Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

27 AUGUST, 2012

Kay Nielsen’s Stunning 1914 Scandinavian Fairy Tale Illustrations

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Haunting whimsy from the Golden Age of illustration.

As a lover of illustrated fairy tales and having just returned from Sweden, I was delighted to discover, thanks to the relentlessly wonderful 50 Watts, East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North (public library; public domain) — a collection of Scandinavian fairy tales, illustrated by Danish artist Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886-1957), whose work you might recall from the all-time greatest illustrations of Brothers Grimm and the fantastic visual history of Arabian Nights. Originally published in 1914, this magnificent tome of 15 stories was recently reissued by Calla Editions, the same Dover imprint that revived Harry Clarke’s magnificent illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe, and features 25 color illustrations, along with a slew of black-and-white ones, in Nielsen’s singular style of haunting whimsy.

'And this time she whisked off the wig; and there lay the lad, so lovely, and white and red, just as the Princess had seen him in the morning sun.'

'She could not help setting the door a little ajar, just to peep in, when—Pop! out flew the Moon.'

'At Rest in the Dark Wood'

'The Troll was quite willing, and before long he fell asleep and began snoring.'

'As Far Away from the Castle'

'Tell me the Way, she said, And I'll Search You Out'

'Just as they bent down to take the rose a big dense snow-drift came and carried them away.'

'He Saw Her Reflection in the Water'

'She Held Tight to the White Bear'

'Then He Took Her Home'

'The Wolf Was Waiting for Him'

'I am the Virgin Mary'

'The Queen Did Not Know Him'

'The North Wind Went Over the Sea'

'The Man Gave Him a Pair of Snowshoes'

'The Lad in the Bear's Skin, and the King of Arabia’s daughter.'

'She saw the Lindworm for the first time as he came in and stood by her side.'

For the ultimate illustrated fairy tale treat, complement East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North with Taschen’s recent The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, one of the 11 best children’s and picture books of 2011.

50 Watts

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24 AUGUST, 2012

How to Be an Explorer of the World

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“Every morning when we wake up, we have twenty-four brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift!”

As a longtime fan of guerrilla artist and illustrator Keri Smith’s Wreck This Box set of interactive journals, part of these 7 favorite activity books for grown-ups, I was delighted to discover her How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum (public library) — a wonderful compendium of 59 ideas for how to get creatively unstuck by engaging with everyday objects and your surroundings in novel ways. From mapping found sounds to learning the language of trees to turning time observation into art, these playful and poetic micro-projects aren’t just a simple creativity booster — they’re potent training for what Buddhism would call “living from presence” and inhabiting your life more fully.

It all began with this simple list, which Smith scribbled on a piece of paper in the middle a sleepless night in 2007:

Eventually, it became the book.

Smith says of the book’s curious choice of subtitle:

I am interested in the idea of taking art (or museum shows/collections) out of the realm of ‘institution’ and into the hands of the individual, one does not need a formal space to put things in, in order for it to be valid. A museum is what YOU make it. You decide what goes in it, what is interesting, why it is interesting, how it could be displayed. It gives the reader permission to create their own portable (or not portable) show. It doesn’t have to be a public show either, it could just be your own private collections of whatever YOU find interesting. Think of it as a kind of “Sim Museum”, except in the real world. The book begins with ideas about what and how to collect things you find in the world (found objects, thoughts, ideas, stories, things from nature, etc.), a section on various ways of displaying the things you collect, and how to set up a showing.

Especially delightful — and not only because of the Anaïs Nin reference — is this author’s note in the preface, a nod to Mark Twain’s conviction that “all ideas are second-hand” and Henry Miller’s contention that most of what we create is composed of “hand-me-down ideas”:

Alongside the micro-projects are hand-written quotes by great creative minds of yore, including Brain Pickings favorites Italo Calvino, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Corita Kent:

Both daring and meditative, How to Be an Explorer of the World is part Maira Kalman, part Wendy MacNaughton, part its very own kind of whimsy, delivering — beautifully — exactly what it says on the tin, with an invitation to be just a little bit more alive each day.

Spread photos via Geek Dad

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24 AUGUST, 2012

Tchaikovsky on the Paradox of Patronage and Creative Purpose vs. Commissioned Work

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“I should be guilty of artistic dishonesty were I to abuse my technical skill and give you false coin in exchange for true only with a view to improving my pecuniary situation.”

The origin of altruism has long intrigued scientists and philosophers alike, and one of its most enduring manifestations is the practice of patronage, from the Medici to Kickstarter. From The Life & Letters of Pete Ilich Tchaikovsky (public domain), the same 1905 tome that gave us Tchaikovsky’s priceless insight on work ethic vs. inspiration, comes the celebrated composer’s meditation on the paradoxes of patronage and the timeless tension between creative purpose and commissioned work.

On May 1st, 1877, he sent his lifelong benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, the following letter, bespeaking so many of the modern-day maladies of work-for-hire, the flawed on-demand paradigm of inspiration, and the enormous psychological barriers many of us erect against accepting financial help:

HONOURED NADEJDA FILARETOVNA,

In spite of obstinate denials on the part of a friend who is well known to both of us, I have good reason to suppose that your letter, which I received early this morning, is due to a well-intentioned ruse on his part. Even your earlier commissions awoke in me a suspicion that you had more than one reason for suggesting them: on the one hand, you really wished to possess arrangements of some of my works; on the other knowing my material difficulties you desired to help me through them. The very high fees you sent me for my easy tasks forced me to this conclusion. This time I am convinced that the second reason is almost wholly answerable for your latest commission. Between the lines of your letter I read your delicacy of feeling and your kindness, and was touched by your way of approaching me. At the same time, in the depths of my heart, I felt such an intense unwillingness to comply with your request that I cannot answer you in the affirmative. I could not bear any insincerity or falsehood to creep into our mutual relations. This would undoubtedly have been the case had I disregarded my inward promptings, manufactured a composition for you without pleasure or inspiration, and received from you an unsuitable fee in return. Would not the thought have passed through your mind that I was ready to undertake any kind of musical work provided the fee was high enough? Would you not have had some grounds for supposing that, had you been poor, I should not have complied with your requests?

Finally, our intercourse is marred by one painful circumstance in almost all our letters the question of money crops up. Of course it is not a degradation for an artist to accept money for his trouble; but, besides labour, a work such as you now wish me to undertake demands a certain degree of what is called inspiration, and at the present moment this is not at my disposal. I should be guilty of artistic dishonesty were I to abuse my technical skill and give you false coin in exchange for true only with a view to improving my pecuniary situation.

But Von Meek’s response, exuding the poetic faux-solipsism of altruism, reveals that the paradox of patronage is no paradox at all — what’s at stake is not a transaction but, as Henry Miller has eloquently argued, an exchange of mutual gratification:

I am looking after you for my own sake. My most precious beliefs and sympathies are in your keeping; your very existence gives me so much enjoyment, for life is the better for your letters and your music; finally, I want to keep you for the service of the art I adore, so that it may have no better or worthier acolyte than yourself. So, you see, my thought for your welfare is purely egotistical and, so long as I can satisfy this wish, I am happy and grateful to you for accepting my help.

Tchaikovsky, indeed, was greatly gratified by working for patrons — or “clients,” by modern standards of commissioned work — himself recognizing how unusual that was, and seemingly enjoying it all the more for its unorthodoxy in creative culture:

The majority of my fellow-workers, for instance, do not like working to order; I, on the other hand, never feel more inspired than when I am requested to compose something, when a term is fixed and I know that my work is being impatiently awaited.

The Life & Letters of Pete Ilich Tchaikovsky is timelessly rewarding in its entirety. Complement it with Amanda Palmer on the art of asking.

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