is allowed only one Official Truth. The demands made upon the artist, therefore, issued from a single source, and the specifications for art were definite and unmistakable. That, at least, was something … one master is better than ten, and it is better to know the size and shape of the hand that holds the whip. In a master, definiteness and stability are preferable to caprice.

In a remark doubly poignant today, amid our culture of countless self-appointed critics broadcasting their individual dogmas from countless platforms, Rothko contrasts this uncapricious unity with the schizophrenic truths to which contemporary art is held accountable:

Today, instead of one voice, we have dozens issuing demands. There is no longer one truth, no single authority — instead there is a score of would-be masters who would usurp their place. All are full of histories, statistics, proofs, demonstrations, facts, and quotations… Each pulls the artist this way and that, telling him what he must do if he is to fill his belly and save his soul.

For the artist, now, there can be neither compliance nor circumvention. It is the misfortune of free conscience that it cannot be neglectful of means in the pursuit of ends. Ironically enough, compliance would not help, for even if the artist should decide to subvert this conscience, where could he find peace in this Babel? To please one is to antagonize the others. And what security is there in any of these wrangling contenders?

This explains much of our modern people-pleasing epidemic and its soul-crushing effects. Two decades earlier, Georgia O’Keeffe touched on this toxic aspect of public opinion in her exquisite letter to Sherwood Anderson, as did composer Aaron Copland the year of Rothko’s death. But Rothko points to one particularly perilous side effect to our culture’s fracturing of artistic and moral truth:

In matters of art our society has substituted taste for truth, which she finds more amusing and less of a responsibility, and changes her tastes as frequently as she changes her hats and shoes.

Mark Rothko, 'No. 16' (1961)

In another of the essays, Rothko’s reflections on plasticity — which he defines as a sense of movement, a quality that “gives the sense of things going back and coming forward in space” — actually offer a potent analogy for the key to great storytelling in all forms. More than half a century before what we now know about the psychology of flow in everything from writing to game design, Rothko writes:

In painting, plasticity is achieved by a sensation of movement both into the canvas and out from the space anterior to the surface of the canvas. Actually, the artist invites the spectator to take a journey within the realm of the canvas. The spectator must move with the artist’s shapes in and out, under and above, diagonally and horizontally; he must curve around spheres, pass through tunnels, glide down inclines, at times perform an aerial feat of flying from point to point, attracted by some irresistible magnet across space, entering into mysterious recesses — and, if the painting is felicitous, do so at varying and related intervals. This journey is the skeleton, the framework of the idea. In itself it must be sufficiently interesting, robust, and invigorating. That the artist will have the spectator pause at certain points and will regale him with especial seductions at others is an additional factor helping to maintain interest. In fact, the journey might not be undertaken at all were it not for the promise of these especial favors… It is these movements that constitute the special essentialness of the plastic experience. Without taking the journey, the spectator has really missed the essential experience of the picture.

The Artist’s Reality is a magnificent journey from beginning to end. Complement it with this rare interview with Rothko on the transcendent power of art, then revisit other timeless reflections on art by Jeanette Winterson, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Henry Miller, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, E.E. Cummings, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

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