Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

13 FEBRUARY, 2014

William Blake’s Mesmerizing Illustrations for John Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Aesthetic rapture between heaven and hell.

There is a rare confluence of joys about celebrated artists’ illustrations for literary classics, from Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy to Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses to Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo & Juliet in 1975. But among the most breathtakingly beautiful are William Blake‘s illustrations for John Milton’s Paradise Lost (public library). Blake created three different sets of artwork for the Milton classic — one in 1807, at the age of 50, under a commission by the Reverend Joseph Thomas; one in 1808, commissioned by Blake’s patron Thomas Butts; and one in 1822, commissioned by John Linnell, the same patron who facilitated Blake’s stunning illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first two sets contained twelve paintings each; the Linnell set was incomplete, with only three finished works surviving to this day.

Even though Blake created all of the Paradise Lost paintings late in life, Milton was his greatest influence and the writer whose work he illustrated more than any other. In a letter to his friend John Flaxman from September of 1800, Blake wrote:

Milton lovd me in childhood & shewd me his face.

And how beautifully Blake reciprocated that love — however one may feel about religion, there is something undeniably and immeasurably powerful about Blake’s paintings, an ineffable magic that sparks its very own source of divinity:

'Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels' (Butts set)

'Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell' (Thomas set)

'The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden' (Butts set)

'The Rout of the Rebel Angels' (Thomas set)

'Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve' (Linnell set)

'Adam and Eve Asleep' (Butts set)

'Satan Spying on Adam and Eve's Descent into Paradise' (Thomas set)

'Raphael Warns Adam and Eve' (Thomas set)

'The Temptation and Fall of Eve' (Butts set)

In 1976, a gorgeous leather-bound limited edition of Paradise Lost was published, collecting Blake’s work from the various sets. Complement it with Blake’s art for Dante’s Divine Comedy, on which he worked until his dying day.

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13 FEBRUARY, 2014

A.A. Milne Reads from Winnie-the-Pooh in a Rare 1929 Recording

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“And then, all of a sudden, Winnie-the-Pooh stopped again, and licked the tip of his nose in a cooling manner, for he was feeling more hot and anxious than ever in his life before.”

On February 13, 1924, Punch magazine published a short poem titled “Teddy Bear” by Alan Alexander Milne, one of the magazine’s editors and a frequent contributor. The poem, inspired by the stuffed teddy bear so dearly beloved by Milne’s four-year-old son Christopher Robin, was included in Milne’s collection of children’s verses, When We Were Very Young, illustrated by Punch staff cartoonist E. H. Shepard and published later that year. But the bear’s very first appearance in Punch was the birth of Winnie-the-Pooh, which Milne released two years later and which went on to become one of the most timeless children’s books ever written.

In the summer of 1929, the Dominion Gramophone Company set out to capture prominent British authors reading from their work. In this rare recording, Milne reads the third chapter of his classic, “In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle,” made all the more delightful by his enchantingly melodic voice — please enjoy:

Complement with Milne on happiness and the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice.

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12 FEBRUARY, 2014

Maira Kalman on Curiosity, Courage, Happiness, and the Two Keys to a Full Life

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“What protects you in this world from sadness and from the loss of an ability to do something? … Work and love.”

Maira Kalman is one of the most beloved illustrators working today and one of my greatest heroes, a singular spirit living at the intersection of art and philosophy. In this fantastic talk from India’s INK Conference, Kalman takes us on a journey into her wonderfully idiosyncratic mind and expansive soul, revealing along the way the poetic and profound universalities of our human triumphs and tribulations. Highlights below — please enjoy:

On the outlook her mother bequeathed her, a beautiful affirmation of why the capacity to wonder drives culture:

You don’t really have to have knowledge — what you have to have is curiosity.

On the psychoemotional cycles of life, something Kalman explores with magnificent dimension in The Principles of Uncertainty:

You’re constantly battling with the idea of loss and grief in this lifetime, and then continuing with optimism and courage to continue your work.

Kalman adds to modern history’s notable meditations on the meaning of existence — including ones by Carl Sagan, David Foster Wallace, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Richard Feynman, Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, Annie Dillard, John Cage, and others — by considering the fundamental necessities for a full life, which she explores further in And the Pursuit of Happiness:

The question that we ask ourselves is, what protects you? What protects you in this world from sadness and from the loss of an ability to do something? For me, what protects me … is work and love. And I think that those two things cover pretty much every single thing. Because what you do, who you love, what you love, and what you do with your time is really the only question that you have to answer.

For more of Kalman’s wisdom and creative brilliance, treat yourself to some of her magnificent books, including her illustrated editions of classics like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, then see her reflections on happiness and existence and art and the power of not thinking.

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