Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

05 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Book of Miracles: Rare Medieval Illustrations of Magical Thinking

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A visual record of humanity’s most eternal fears and our immutable longing for grace, mercy, and the miraculous.

In 1552, a curious and lavishly illustrated manuscript titled Augsburg Book of Miraculous Signs appeared in the Swabian Imperial Free City of Augsburg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, located in present-day Germany. It exorcised, in remarkable detail and wildly imaginative artwork, Medieval Europe’s growing obsession with signs sent from “God” — a testament to the basic human propensity for magical thinking, with which we often explain feelings and phenomena beyond the grasp of our logic. This unusual Roman manuscript was recently discovered and published for the first time as The Book of Miracles (public library | IndieBound) — a sumptuous box-sized trilingual tome in English, French, and German, produced in Taschen‘s typical fashion of pleasurable aesthetic bombast. Somewhere between Salvador Dalí’s illustrations of Montaigne, the weird and wonderful Codex Seraphinianus, and the visual history of Gotham’s imaginary apocalypse, the book is a singular shrine to some of the most eternal of human hopes and fears, and, above all, our immutable longing for grace, for mercy, for the miraculous.

What makes the book particularly notable is that its vibrant artwork, while strikingly beautiful, also illustrates religion’s heavy reliance on magical thinking. The word “religion” itself originates in the Latin for “binding together,” suggesting a sense not only of creating community but also of bridging complex things we don’t understand with simple ideas we do, via storytelling — something Carl Sagan famously explored.

The manuscript also offers a record of how word-of-mouth propagates the building blocks of belief and, eventually, the belief itself — the history of miracle-sighting is essentially a history of media, as “wonders” were first transmitted via regular letter correspondence and became a news item after the surge in broadsheets and pamphlets made possible by the invention of the Gutenberg press.

Complement the formidable Book of Miracles with other Taschen masterworks of visual delight and cultural history, including the best illustrations from 150 years of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, the life and legacy of infographics godfather Fritz Kahn, a Victorian reimagining of Euclid’s elements, and the visual history of magic.

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04 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Werner Herzog’s No-Nonsense Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers and Creative Entrepreneurs

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Why all creative work is the product of “a furious inner excitement” and how to cultivate the best possible “climate of excitement of the mind.”

Psychologists have long championed the idea that the ability to remember and integrate experiences is a central component of creative work. In Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — the same wide-ranging beast of an interview that gave us the legendary filmmaker’s thoughts on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you loveWerner Herzog lays out a spectacular case for the value of experience, of having lived wide, as the essential tool of creativity.

A decade before Kickstarter, he offers idealistic yet practical advice to aspiring filmmakers, which applies with equal poignancy and precision to just about any field of creative endeavor:

The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because — as remote as it might seem — at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema.

Later in his conversation with interviewer Paul Cronin, Herzog goes on to outline his unconventional vision for the ideal film school based on this very notion that all creative work must be rooted in lived experience and not in theoretical teaching or technical skill:

You would be allowed to submit an application only after having travelled, alone and on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of nearly two thousand miles. While walking, write about your experiences, then give me your notebooks. I would immediately be able to tell who had really walked and who had not. You would learn more about filmmaking during your journey than if you spent five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. Somebody who has been a boxer in Africa would be better trained as a filmmaker than if he had graduated from one of the “best” film schools in the world. All that counts is real life.

My film school would allow you to experience a certain climate of excitement of the mind, and would produce people with spirit, a furious inner excitement, a burning flame within. This is what ultimately creates films. Technical knowledge inevitably becomes dated; the ability to adapt to change will always be more important. At my utopian film academy there would be a vast loft with a boxing ring in one corner. Participants, working every day with a trainer, would learn to somersault, juggle and perform magic tricks. Whether you would be a filmmaker by the end I couldn’t say, but at least you would emerge as a confident and fearless athlete. After this vigorous physical work, sit quietly and master as many languages as possible. The end result would be like the knights of old who knew how to ride a horse, wield a sword and play the lute.

A diverse repertoire of experience, Herzog argues, offers the creative person “legs to stand on” — a kind of insurance against the loss of dignity and independence:

If a filmmaker has no other legs to stand on, he can be easily broken. When someone knows how to milk a cow, there is something solid about him. A farmer who grows potatoes or breeds sheep is never ridiculous; nor is a cattle rancher or a chef able to feed a table full of hungry guests. The eighty-year-old man who brought me a bottle of wine from his vineyard before my first opera opened in Bologna could never be an embarrassment, but the film producer who takes to the red carpet at every opportunity and keeps his awards polished will always look foolish. I have seen dignified ninety-year-old cello players and photographers, but never filmmakers. My way of dealing with the inevitable is to step out of my job whenever I can. I travel on foot, I stage operas, I raise children, I cook, I write. I focus on things that give me independence beyond the world of cinema.

His most important advice, however, is also the one that seems most obvious but remains the hardest to stomach — a straightforward formulation of the psychology-backed idea that grit rather than mere talent is the key to success:

Things rarely happen overnight. Filmmakers should be prepared for many years of hard work. The sheer toil can be healthy and exhilarating.

Elsewhere in the interview, Herzog addressed one of the eternal struggles in filmmaking and other creative careers, offering his no-bullshit advice on the question of funding. Indeed, A Guide for the Perplexed — not to be confused with E.F. Schumacher’s equally engrossing 1978 philosophy book of the same title — is an immeasurable trove of idealism and practical wisdom in its entirety. Complement it with Ira Glass on the secret of success in creative work and advice to aspiring writers.

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03 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book: Grown-up Advice on Modern Life from Vintage Children’s Books

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A charming compendium of little reminders about what it takes to live a happy and fulfilling life today.

As an enormous lover of vintage children’s books, I was instantly smitten with Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book (public library) — a semi-serious, playful and practical guide to life culling wisdom for modern grown-ups from the iconic Little Golden Books series of mid-century children’s books. From mental and physical health to money to relationships, this charming compendium captions and reframes vibrant vintage illustrations — many by artists whose talent was cultivated under legendary children’s book champion Ursula Nordstrom’s magnanimous wing — as little reminders about what it takes to live a happy and fulfilling life today.

The project is in many ways an organic extension of the Little Golden Book ethos, which has sustained generations through troubled times with creative nourishment for young souls. This compendium offers heartening solace for those weary of the hardships our world is currently facing. Diane Muldrow, longtime editor of the beloved children’s series, writes in the introduction:

We’ve been forced to look at ourselves and how we’re living our lives. Ironically, in this health-conscious, ecologically aware age of information, many of us have overborrowed, overspent, overeaten, and generally overdosed on habits or ways of life that aren’t good for us — or for our world. The chickens have come home to roost, and their names are Debt, Depression, and Diabetes.

How did we get here? How, like Tootle the Train, did we get so off track? Perhaps it’s time to revisit these beloved stories and start all over again. Trying to figure out where you belong, like Scuffy the Tugboat? Maybe, as time marches on, you’re beginning to feel that you resemble the Saggy Baggy Elephant.

Or perhaps your problems are more sweeping. Like the Poky Little Puppy, do you seem to be getting into trouble rather often and missing out on the strawberry shortcake in life? Maybe this book can help you! After all, Little Golden Books were first published during the dark days of World War II, and they’ve been comforting people during trying times ever since — while gently teaching us a thing or two. And they remind us that we’ve had the potential to be wise and content all along.

From 'Circus Time' by Marion Conger, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, 1948

From 'The Seven Sneezes' by Olga Cabral, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, 1948

From 'Duck and His Friends' by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, illustrated by Richard Scarry, 1949

From 'Animal Gym' by Beth Greiner Hoffman, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, 1956

From 'I Can Fly' by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Mary Blair, 1951

From 'The Friendly Book' by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Garth Williams, 1954

From 'The Three Bears,' illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky, 1948

From 'The Color Kittens' by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, 1949

From 'Tawny Scrawny Lion' by Kathryn Jackson, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, 1952

From 'The Little Red Hen,' illustrated by J. P. Miller, 1954

From 'The Musicians of Bremen,' adapted from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, illustrated by J. P. Miller, 1954

Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book is an absolute delight. Complement it with some actual Golden Books, including I Can Fly by the great Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Disney’s Mary Blair, a lovely adaptation of Homer for young readers by creative power duo Alice and Martin Provensen, and perhaps the best of the bunch, The Little Golden Book of Words.

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02 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Fox’s Garden: A Tender Wordless Story About the Gift of Grace and the Transformative Power of Kindness to Those Kicked Away

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A gentle reminder that life can be a cold wasteland of cruelty or a whimsical wonderland of grace, depending on the generosity of spirit with which we approach it.

The question of human nature — whether we are born full of goodness or spend our lives concealing our inherently rotten souls — is perhaps the most timeless and most significant of humanity’s inquiries. A subtle and infinitely heartening answer comes in Fox’s Garden (public library) — a breathtaking wordless picture-book by French artist Princesse Camcam, born Camille Garoche, whose lyrical cut-paper illustrations tell a story of cruelty redeemed by kindness, of coldness melted away by the warmth of compassion that is our true nature.

One cold winter night, the fox loses her way in the forest and stumbles into a village. Kicked away by the grownups — those strange beings chronically paralyzed by their fear of the unfamiliar — she finds refuge in a shut-down greenhouse, where she gives birth to a litter of baby foxes.

A curious and warmhearted little boy, full of children’s inherent openness to experience, follows her and offers a small gift — a beautiful gesture bespeaking the transformative power of acknowledging the rejected and making mindful room in one’s heart for those outcast by the mindless majority.

Reminiscent of Norwegian artist Øyvind Torseter’s handcrafted dioramas for My Father’s Arms Are a Boat, Camcam’s refreshingly analog cut-paper vignettes, meticulously lit and photographed, exude a towering tenderness that only amplifies the story’s overwhelming purity of emotion.

The wordlessness mirrors the silence of the snowy winter, a backdrop against which we are reminded that, like winter, life can be a cold and barren wasteland or a whimsical wonderland of grace, depending on the eyes we bring to it and the generosity of spirit with which we approach it.

Fox’s Garden comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion, champion of quietly moving masterworks of extraordinary emotional intelligence and sensitivity — lyrical treasures like The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, among others.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion

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