Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

29 NOVEMBER, 2013

Mondrian Meets Euclid: An Eccentric Victorian Mathematician’s Masterwork of Art and Science

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Math in primary colors and graphic design before there was graphic design.

Almost a century before Mondrian made his iconic red, yellow, and blue geometric compositions, and around the time that Edward Livingston Youmans was creating his stunning chemistry diagrams, an eccentric 19th-century civil engineer and mathematician named Oliver Byrne produced a striking series of vibrant diagrams in primary colors for a 1847 edition of the legendary Greek mathematical treatise Euclid’s Elements. Byrne, a vehement opponent of pseudoscience with an especial distaste phrenology, was early to the insight that great design and graphic elegance can powerfully aid learning. He explained that in his edition of Euclid, “coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters for the greater ease of learners.” The book, a masterpiece of Victorian printing and graphic design long before “graphic design” existed as a discipline, is celebrated as one of the most unusual and most beautiful books of the 19th century.

Now, the fine folks of Taschen — who have brought us such visual treasures as the best illustrations from 150 years of Hans Christian Andersen, the life and legacy of infographics godfather Fritz Kahn, and the visual history of magic — are resurrecting Byrne’s gem in the lavish tome The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid (public library), edited by Swiss polymath Werner Oechslin.

Proof of the Pythagorean theorem

A masterwork of art and science in equal measure, this newly rediscovered treasure mesmerizes the eye with its brightly colored circles, squares, and triangles while it tickles the brain with its mathematical magic.

Byrne’s The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid is spectacular to both behold and absorb, offering superb stimulation for both sides of the brain. (Figuratively speaking, of course, for we know that the left-brain vs. right-brain divide is a dangerous myth.) Complement it with Youmans’s gorgeous diagrams of how chemistry works.

Images courtesy of Taschen

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26 NOVEMBER, 2013

Mysterious Street Photographer Vivian Maier’s Self-Portraits

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How a remarkable woman, at once mythical and legendary, saw herself.

In 2007, 26-year-old amateur historian and collector John Maloof wandered into the auction house across from his home and won, for $380, a box of 30,000 extraordinary negatives by an unknown artist whose street photographs of mid-century Chicago and New York rivaled those of Berenice Abbott and predated modern fixtures like Humans of New York by decades. They turned out to be the work of a mysterious nanny named Vivian Maier, who made a living by raising wealthy suburbanites’ children and made her life by capturing the world around her in exquisite detail and striking composition. Mesmerized, Maloof began tracking down more of Maier’s work and amassed more than 100,000 negatives, thousands of prints, 700 rolls of undeveloped color film, home movies, audio interviews, and even her original cameras. Only after Maier’s death in 2009 did her remarkable work gain international acclaim — exhibitions were staged all over the world, magnificent monograph of her photographs published, and a documentary made.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that the most intimate and revealing of her photographs were at last released in Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits (public library) — a collection befitting the year of the “selfie” and helping to officially declare this the season of the creative self-portrait.

Maloof writes in the foreword:

As secretive as Vivian Maier was in life, in death her mystery has only deepened. Without the creator to reveal her motives and her craft, we are left to piece together the life and intent of an artist based on scraps of evidence, with no way to gain definitive answers.

There is, however, something fundamentally unsettling with this proposition — after all, a human being is a constantly evolving open question rather than a definitive answer, a fluid self only trapped by the labels applied from without. And so even though Maloof argues that the book answers “the nagging question of who Vivian Maier really was” by revealing her true self through her self-portraits, what it really does — and what its greatest, most enchanting gift is — is take us along as silent companions on a complex woman’s journey of self-knowledge and creative exploration, a journey without a definitive destination but one that is its own reward.

It’s also, however, hopelessly human to try to interpret others and assign them into categories based on the “scraps of evidence” they bequeath. I was certainly not immune to this tendency, as I began to suspect Maier was a queer woman who found in her art a vehicle for connection, for belonging, for feeling at once a part of the society she documented and an onlooker forever separated by her lens. Because we know so little about Maier’s life, this remains nothing more than intuitive speculation — but one I find increasingly hard to dismiss as her self-portraits peel off another layer of guarded intimacy.

The beauty and magnetism of Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits is that it leaves you with your own interpretations, not with definitive answers but with crystalline awareness of Maier’s elusive selfhood.

Photographs via Maloof Collection HT Colossal

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26 NOVEMBER, 2013

Anatomy of Anagrammatic Pseudonyms: The Many Incarnations of Edward Gorey

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An infant poet, a postcard-writer, a movie reviewer, a girl detective, and a spirit control walk into a bar…

A master of the subversive and the darkly delightful, Edward Gorey is among the most celebrated illustrators of the past century. His creations, ranging from irreverent children’s books to paperback covers for literary classics to naughty delights for grownups to his illustrated envelopes, are as singularly distinctive as they are timelessly enchanting. But Gorey, himself a darkly enigmatic character, was himself a curious creation — so much so that people have regularly questioned his very name. While many were surprised to know it was real, Gorey did indeed have a number of pseudonyms. In Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits (public library) — the same fantastic 1996 volume that gave us famous authors’ illustrated self-portraits — Gorey draws his self-portrait and tells the story of his name and his pseudonyms.

What’s particularly interesting is that while the question of whether Gorey was gay has been the subject of much speculation — speculation he gladly played into by stating, “I’m neither one thing nor the other particularly… I’ve never said that I was gay and I’ve never said that I wasn’t.” — most of his imaginary pen-name personae are female:

About the time the first book was published over forty years ago I found my name lent itself to an edifying number of anagrams, some of which I’ve used as pen names, as imaginary authors, and as characters in their or my books. A selection of examples follows.

Ogded Weary has written The Curious Sofa, a porno-graphic work, and The Beastly Baby, a book no one wanted to publish.

Mrs. Regera Dowdy, who lived in the nineteenth century, is the author of The Pious Infant and such unwritten works as The Rivulets of Gore and Nets to Subdue the Deranged; she also translated The Evil Garden by Eduard Blutig, the pictures for which were drawn by O. Müde.

Madame Groeda Weyrd devise the Fantod Pack of fortune-telling cards.

Miss D. Awdrey-Gore was a celebrated and prolific mystery writer. . . . Her detective is Waredo Dyrge, whose favorite reading is the Dreary Rwedgo Series for Intrepid Young Ladies. . . .

Dogear Wryde’s work appears only on postcards.

Addée Gorrwy is known as the Postcard Poetess.

Wardore Edgy wrote movie reviews for a few months.

Wee Graddory was an Infant Poet of an earlier century.

Dora Greydew, Girl Detective, is the heroine of a series (The Creaking Knot, The Curse on the Sagwood Estate, etc.) by Edgar E. Wordy.

Garrod Weedy is the author of The Pointless Book.

Agowy Erderd is a spirit control.

However, I am still taken aback whenever someone asks me if that indeed is my real name.

Edward Gorey

You can see, and support, more of Gorey’s work and legacy at Edward Gorey House. Meanwhile, Who’s Writing This?, which features contributions from such beloved authors as John Updike, Susan Sontag, Mark Helprin, Diane Ackerman, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, and Margaret Atwood, remains well worth the full read.

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