Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

03 FEBRUARY, 2014

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Original Watercolors for The Little Prince

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“The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.”

Although Antoine de Saint-Exupéry only wrote one children’s book in his lifetime, it is among the most beloved of all time, one of those rare gems with most timeless philosophy for grown-ups. But what few realize is that Saint-Exupéry, a commercial pilot who never mastered English and penned his masterwork in French, wrote The Little Prince (public library) not in Paris but in New York City and Long Island, where he arrived in 1940 after the Nazi invasion of France.

In April of 1943, shortly after the book came out, 43-year-old Saint-Exupéry shoved his Little Prince manuscripts and drawings in a brown paper bag, handing it to his friend Silvia Hamilton — “I’d like to give you something splendid,” he told her, “but this is all I have.” — and departed for Algiers as a military pilot with the Free French Air Force. He was eight years over the age limit for pilots in such squadrons, so he petitioned relentlessly for exemption until it was finally granted by General Dwight Eisenhower. On July 31, 1944, he left on a reconnaissance mission, never to return. He was 44 years old when he perished — a biographical detail that lends eerie poignancy to the fact that, perched atop his little planet, the Little Prince watched the sun set exactly 44 times.

Parts of his plane were found years later. A fisherman near Marseilles caught Saint-Exupéry’s silver bracelet in his net. Along with the author’s name, that of his wife, and his American publisher’s address, the inscription read “NYC USA.”

The Little Prince wasn’t published in the author’s native France until two years after his death. Even in America, it was only a moderate success initially — it only stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for two weeks, compared to twenty for Saint-Exupéry’s aviation memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars, perhaps because it occupied that odd, uncategorizable neverland between a children’s story and philosophical fable for adults. And yet precisely therein lies the book’s timeless magic. Today, it has been translated into more than 260 languages and dialects, and it lands in millions of hands, little and big, each year.

In 1968, The Morgan Library in New York — home to such treasures as the life of Rumi in rare Islamic paintings and the illustrated to-do lists of famous artists — acquired the original manuscripts. Now, a new Morgan exhibition explores Saint-Exupéry’s creative process through the writings that he excluded from the final version — the Morgan manuscript contains 30,000 words, nearly double those in the published book — and his little-known original watercolors, among other biographical ephemera. Indeed, what made Saint-Exupéry such a singular artist of the imagination was that he ranked among those rare writers who also illustrated their own works — celebrated creators like Maurice Sendak, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Maira Kalman — with text and image informing and enriching one another.

What makes these drawings most extraordinary is that they at once embody and counter Saint-Exupéry’s most memorable line — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — by seeking to make visible, even seen, the creative craftsmanship of a man who long after his death continues to move generations with his tender tale about the meaning of life.

Saint-Exupéry was among the many famous writers with odd habits and questionable sleep regimens: He wrote well into the night and had no scruples about calling up a friend at 2 A.M. to read a passage aloud; he carried a cup of coffee or tea with him at all times and almost always had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Unsurprisingly, those habits are imprinted — quote literally — on his work, as in the coffee stain on this early Little Prince manuscript page:

One of the drawings even has a cigarette burn:

Also included in the exhibition, envisioned by Morgan Library curator Christine Nelson, are the last photographs taken of Saint-Exupéry, captured by LIFE photojournalist John Phillips, whose account of a conversation with Saint-Exupéry is our only record of the inspiration for the book:

When I asked Saint-Ex how the Little Prince had entered his life, he told me that one day he looked down on what he thought was a blank sheet and saw a small childlike figure. “I asked him who he was, ” Saint-Ex said. “I’m the Little Prince,” was the reply.

Indeed, Saint-Exupéry’s beloved character evolved largely in the margins of his letters and notebooks. In a 1940 missive to a friend, he doodled a character with thinning hair, much like his own, wearing a bow-tie. He gave a similar drawing to Elizabeth Reynal, a French-speaking friend in New York, who eventually convinced him to weave his character into a children’s story.

One of the loveliest meta-materials in the exhibit is a 1943 review of The Little Prince by P.L. Travers for the New York Herald Tribune, echoing Tolkien’s conviction that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and articulating the profound, timeless appeal of the book with exquisite sensitivity:

Children quite naturally see with the heart, the essential is clearly visible to them. The little fox will move them simply by being a fox. They will not need his secret until they have forgotten it and have to find it again. I think, therefore, that The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it. Yet even in saying this I am conscious of drawing a line between grown-ups and children. . . . And I do not believe that line exists.

Saint-Exupéry’s original full-color drawings are included in the 70th anniversary boxed set edition of The Little Prince. The Morgan Library’s The Little Prince: A New York Story is on view through April 27, 2014.

All images courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum © Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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30 JANUARY, 2014

Some of Today’s Most Beloved Children’s Book Illustrators Each Draw Their Favorite Animal

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A menagerie of loveliness from some of the world’s greatest illustrators.

I have a soft spot for animals and the loveliest books about them, but having just said farewell to a beloved feline companion, I was triply taken with What’s Your Favorite Animal? (public library), in which the great Eric Carle invites some of today’s most celebrated children’s book illustrators — including Jon Klassen, Peter Sís, Lucy Cousins, and Lane Smith — to each draw their favorite animal

A simple concept, but an infinitely delightful and rewarding execution.

Eric Carle: Cats

Carle contextualizes his own selection with a heart-warming anecdote:

I have always liked animals. But cats are my favorites. I have a photograph of myself when I was three years old, holding a couple of kittens. And I am sneezing. I must have been allergic to them, but my mother claimed I had a cold.

Later when I was grown up, Fiffi lived with me in my Greenwich Village New York City walk-up. Fiffi was a long-haired black beauty. One day when I was peeling string beans in the kitchen, she showed great interest in my task. After a while she even began to meow ever so slightly. It sounded like begging to me. Finally I threw a string bean down the long hallway. Fiffi chased after it, fetched it, and returned it to me. Again I threw the string bean down the hallway. Finally, after many chases, Fiffi picked up the string bean, ignored me, and walked into the closet. She placed it into a shoe of mine. Then she curled herself around the shoe and went to sleep, guarding the string bean.

Peter McCarty: Bunny

Lucy Cousins: Leopard

Jon Klassen: Duck

Jon Klassen, enchanter of the ordinary, goes for the underduck:

Most times when you see a duck in a story, it’s not very smart. Usually it is in the middle of falling for a trick somebody is playing on it. But I like ducks. I like watching them walk around.

Mo Willems: Amazonian Neotropical Lower River Tink-Tink

Peter Sís: Blue Carp

Sís relays the heartening twist on a peculiar national custom behind his choice:

I am from the Czech Republic where people eat carp every Christmas Eve. It is a tradition. Just before the Christmas holidays, giant barrels with live carp are set up in the streets so people can buy one and bring it home fresh. There, they let the carp swim in the bathtub Christmas Eve. The carp would look all blue and lonely in the bathtub, and we, the children, would be fascinated and give her a name and try to put our little fingers in her toothless, breathing mouth. What usually happened on Christmas Eve when the carp is supposed to become dinner was that the children would cry, go on strike, and finally the carp would be taken by the whole family to the river Vltava and released. You would see many families coming with their carps to the river and blue fish swimming toward the ocean. This gave us all hope! So my favorite creature of hope is the blue carp.

What’s Your Favorite Animal? is absolutely wonderful from cover to cover. Complement it with 2013’s best books about animals.

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29 JANUARY, 2014

The Taste Gap: Ira Glass on the Secret of Creative Success, Animated in Living Typography

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“The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

The question of what makes someone successful has occupied some of history’s greatest minds. For Alexander Graham Bell, success was bound to befall the person “who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider.” For Henry David Thoreau, success was a matter of living with presence. According to scientists, it belongs to those who are already winners as success breeds success, and psychologists attribute it to grit. But some of the greatest wisdom on the subject comes from none other than the public face of public radio.

Many moons ago, I featured a short and lovely kinetic typography animation of Ira Glass on the secret of success in creative work, in which he offers indispensable advice that puts in more poetic terms what psychologists call the “growth mindset” essential for success. Now, photographer and visual storyteller Daniel Sax has adapted Glass’s timeless wisdom in this beautiful short film a year in the making, using living typography to illustrate Glass’s words. The result is doubly fantastic.

Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?

Complement with some equally fantastic advice on courage and the creative life.

Quipsologies; portrait of Ira Glass by Stuart Mullenberg

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