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Posts Tagged ‘art’

10 MARCH, 2015

More than Words: The Illustrated Love Letters, Thank-You Notes, and Travelogues of Great Artists, from Kahlo to Calder to Saint-Exupéry

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“Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.”

Virginia Woolf aptly called letter writing “the humane art.” But what amplifies the humanity and immediacy of words is the addition of art itself — how instantly alive Van Gogh’s illustrated letters feel, to say nothing of Edward Gorey’s envelope drawings.

That magical marriage of epistolary text and image is what Liza Kirwin explores in More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (public library) — a wonderful selection of love letters, thank-you notes, travel missives, visual instructions, picture-puzzles and plays on words from the world’s largest repository of artists’ papers, featuring missives from creative titans like Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth, Alexander Calder, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Kirwin, who serves as deputy director of the venerable archive and has also culled from it the illustrated lists and inventories of great artists, begins the book with a perfect line from a letter the great American graphic artist John Graham wrote to his third wife, Elinor, in July of 1958 — a gem from the archive’s John Graham Papers collection:

Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.

The illustrated letter is an even more beautiful such manifestation, as artist Walter Kuhn remarked in a letter to his wife: “One should never forget that the power of words is limited.”

Lyonel Feininger to Alfred Churchill, May 20, 1890

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

German-American Expressionist painter and comic strip artist Lyonel Feininger asserted this sentiment with double the ardor in a May 1890 letter to the art critic and lecturer Alfred Churchill:

I will … make one more demand upon your friendship, also it is your promise to me before we parted. viz: to illustrate your letters! If it is only a little landscape or a simple figure, or any little sketch or sketches illustrating the text of your letters, it will be just as welcome and will do you very considerably good in helping you on in penwork or ready interpretation of any little conception you may wish to put on paper.

Frida Kahlo to Emmy Lou Packard, October 24, 1940

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Among the many gems is one from Frida Kahlo — who was a prolific letter writer, most notably of gorgeous and profound illustrated love letters to Diego Rivera — thanking muralist Emmy Lou Packard for taking such good care of Rivera during his trip to San Francisco. The couple had divorced a year earlier, and yet Kahlo writes, illustrating the letter with lipsticked smooches:

Kiss Diego for me and tell him I love him more than my own life.

Kahlo and Rivera remarried a few weeks later and remained together, not without tumult, until death did them part. Years later, as he recalled first meeting the teenage Kahlo, Rivera would consider her “the most important fact” of his life.

Alfred Joseph Frueh to Geiuliette Fanciulli, January 29, 1913

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

One of the sweetest love letters comes from caricaturist Alfred Joseph Frueh, who called his fiancée’s missives “pinkies” (on account of the pink paper she used) and declared that weeks without pinkies “are as empty as cream puffs without cream.” In one letter, he sent her a set of charming cartoons, writing in the postscript that he had to tear up a “pinky” and adding: “But you’ll send me another, wontcha?”

Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, September 8, 1894

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Among the most charming specimens from the section on travel letters is one from Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, listing in beautiful penmanship and delightful illustrations the masses of fruit he was consuming during his 1894 trip to Venice:

Delicious fruits are here in Venice now, and I consume vast quantities of it. Melons, pears, peaches, plums, apples, figs, grapes and other things unknown to my interior.

[…]

I eat fruit so much of the time and so much at a time that I go to bed at night expecting.

But folded into this playful admission of dietary excess is Smith’s larger and graver meditation on the excesses and pretensions of the art world. With the conflicted ambivalence not uncommon in artists — a polarizing pull between wanting commercial success on the one hand and having deep disdain for the system that bestows it on the other — he recounts his visit with the prominent American art patron Isabella Steward Gardner:

Mrs. Gardner wishes so much to have the extreme pleasure of having me make her a visit there that I have promised to go over on Wednesday and end my visit in Venice there.

I lunched there yesterday and showed my pictures and dined with the Brimmers and again passed them all out and told the same little anecdotes with the same inflexion of voice — and they seemed pleased and Colleroni and I are pretty well set up and conceited — for when they weren’t admiring him — they were the workmanship — and I simply floated home in air I was that puffed up my waistcoat hasn’t a button to its name — and the upper part of my trousers looks like two funnels.

And you will ask — you miserable money ideaed things you sordid American parents you will ask if I sold any pictures to Mrs. Gardner — so I will just say yes — “it was bit off” — and with love to you all

I remain your little sonnie JoJo

Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, June 15, 1894

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Smith’s irreverent playfulness and his conflicted attitude toward the art world appear in another letter to his parents from that spring, when he was holding informal exhibitions four evenings a week and buyers — mostly American collectors visiting Venice — were clamoring to buy his work. Illustrating his letter with a drawing that captures perfectly this duality of the artist as panhandler and fashionable commodity, he writes:

Dear Mother and Father,

“It never rains but it pours.”

Behold your son painting under a shower of gold. I am selling pictures on every side and every day. — And we are feeling very much set up and bloated at Palazzo Dario these days.

[…]

I am going to make this last picture the best thing I have ever done.

Man Ray to Julian Edwin Levi, June 26, 1929

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Some are landmarks not only of art history but of all history — shortly before the stock market crash of 1929, surrealist icon Man Ray is sitting in an American bar in Paris, sketching a self-portrait in a lyrical letter to his friend Julian Edwin Levi:

The blue light is creeping over Blvd. Montparnasse and the sparrows are chirping in the trees waiting for a windfall.

J. Kathleen White to Ellen Hulda Johnson, September 1, 1986

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Another letter marks a turning point in the history of computing technology. In the fall of 1986, artist and writer J. Kathleen White brags in a letter to art historian Ellen Hulda Johnson about using a computer to draw a cat, a dog, and a bird:

These household pets here pictured come from computer land.

Alexander Calder to Ben Shahn, February 24, 1949

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Then there are those practical matters for which words simply don’t suffice — such as directions. In his letter of invitation to artist Ben Shahn, the great Alexander Calder encloses a hand-drawn map to his home — and it somehow feels like one of his iconic mobiles.

Robert Lortac to Edward Willis Redfield, August 18, 1919

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Some letters offer oblique assurances about the creative path. Like many subsequently successful artists, French filmmaker and cartoon animation pioneer Robert Collard (known as R. Lortac) had a day-job. During his years as a real estate consultant, he included in a letter to his friend Edward Willis Redfield — a landscape artist — a series of beautiful drawings to give him a better sense of “the character of the landscape” in Brittany, where Redfield was planning a trip.

Andy Warhol to Russell Lynes, 1949

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Another such oblique assurance comes from Andy Warhol. Immediately after graduating from college and moving to New York City — where his overbearing mother would soon follow him to take care of her son through poverty — Warhol applied for a job at Harper’s. Without the slightest care for punctuation or capitalization, except when it comes to his own name, 21-year-old Warhol answers editor Russell Lynes’s request for biographical information:

Hello mr. lynes
thank you very much
biographical information

my life couldn’t fill a penny post card i was born in pittsburgh in 1928 (like everybody else — in a steel mill)

i graduated from carnegie tech now i’m in NY city moving from one roach infested apartment to another.

Andy Warhol.

And yet later that year, Lynes gave Warhol one of his first jobs — to illustrate a John Cheever short story for Harper’s. It would be another decade before he began working as a low-level art director at Doubleday, producing his little-known children’s book illustrations — he filled the time by collaborating with his mother on feline drawings — and nearly twenty years before he established himself as a pop culture icon.

A letter from the German painter and writer Edith Schloss brings a delightful meta-touch to the volume — in 1981, in thanking Philip Pearlstein and other supporters for their help with her American visa, she writes on the back of the letter:

I wish we had a National Archives here to give all my junk & diaries to — I’m not good at throwing things away.

Edith Schloss to Philip Pearlstein, March 25, 1981

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Pearlstein eventually donated his own papers to the Smithsonian’s esteemed archive from which this book is culled, and Schloss — most likely upon his suggestion — soon did the same.

Some are delightful for their little-touches — like multimedia artist Red Grooms’ genial copyediting on the word “snail” in his altogether charming thank-you note to three of his friends for letting him stay at their home in Europe during an extended visit.

Red Grooms to Elisse and Paul Stuttman and Edward C. Flood, 1968

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Perhaps the tenderest letter in the book is also an elegant homage to time and place. Legendary French couturier Yves Saint-Laurent writes his affectionate letter to his dear friend and Vogue art director Alexander Liberman inside a sketch of a traditional Islamic cloak typically worn by women in Marrakech, where the designer had a home, against a background of a traditional Moroccan pattern.

Yves Saint-Laurent to Alexander Liberman, June 7, 1970

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

My very very dear Alex

I am here, in Marrakech
and I am thinking of you as always
of your friendship, loyalty
and your sincerity
I hope to see you as soon as possible and hug you
I love you with all my heart

Yves

But my favorite letter comes from beloved author and contemplator of life Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, penned shortly after the completion of his masterwork The Little Prince — the manuscript of which he also illustrated.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to Hedda Sterne, 1943

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

The letter is merely a dinner invitation to his friend, but it is the postscript, referencing the completion of The Little Prince, that makes it irresistibly endearing and bittersweet:

P.S. A nuisance delayed this letter that did not leave but — to be very honest — I am so proud of my masterpiece that I send it to you anyway.

About a year later Saint-Exupéry, left on a reconnaissance mission as a fighter pilot, never to return. He was forty-four — a biographical detail utterly eerie given that in Saint-Exupéry’s beloved book, the Little Prince watches the sun set exactly forty-four times.

More than Words is an absolute treat in its totality. Complement it with Kirwin’s other collection, Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Collections of the Smithsonian Museum, then revisit Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s illustrated love letters and Lewis Carroll’s rules of letter writing.

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09 MARCH, 2015

An Illustrated Celebration of the Many Things Home Can Mean

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A sweet reminder that despite our different walks of life, we have in common a shared longing to belong.

“Home,” Maya Angelou wrote in her magnificent meditation on belonging and (not) growing up, “is that youthful region where a child is the only real living inhabitant.” Indeed, it seems that only for children, with their purity of feeling and their ability to “mediate the ideal and the real,” does the Venn diagram of home and house integrate into one fully overlapping circle. In adulthood, the circles drift further and further apart as we begin to project our conflicted dream-home ideals onto our real houses.

In the impossibly wonderful Home (public library), illustrator and children’s book author Carson Ellis presents an imaginative taxonomy of houses and a celebration of the wildly different kinds of people who call them home.

What emerges is a playful and tender reminder that however different our walks of life — what contrast there is between the Slovakian duchess’s mansion and the Kenyan blacksmith’s shack, between the babushka’s kitchen and the artist’s studio! — we are united by our deep desire for a place to call home.

After all, we begin belonging to his world — to borrow Mary Oliver’s wonderful phrase — first by rooting ourselves into it; by staking out a little corner of it to call our very own. It need not have walls or a roof — it can be a tour bus, or even a shoe, as Ellis’s illustrated taxonomy assures — but only from that place of safety can we reach out to connect, to understand one another, and to begin belonging together.

Ellis guides the reader to and through this common thread of belonging by placing little semi-hidden markers of communion and continuity — the same house plant graces multiple homes; a pigeon visits the young girl in Brooklyn and then perches on the Russian babushka’s window; the icon that hangs on the wall of the babushka’s kitchen is seen, several pages later, on the wall of the artist’s studio. (The artist, endearingly enough, is Ellis herself.)

Sprinkled amid the very real homes of very real people from different cultures are the whimsical abodes familiar from beloved tales — right next to the Japanese businessman is the Norse god, proudly standing before his magical palace, and a giant upside-down cup calls to mind Leonard Weisgard’s magnificent mid-century illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

Home is the kind of book that legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom, perhaps the greatest patron saint of childhood who ever lived, might say “can’t help but make any child warmed and attended to and considered.” Complement it with the best children’s books of the past year.

Illustrations © 2015 by Carson Ellis courtesy of Candlewick Press. Photographs my own.

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06 MARCH, 2015

Iterations: A Lyrical Animated Film about How We Grow as Human Beings and the Iterative Nature of Self-Transformation

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“I am recycled cells, I learn to like myself more with each iteration…”

Psychologists now know that a “growth mindset” is one of the greatest predictors of a fulfilling life. And yet only children are at ease with the discomfort necessary for growth — the rest of us are chronically resistant to stretching ourselves in the very ways that push us to transcend the lesser versions of ourselves. Emerson knew this when he contemplated our resistance to change and wrote: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” How is it, then, that we bestir ourselves to grow?

In 2005, actor and director Joseph Gordon-Levitt founded hitRECord with his brother — a global creative community and independent multimedia production company, uniting artists from around the world on a variety of projects. The endeavor’s first decade has produced a wonderland of magical collaborations, including the fantastic Tiny Book of Tiny Stories series, but none more wonderful than Iterations — a beautiful and bewitching musical film created by artists from Hungary, Cyprus, Scotland, Canada, and the United States, with enchanting original music by Irish singer/songwriter Sarah Daly, better known as Metaphorest.

The artists were tasked with interpreting the theme of “The Road” and this musical journey was the result — a lyrical story of our incremental growth as human beings and the iterative nature of self-transformation.

Have you seen my old self?
I think I must have lost her
I wonder if I cost her
Her life?

Have you seen my second self?
She seems to grow younger
More delicate than ever
But never better

I’m an experiment
Each trial is a test
Constant recalibration

I am recycled cells
I learn to like myself
more with each iteration

Where is my restore point?
I found an old sore point
All disjointed
My file corrupted

Where is my replacement part?
I need another new heart
The other one’s beat was
Interrupted

I am recycled cells
I learn to like myself
more with each iteration

I’m an experiment
Each trial is a test
Constant recalibration

Complement with Susan Sontag on rereading as rebirth and some timeless ideas for self-refinement from the wisdom of the ages.

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05 MARCH, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School: A Charming Catalog of Excuses and an Allegory for How Human Imagination Works

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A playful parable about the stories we tell to avoid being wrong and the combinatorial nature of human creativity.

Psychologists and behavioral economists now know that there is a strong positive correlation between creativity and dishonesty — the more intelligent and imaginative we are, the better we’re able to rationalize our misconduct. And since children’s minds reveal so much about how the human imagination develops, both psychological theory and parental practice confirm that kids come up with the most fanciful excuses for why they did those mischievous things they knew they weren’t supposed to do.

In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School (public library), celebrated children’s book author Davide Cali and French illustrator Benjamin Chaud weave a playful parable of this childhood tendency to come up with excuses so fantastical that they become charming stories in their own right — a crucible of creativity and a sandbox for the young mind to play with the building blocks of storytelling.

One morning, the little boy is late to school and when his teacher inquires about the reason for his tardiness, he proceeds to offer a litany of imaginative excuses. Giant ants ate his breakfast! Evil ninjas ambushed him on the way to the bus stop! A massive ape mistook the school bus for a banana! His uncle’s time machine misfired and sent him back to the dominion of dinosaurs!

There are “scary majorettes,” “an unusually large spiderweb,” an encounter with Bigfoot and Yeti, and a call from the president who demanded the boy’s “champion chess skills” in helping to “save the planet from an alien invasion.”

Underpinning the delightful story, with its acrobatics of the imagination and its disarming illustrations, is a subtle testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity — we create our “own” ideas by combining countless fragments of existing ones, of impressions and influences and bits of information, into novel combinations. Ursula K. Le Guin knew this when she considered where great ideas come from, as did Mark Twain when he contemplated originality in a letter to Helen Keller, asserting that “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”

The little boy’s tales are a testament to this machinery of ideation — many of them borrow subtle elements or entire plot lines from beloved fairy tales (there is the Little Red Riding Hood, beseeching him to help find her grandmother), pop culture tropes (a Godzilla-like ape seizes the school bus), and classic children’s stories (he grows tiny, then huge, à la Alice in Wonderland).

When the little boy is finished relaying his imaginative series of unfortunate events and his teacher inquires whether those fanciful misadventures were the reason for his tardiness, we get to the comically unremarkable truth — for truth, after all, is always unremarkable, and that is what makes it true.

In the final page, as the teacher perches over the boy in skeptical disapprobation of his excuses and their validity, a friendly dinosaur from the faulty avuncular time machine pokes its head through the classroom window — a gentle and generous gesture which seems to assure the young reader that the child’s experience is always real and valid, even if grownups don’t believe it is true.

One can’t help but think of Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” — what we believe, after all, is the only reality we’ll ever know, and who can agree on this fluctuating fiction we call Truth anyway?

Complement the impossibly delightful A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School with another wonderful take on reconciling different realities, Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.)

Illustrations courtesy of Chronicle; book photographs my own

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