Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

17 JANUARY, 2014

Party Like It’s 1903: Virginia Woolf on the Ecstasy of Music and Dance

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“Dance music … stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room.”

“Oh, how wonderful! How like the mind it is!” Helen Keller exclaimed in her moving first experience of dance. “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” young Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a letter to a friend. “Twyla Tharp reconciles me to being a woman … Non-sexist dancing — strong women with their own energy, subjects not objects, playful with men — not afraid of them,” Susan Sontag mused in her diary.

From A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library) — the same wonderfully rich volume that gave us young Virginia Woolf on imitation and the arts and the glory of the human mind — comes a glimpse of a lesser-known side of the seemingly reserved author: Her love of music and dance.

In an essayistic entry from 1903, titled “A Dance at Queen’s Gate” and reproduced here with her original spelling, 21-year-old Virginia writes:

About two hours ago, when I went to bed, I heard what I took to be signs of merry making in the mews. A violin squeaked, there was a noise of loud voices & laughter. It reminded me how once, as a child, I woke at dead of night: it seemed to me — 8 or 9 I suppose really & I heard strange & horrible music as of a midnight barrel organ, & was so frightened that I had to crawl to the cot next mine for sympathy. But I am too old for that kind of blind terror; my critical mind when awake enough to think at all about it, decided that the fiddle squeaking &c. was token of a ball — not in our street — but in Queens Gate — the tall row of houses that makes a background to the mews. The music grew so loud, so rhythmic — as the night drew on & the London roar lessened, that I threw up my window, leant out into the cool air, & saw the illuminations which told surely from what house the music came.

Now I have been listening for an hour. The music stops — I hear the chatter, the light laughter of womens voices — the deeper notes of festive males. I can almost see the couples wandering out from the ball rooms to the balconies which are starred with small lamps. They look straight across the mews to me. The music has begun again — oh dear — the swing & the lilt of that waltz makes me almost feel as though I could jump from my bed & dance to it too. That is the quality which dance music has — no other: it stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room — oblivious of everything save that you must keep swaying with the music — in & out, round & round — in the eddies & swirls of the violins. It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it. It is magic music. Here the bars run low, passionate, regretful, but always in the same pulse. We dance as though we knew the vanity of dancing. We dance to drown our sorrows — but dance, dance — If you stop you are lost. This one night we will be mad — dance lightly — raise our hearts as the beat strengthens, grows buoyant — careless, defiant. What matters anything so long as ones step is in time — so long as one’s whole body & mind are dancing too — what shall end it?

Dinomania: (n) irresistible urge to dance

Artwork by Polly M. Law from her Word Project. Click image for details.

After a short contemplation of the fabric of the music, noting “the very height of the rhythm, some strange, solitary sound,” Woolf finds herself exhausted and consumed by the dense darkness of the night sky, then returns to the exhilaration of dance — but this time as a melancholy observer, painting an ominous, zombie-like picture of the dancing throng:

The music again! I begin to think someone has wound up this weary waltz & it will go on at intervals all thro‘ the night. Nobody is dancing in time to it now I am sure — or they dance as pale phantoms because so long as the music sounds they must dance — no help for them. Surely the music that seemed to ebb before, has gathered strength — it sounds louder & louder — it swings faster & faster — no one can stop dancing now. They are sucked in by the music. And how weary they look — pale men — fainting women — crumpled silks & trampled flowers. They are no longer masters of the dance — it has taken possession of them. And all joy & life has left it, & is diabolical, a twisting livid serpent, writhing in cold sweat & agony, & crushing the frail dancers in its contortions. What has brought about the change? It is the dawn.

Complement A Passionate Apprentice with the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice and her timeless meditations on how to read a book, the language of film, the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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16 JANUARY, 2014

The Gorgeous Art of Norah Borges, Jorge Luis Borges’s Younger Sister

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Soulful drawings by a little-known pioneer of modern art.

Few people know that literary titan Jorge Luis Borges had a sister, and even fewer that Leonor Fanny Borges Acevedo (1901–1998), better-known under the pseudonym Norah Borges, was an acclaimed artist in her own right, who emerged in the 1920s as one of the female pioneers of modern art. (In many regards, Norah was to Jorge Luis what the acclaimed Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell was to her sister, Virginia Woolf.) During her lifetime, Borges illustrated close to eighty books, including some of her brother’s, in addition to editorial illustrations for a number of avant-garde magazines belonging to ultraísmo — the first major avant-garde movement in Spain, comprising an eclectic group of writers and artists influenced by Italian futurism.

Norah (age 7) and Jorge Luis (age 9) at the Buenos Aires zoo, 1908

Her soulful paintings and drawings, the earliest of which is collected in the out-of-print Spanish-language volume Norah Borges: Obra Gráfica [Norah Borges: Graphic Work] (public library; AbeBooks), spans more than seven decades and is nothing short of breathtaking:

Complement these with MoMA’s Modern Women, a celebration of pioneering women in modern art.

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15 JANUARY, 2014

Every Page of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Illustrated by Self-Taught Artist Matt Kish

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Into the black hole of the human soul in acrylic and ink.

Two years after his infinitely wonderful illustrations for every page of Moby-Dick, which ranked among the best art and design books of 2011, self-taught Ohio-based artist Matt Kish returns with an equally exquisite edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (public library). With one haunting acrylic-paint-and-ink illustration for every page, Kish — whose artwork was included in the excellent compendium The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3 — reinvigorates the Conrad classic and its timeless themes of race, gender, power, privilege, and the dualities of the human soul.

In the introduction, Kish contrasts his two projects:

Every illustrator, no matter what the project, is confronted with choices. In considering how to approach Heart of Darkness, I had to make a lot of choices, and they were never simple. What struck me while illustrating Moby-Dick was just how vast Melville’s novel seemed. It’s an enormous book that, to paraphrase Whitman, contains multitudes. It contradicts itself in style and tone in gloriously messy ways and it’s strong enough to carry the visions of dozens of artists. . . . With Melville, there is room.

Conrad is something entirely different, particularly when it comes to Heart of Darkness. There is a terrifying feeling of claustrophobia and a crushing singularity of purpose to the story. It’s almost as if the deeper one reads, the further down a tunnel one is dragged, all other options and paths dwindling and disappearing, until nothing is left but that awful and brutal encounter with Kurtz and the numbing horror of his ideas. Where Moby-Dick roams far and wide across both land and sea, Heart of Darkness moves in one direction only, and that is downward.

While it never could have been an easy task to take a well-known piece of literature and breathe some different kind of life into it with pictures, the inexorable downward pull of this black hole of a story — this bullet to the head — made demands that I couldn’t have imagined.

And yet Kish met those demands head-on, with equal parts creative bravery and respect for Conrad’s sensibility, all the while drawing us into that black hole with irresistible magnetism.

Complement Kish’s Heart of Darkness with his Moby-Dick, then explore other graphic artists’ interpretations of literary classics.

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