Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

10 JANUARY, 2014

Edith Windsor on Love and the Truth about Equality, Illustrated

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“If you really care about the quality of somebody’s life as much as you care about the quality of your own…”

The question of what love is endures as one of our deepest inquiries, as individuals and as a culture. Among the greatest love stories in modern history — in individual human terms, but perhaps most importantly in political terms — is that of Edith Windsor and Thea Spier.

After TIME magazine nominated Edith Windsor for Person of the Year 2013, they produced an impossibly moving short documentary (below) about Edie and Thea and what their story reveals about the meaning of love and marriage. Edie’s powerful words at the end of the film inspired the latest installment in the Brain Pickings Artist Series — another collaboration with Debbie Millman, who previously brought her signature hand-lettering to Edie’s historic phone call with President Obama.

Painstakingly made by hand with gold leaf and felt letters on hand-quilted felt, the artwork is available on Society6 as a print, tote, stretched canvas, and (yes, really) pillow, with 100% of the proceeds benefiting SAGE, a nonprofit providing support and care for LGBTQ senior citizens.

Watch the documentary below, and try not to sob:

See more of the Brain Pickings Artist Series here, and don’t miss Debbie Millman’s Self-Portrait as Your Traitor, one of the best art and design books of 2013.

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08 JANUARY, 2014

How Art Can Save Your Soul

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“Art can be a source of help with our problems — our innermost problems — the problems of the soul.”

“Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness,” British philosopher Alain de Botton wrote in Art as Therapy (public library), one of the best art books of 2013. He expounds the premise of the book in this fantastic “Sunday sermon” from The School of Life — the lecture series de Botton founded in 2008, premised on the idea that secular thought can learn a lot from the formats of religion, which went on to reimagine the self-help genre. De Botton argues that in the 19th century, culture replaced scripture as our culture’s object of worship, but we are no longer allowed to bring our fears and anxieties to this modern cathedral. “It is simply not acceptable to bring the aches and pains of our souls to the guardians of culture,” he laments. He goes on to explore how we can reclaim this core soul-soothing function of art from the grip of empty elitism and sterile snobbery, focusing on the the seven psychological functions of art. Enjoy:

We are very vulnerable, fragile creatures in desperate need of support and we generally don’t get it. … Art [can be] a source of help with our problems — our innermost problems — the problems of the soul. . . . Art can be a form of self-help and there is nothing demeaning about the concept of self-help — only the way in which some of self-help has been done so far, but there is nothing wrong with it as a concept. . . .

There is nothing wrong with [art today]. It’s not the art that’s the problem — it’s the frame around the art. We are simply not encouraged to bring ourselves to works of art. . . . The impact of art is often not what it should be because the frame is wrong.

[…]

I believe that art should be propaganda of something [other than the Christian church] — not theology, but psychology. I believe that art should serve the needs of our psyche as efficiently and as clearly as it served the needs of theology for hundreds of years.

Art as Therapy is an excellent read in its entirety. Take a closer look at de Botton’s argument and his seven psychological functions of art here.

Open Culture

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07 JANUARY, 2014

French Artist Benjamin Lacombe’s Haunting Illustrations for Poe’s Tales of the Macabre

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“Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are, have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.”

Certain types of literature readily invite gorgeous complementary artwork. Classic fairy tales, for instance, have attracted some magnificent illustrations over the centuries. But arguably the most haunting art for literary-literature is that accompanying the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Nearly a century after Harry Clarke’s remarkable 1919 illustrations and shortly after the stunning graphic novel for Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven, French artist Benjamin Lacombe illustrated Poe’s Tales of the Macabre (public library) in his signature style of gentle, eerie, endlessly evocative large-eyed creatures.

The result is nothing short of bewitching.

The Lacombe-illustrated Tales of the Macabre is an absolute treat. Complement it with Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti’s take on The Raven.

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03 JANUARY, 2014

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Little-Known, Gorgeous Art

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An important side of the beloved writer, who was as much an artist of pictures as he was of words.

Storytelling icon J.R.R. Tolkien (January 3, 1892–September 2, 1973) was also among those rare creators with semi-secret talents in a discipline other than their primary realm of fame — but while his original sketches for the first edition of The Hobbit have seen the light of day in recent years, few realize that Tolkien, who self-illustrated many of his famous works, was as much an artist of pictures as he was of words. Unlike other famous authors who also drew but only as a hobby or diversion, including Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor, Tolkien approached the visual medium with as much thoughtfulness and imaginative rigor as he did his stories. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (public library) collects more than 200 color reproductions, many previously unpublished, of Tolkien’s surviving art in watercolor, pencil, and ink, spanning sixty years of his life — from his childhood drawings to his illustrations for his books to his final sketches, as well as the drawings he created for his own children, his obsessive calligraphy, and his imaginative maps of Middle Earth.

Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, who edited the volume and who ventured to England to find the exact locations where each of Tolkien’s drawings was created, write in the introduction:

We have long felt that Tolkien’s art deserves to be as well known as his writings. The two were closely linked, and in his paintings and drawings he displayed remarkable powers of invention that equalled his skill with words. His books have been read by countless thousands; most of his art, however, has been seen by only a very few.

Fortunately, a wealth of Tolkien’s art survives, for the beloved author seems to have had “an archivist’s soul,” as Hammond and Scull aptly put it: He kept nearly everything he drew, down to the scraps of paper filled with spontaneous doodles, and carefully tucked his most prized creations into special envelopes which he opened periodically to add captions and inscriptions years after the drawings were made.

'They Slept in Beauty Side by Side' | Pencil

Tolkien drew this in early 1904, when he was twelve, when his mother was hospitalized for diabetes and he had to stay with her younger sister, Jane, in Sussex. The drawing depicts Jane and her husband Edwin, and the title was likely inspired by a line from the popular 19th-century poem 'The Graves of a Household' by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, which goes: 'They grew in beauty, side by side / They fill'd one home with glee.'

'Untitled (Two Boys at the Seaside)' | Watercolor, pencil

'Water, Wind & Sand' | Pencil, watercolor, white body color.

Tolkien drew this in early 1915 for 'The Book of Ishness'

'Moonlight on a Wood' | Pencil, black ink, watercolor

'Gandalf' | Pencil, colored pencil

One of the most fascinating sections of the book, titled “Visions, Myths and Legends,” explores Tolkien’s drawings for abstract and psychological concepts like wickedness, weirdness, thinking, and time — something on which he had strong opinions.

'Wickedness' | Pencil, colored pencil

'Afterwards' | Pencil, colored pencil

'Thought' | Pencil

'Undertenishness' | Watercolor, black ink

'Grownupishness' | Black ink

(Curiously, Tolkien made the above drawing shortly after turning twenty-one, that special “grownupishness” rite of passage.)

J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with Tolkien on fairy tales, the psychology of fantasy, and why there’s no such thing as writing “for children.”

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30 DECEMBER, 2013

On a Beam of Light: The Story of Albert Einstein, Illustrated by the Great Vladimir Radunsky

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The charming visual tale of an introverted little boy who grew up to become the quintessential modern genius.

Given my soft spot for picture-book and graphic-novel accounts of famous lives, including Charles Darwin, Julia Child, Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Feynman, Ella Fitzgerald, and Steve Jobs, I was instantly taken with On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (public library). Written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by none other than Vladimir Radunsky — the same magnificent talent who brought young Mark Twain’s irreverent Advice to Little Girls back to life in 2013, which topped the list of the year’s best children’s books and was among the year’s best books overall. This charming picture-book tells the tale of how an unusual and awkward child blossomed into becoming “the quintessential modern genius” by the sheer virtue of his unrelenting curiosity.

The story begins with Albert’s birth — a beautiful but odd baby boy who turns one and doesn’t say a word, turns two, then three, and nary a word.

Instead, he “just looked around with his big curious eyes,” wondering about the world. His parents worried that there might be something wrong, but loved him unconditionally. And then:

One day, when Albert was sick in bed, his father brought him a compass — a small round case with a magnetic needle inside. No matter which way Albert turned the compass, the needle always pointed north, as if held by an invisible hand. Albert was so amazed his body trembled.

Suddenly, he knew there were mysteries in the world — hidden and silent, unknown and unseen. He wanted, more than anything, to understand those mysteries.

This was that pivotal spark of curiosity that catapulted his young mind into a lifetime of exploring those mysteries. (One can’t help but wonder whether a similar child, today, would have a similar awakening of mind while beholding a smartphone’s fully automated GPS map. But, perhaps, that modern child would be developing a wholly different type of intelligence.)

Young Albert began asking countless questions at home and at school — so much so, that his teachers chastised him for being a disturbance, admonishing the little boy that he would get nowhere in life unless he learned to follow the rules and behave like the other kids. And yet the mysteries of the universe drew Albert deeper into inquiry.

One day, while riding his bicycle, he gazes at the rays of sunlight beaming from the Sun to the Earth and wonders what it would be like to ride on them, transporting himself into that fantasy:

It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.

So he set out to answer them by burying himself in books, reading and discovering the poetry of numbers, that special secret language for decoding the mysteries of the universe.

Once he graduated from college, unable to find a teaching position, he settled for a low-key, quiet government job that allowed him to spend plenty of time with his thoughts and his mathematical explorations, pondering the everyday enigmas of life, until his thoughts coalesced into ideas that made sense of it all — ideas about atoms and motion and space and time. Soon, Albert became an internationally celebrated man of genius.

But with that came the necessary amount of eccentricity — or at least what seemed eccentric from the outside, but is in fact a vital part of any creative mind. Albert, for instance, liked to play his violin when he was having a hard time solving a particularly tricky problem — a perfect way to engage the incubation stage of the creative process, wherein the mind, engulfed in unconscious processing, makes “no effort of a direct nature” in order to later arrive at “sudden illumination.”

Some of his habits, however, were decidedly, and charmingly, quirky: He regularly wandered around town eating an ice-cream cone, and he preferred to wear no socks — not because he tried to be a pseudo-nonconformist, but because he “even chose his clothes for thinking,” often clad in his signature “comfy, old saggy-baggy sweaters and pants.”

Still, everywhere he went, he remained mesmerized by the mysteries of the universe, and the echoes of his thoughts framed much of our modern understanding of the world:

Albert’s ideas helped build spaceships and satellites that travel to the moon and beyond. His thinking helped us understand the universe as no one ever had before.

And yet the central message of this altogether wonderful picture-book is that despite his genius — or, perhaps, precisely because of it — Einstein’s greatest legacy to us isn’t all the answers he bequeathed but all the open questions he left for today’s young minds to grow up pondering. Because, after all, it is “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that drives science and our understanding of life.

The final spread, reminiscent of these illustrated morphologies of Susan Sontag’s favorite things and Ronald Barthes’s likes and dislikes, captures Einstein’s life in eight essentials:

Complement On a Beam of Light with Einstein on why we are alive, on science vs. religion, and his timelessly encouraging words to women in science in this letter to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books © Vladimir Radunsky

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