Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

23 OCTOBER, 2014

Once Upon an Alphabet: Oliver Jeffers’s Imaginative Illustrated Stories for the Letters

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A warm and wonderful celebration of the paradoxes and perplexities that make us human.

In the 1990s, three decades after the debut of his now-iconic grim alphabet book, the great Edward Gorey reimagined the letters in a series of 26-word cryptic stories. Now comes a worthy modern counterpart by one of the most original and imaginative children’s book storytellers and artists of our time: Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters (public library) by Oliver Jeffers — an unusual and utterly wonderful tour of the familiar letters that takes a whimsical detour via quirky, lyrical, delightfully alliterative tales for each, and makes a fine addition to the canon of offbeat alphabet books.

Jeffers’s art is subtle yet immeasurably expressive. His stories brim with the fallible and heartening humanity that makes up our vastly imperfect but mostly noble selves — our paradoxes (A is for “astronaut,” and Edmund the astronaut is afraid of heights), the silly stubbornnesses (B is for “burning a bridge” and we meet neighbors Bernard and Bob, who have spent years “battling each other for reasons neither could remember”), the playful flights of curiosity (E is for “enigma,” like the question of how many elephants can fit inside an envelope), the existential perplexities (in P, a “puzzled parsnip” spirals into anguish over realizing that he is neither a carrot nor a potato), the self-defeating control tactics we employ in attempting to assuage our fear of impermanence (the robots in R are so terrified of rusting that they steal the rainclouds from the sky and lug them around in carts).

There are touches of loveliness and thoughtfulness: The budding scientist (M is for “made of matter”) is a little girl and the manly lumberjack (L) lucubrates by lamplight, reading a copy of Once Upon an Alphabet.

There are also charming winks at continuity: The nun in N flips the enigma from E and posits that “nearly nine thousand” envelopes can fit inside an elephant; the fearless owl and octopus duo in O, who roam the ocean searching for problems to solve, come to the rescue when a regular cucumber plunges into the ocean in S (for “sink or swim”) because he “watched a program about sea cucumbers and thought it might be a better life for him,” only to realize he didn’t know how to swim; when Xavier in X wakes up one morning and is devastated to find out that his prized X-ray spectacles have been stolen, he rings the owl and the octopus for help.

There is, too, a sprinkle of Goreyesque darkness alongside the delight, speaking to Maurice Sendak’s conviction that children shouldn’t be sheltered from the dark: In T, a writer sits in front of his “terrible typewriter,” which has the uncanny ability to make his stories come true, until one day he is eaten by a monster he wrote. (The creature, coincidentally, is reminiscent of Sendak’s Wild Things.) In H, Helen lives in a half house, the other half having been swept into the sea by a hurricane; “being lazy, and not owning a hammer,” she hadn’t quite got around to fixing it yet” — so one day, she rolls out the wrong side of the bed and plummets into the ocean.

Once Upon an Alphabet is immeasurably wonderful in its totality, both sensitive and irreverent, kind and quirky. Complement it with Jeffers’s Stuck, then revisit a few other marvelous alphabet books by Gertrude Stein, Quentin Blake, and Maurice Sendak.

Illustrations courtesy of Oliver Jeffers; photographs my own

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22 OCTOBER, 2014

You Have Never Seen the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe on the Shimmering Beauty of the Southwest

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“There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness of it all.”

When Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) was a little girl, decades before she came to be regarded as America’s first great female artist and became the first woman honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, her mother used to read history and travel stories to her every night before bed. The mesmerism of place never lost its grip on her. At the peak of her career, O’Keeffe left New York and moved to the exotic expanse of the Southwest to live a solitary life. She once wrote in a letter to her best friend, Anita Pollitzer, the woman who had selflessly taken it upon herself to make the New York art elite pay attention to O’Keeffe’s work: “I believe one can have as many rare experiences at the tail end of the earth as in civilization if one grabs at them — no — it isn’t a case of grabbing — it is — just that they are here — you can’t help getting them.” Pollitzer would later come to write in a major profile of O’Keeffe: “Fame still does not seem to be as meaningful or real to her as the mesas of New Mexico or the petals of a white rose.”

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

Indeed, O’Keeffe’s love for the landscape and energy of the Southwest shimmers with growing vibrancy across the lifetime of letters the two women exchanged collected in Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer (public library) — the same wonderful volume that gave us O’Keeffe on art, life, and setting priorities. It was there, under the endless skies and fiery sunsets of the Southwest, that O’Keeffe developed not only the remarkable mastery of color and sensuality for which she is known but also the most essential tool of all art — the ability to pay attention, to look and actually see.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Black Mesa Landscape,' 1930 (Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

In mid-January of 1916, returning to New York from Texas after a visit as she considered a new teaching job there, O’Keeffe writes to Pollitzer:

There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness of it all — mirages people it with all sorts of things at times — sometimes Ive seen the most wonderful sunsets over what seemed to be the ocean — It is great — I would like to go today — Next to New York it is the finest thing I know — here I feel like Im in a shoe that doesn’t fit.

O’Keeffe would eventually trade the ill-fitting shoe for the bigness that would be her home for the last seven decades of her life — but not before her heart fully surrendered to the sunsets of the Southwest. In one particularly evocative letter from September of 1916, O’Keeffe channels the expansive awe of the Southwest sky:

Tonight I walked into the sunset — to mail some letters — the whole sky — and there is so much of it out here — was just blazing — and grey blue clouds were riding all through the holiness of it — and the ugly little buildings and windmills looked great against it…

The Eastern sky was all grey blue — bunches of clouds — different kinds of clouds — sticking around everywhere and the whole thing — lit up — first in one place — then in another with flashes of lightning — sometimes just sheet lightning — and some times sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it –. I walked out past the last house — past the last locust tree — and sat on the fence for a long time — looking — just looking at — the lightning — you see there was nothing but sky and flat prairie land — land that seems more like the ocean than anything else I know — There was a wonderful moon.

Well I just sat there and had a great time all by myself — Not even many night noises — just the wind —

[...]

It is absurd the way I love this country… I am loving the plains more than ever it seems — and the SKY — Anita you have never seen SKY — it is wonderful –

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills,' 1935 (Brooklyn Museum)

Despite declaring to Pollitzer that she always has “a hard time finding words for anything,” O’Keeffe blossoms as a spectacular writer in relaying the sensory awe of the landscape to her friend — a testament to Susan Sontag’s assertion that “a writer is a professional observer.” In another gorgeous letter a few days later, O’Keeffe writes:

Last night couldnt sleep till after four in the morning — I had been out to the canyon all afternoon — till late at night — wonderful color — I wish I could tell you how big — and with the night the colors deeper and darker — cattle on the pastures in the bottom looked like little pinheads — I can understand Pa Dow painting his pretty colored canyons — it must have been a great temptation — no wonder he fell

Then the moon rose right up out of the ground after we got out on the plains again — battered a little where he bumped his head but enormous — There was no wind — it was just big and still — so very big and still — long legged jack rabbits hopping across in front of the light as we passed — A great place to see the night time because there is nothing else.

[...]

Im so glad Im out here — I can’t tell you how much I like it. I like the plains — and I like the work — everything is so ridiculously new — and there is something about it that just makes you glad your living here — You understand — there is nothing here — so maybe there is something wrong with me that I am liking it so much.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Storm Cloud,' 1923 (Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

There was, of course, nothing “wrong” with O’Keeffe — she was learning a whole new way of looking at the world, directing toward it what Oscar Wilde memorably called “temperament of receptivity,” inhabiting it with the very presence and aliveness from which great art springs. A few more days later, she captures this aliveness beautifully in another letter to Pollitzer:

Really — living is too fine — Last night we had a tremendous thunderstorm — and I’ve never seen such lightning in my life — it was wonderful… Stood out on the porch for a long time watching the whole sky alive.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Deer's Skull with Pedernal,' 1936 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

All of Lovingly, Georgia is a gorgeous read and a rare glimpse into the inner world of one of the most extraordinary artists who ever lived. Complement this particular slice of it with young Sylvia Plath on the transcendence and reverie of nature and Rebecca Solnit on why the sky is blue.

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21 OCTOBER, 2014

My Favorite Things: Maira Kalman’s Illustrated Catalog of Unusual Objects, Memories, and Delight

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“Go out and walk. That is the glory of life.”

Four decades after Barthes listed his favorite things, which prompted Susan Sontag to list hers, Maira Kalman — one of the most enchanting, influential, and unusual creative voices today, and a woman of piercing insight — does something very similar and very different in her magnificent book My Favorite Things (public library).

Kalman not only lives her one human life with remarkable open-heartedness, but also draws from its private humanity warm and witty wisdom on our shared human experience. There is a spartan sincerity to her work, an elegantly choreographed spontaneity — words meticulously chosen to be as simple as possible, yet impossibly expressive; drawings that invoke childhood yet brim with the complex awarenesses of a life lived long and wide. She looks at the same world we all look at but sees what no one else sees — that magical stuff of “the moments inside the moments inside the moments.” Here, her many-petaled mind blossoms in its full idiosyncratic whimsy as she catalogs the “personal micro-culture” of her inner life — her personal set of the objects and people and fragments of experience that constitute the ever-shifting assemblage we call a Self.

The book began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. But it is also a kind of visual catalog sandwiched between a memoir, reminding us that our experience of art is laced with the minute details and monumental moments of our personal histories and is invariably shaped by them. Between Kalman’s original paintings and photographs based on her selections from the museum’s sweeping collection — the buttons and bathtubs, dogs and dandies, first editions of Winnie the Pooh and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Proust’s letters — are also her childhood memories, her quirky personal collections, and her beautiful meditations on life.

Kalman writes in the introduction:

The pieces that I chose were based on one thing only — a gasp of DELIGHT.

Isn’t that the only way to curate a life? TO live among things that make you gasp with delight?

And gasp one does, over and over. As Kalman makes her way through the vast Cooper Hewitt collection, her immeasurably lyrical interweavings of private and public expose that special way in which museums not only serve as temples to collective memory but also invite us to reopen the Proustian jars of our own memories with interest and aliveness and a capacity to gasp.

“Whoever invented the bed was a genius,” Kalman writes in her simple homage, inspired by a trading card ad from 1909. “When you get up from bed, get dressed in pants and socks.” The pants: French silk and linen breeches from 1750–1770; the socks: French knitted silk stockings from 1850–1900.

Her painting of a pair of yellow American slippers from the 1830s is really a love letter to walking, something Kalman sees as an existential activity and a creative device:

The ability to walk from one point to the next point, that is half the battle won.

Go out and walk.

That is the glory of life.

Beneath her painting of a quilted and embroidered silk Egyptian cap from the late 13th or early 14th century, Kalman hand-letters the perfect pairing — Pablo Neruda’s 1959 poem “Ode to Things”:

I love crazy things,
crazily.

I enjoy
tongs,
scissors.

I adore
cups,
rings,
soup spoons,
not to mention,
of course,
the hat.

As an enormous lover of Alice in Wonderland, I was particularly bewitched by Kalman’s painting of a photograph by Lewis Carroll, which calls to mind the real-life Alice who inspired his Wonderland:

There is also Kalman’s wink at Darwin’s despondent letter:

Painting a set of dolls made by Mexican nuns, Kalman notes in her singular style of wry awe:

The nuns have sensational fashion sense.

Emanating from the entire project is Kalman’s ability to witness life with equal parts humor and humility, and to always extract find the lyrical — as in her exquisite pairing of this early nineteenth-century European mount and a Lydia Davis poem:

The objects Kalman selects ultimately become a springboard for leaping into the things that move her most — like her great love of books, woven with such gentleness and subtlety into a French lamp shade from 1935:

The book. Calming object. Held in the hand.

Indeed, the screen does no justice to the magnificent object that is My Favorite Things, an object to be held in the hand and the heart. It follows Kalman’s equally enchanting The Principles of Uncertainty and Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World), which she has complemented with such wonderful side projects as her illustrations for Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules.

For a dimensional tour of Kalman’s mind and spirit, see Gael Towey’s wonderful short documentary.

Illustrations courtesy of Maira Kalman / HarperCollins; photographs my own

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