Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

19 MAY, 2011

Vintage Ballet: Rare Photos of Dancers from the 1930s-1950s

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Drama, glamor and elegance converge in amazing archival images of ballet dancers from the early 20th century.

Since its origins in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th century, ballet has been considered one of humanity’s most graceful and beautiful forms of creative expression. These fantastic archival images from the State Library of New South Wales collection capture the elegance of ballet alongside the classic, dramatic glamor of vintage photography from the early 20th century.

Valentina Blinova in L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), Ballets Russes, Sydney, 1936-1937 / photographed by Max Dupain

Paul Petrov in L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), Ballets Russes, Sydney, 1936-1937 / photographed by Max Dupain

Tamara Toumanova & Serge Lifar, Swan Lake, Sydney, 1939-1940 / photographed by Max Dupain

Emmy Towsey (Taussig) and Evelyn Ippen, Bodenwieser Ballet in Centennial Park, Sydney, ca. 1939 / photographed by Max Dupain

Tatiana Riabouchinska and Roman Jasinsky in Les Dieux mendiants (The Gods go a-begging), between Nov 1938-Aug 1940 / photographed by Max Dupain

Tatiana Riabouchinska, ballerina, ca. 1938 / photographed by Maurice Seymour

Margaret Barr's 'Strange Children' (ballet), 1955 / photographer unknown

Valentina Blinova in L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), Ballets Russes, Sydney, 1936-1937 / photographed by Max Dupain

Unidentified dancer (Yura Lazovsky?) as Petrouchka, Sydney, March 1940 / photographed by Sam Hood

For more on this fascinating and endlessly inspiring piece of cultural history, I highly recommend Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by New Republic dance critic Jennifer Homans, which offers not only breathtaking eye candy but also traces many of today’s cultural values back to ballet’s legacy of discipline and virtuosity.

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19 MAY, 2011

How Shakespeare Changed Everything

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What Central Park wildlife has to do with Freud and Abe Lincoln’s assassination.

An ambitious and entertaining new book by Esquire columnist Stephen Marche explores the many, often unsuspected ways in which the great playwright shaped just about every facet of contemporary culture. How Shakespeare Changed Everything is equal parts homage to the iconic bard and rigorously researched, fascinating look at how his work permeated aspects of pop culture and everyday life far beyond his genre and his era.

From how Romeo and Juliet introduced the concept of adolescence to the 1,700 words Shakespeare coined (including lackluster, fashionable and the name Jessica) to how his plays provided the foundation for Freudian psychology and concepts of healthy sex life, Marche blends light trivia-worthy historical factoids with a deep respect for the legendary writer’s legacy.

Shakespeare is the foremost poet in the world. All of the scriptwriting books cite him as the dominant influence on Hollywood. He has had more influence on the novel than any novelist. The greater the artist, the more he or she was influenced by Shakespeare. Dickens and Keats were more inspired by Shakespeare than anybody, and their familiarity with Shakespeare seems to have made them more original, not less.” ~ Stephen Marche

Perhaps most fascinating of all is to consider how mind-boggling this wide-spanning influence would’ve been to Shakespeare himself. Unbeknownst to him, he “founded” spiritual movements, informed war strategies, validated romantic rituals, and shaped the very core of our moral codes. He even changed North American wildlife when, in 1890, one man decided to release 60 English starlings in Central Park in an effort to introduce every bird Shakespeare ever mentioned to North America.

[Shakespeare has] been the unwitting founder of intellectual movements he would never have endorsed and the secret presence behind spiritual practices he could never have imagined. He has been used as a crude political instrument by all sides in conflicts of which he could never have conceived. His vision has been assumed by saints and by murderers. At the bottom of all these slippery chains of consequences and perverted manifestations of his talent dwells the unique ability of Shakespeare to place his finger on people’s souls.” ~ Stephen Marche

For a taste of How Shakespeare Changed Everything, the National Post has a handsome excerpt.

Thanks, Julia

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18 MAY, 2011

Happy Birthday, Frank Capra: 5 Essential Films

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What war propaganda has to do with vintage Hollywood romance and the American political process.

114 years ago today, Frank Capra was born in Sicily, but soon enough immigrated to the United States — to Los Angeles, to be precise — where he grew up, studied chemical engineering, and became a nationalized US citizen in 1920. Throughout the next decade, Capra threw himself into writing and directing silent films, then switched to making “talkies.” By 1934, he was reeling off a string of classics — films that exuded an unbounded optimism that’s quintessentially American: It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) — they’re all part of the great Capra filmography. And, of course, you can’t overlook a string of propaganda documentaries that Capra directed (along with John Huston and John Ford) to galvanize support for World War II.

Thanks to Google Video and the Internet Archive, you can now revisit five Capra films online, plus many other great films from the same era. Let’s give you a quick tour:

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

This romantic comedy, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, won every major Academy Award in 1934. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. It was a first, and the feat has only been repeated twice since.

MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON

This epic drama features Jimmy Stewart in one of his finest performances. Today, the film inspires the fanciful belief that one individual can effect change in Washington. But, when it was first released, American politicians and journalists attacked the film for merely suggesting that corruption might influence the American political process.

MEET JOHN DOE

Although less well known than other Capra classics, the American Film Institute ranks Meet John Doe 49th on its list called 1100 Years… 100 Cheers: America’s Most Inspiring Movies. Needless to say, It’s a Wonderful Life, the all-time Capra gem, sits at the very top of that list.

WHY WE FIGHT: PRELUDE TO WAR

Once World War II broke out, Capra was commissioned by the US government to direct a seven episode propaganda series called “Why We Fight.” Prelude to War appears above. Other titles in the sequence include The Nazi Strike, The War Comes to America and beyond.

TUNISIAN VICTORY

Finally, later in the war, Capra was called upon again by his government. The mission this time was to explain what was happening on the war front in North Africa. And that he did. Tunisian Victory hit theaters in 1944.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University, and you can also find him on Twitter.

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18 MAY, 2011

Field Notes: A Glimpse Inside Great Explorers’ Notebooks

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On the singular joys of observing nature firsthand, or the best way to draw a bilaterally symmetrical sphinx moth.

In our age of screens, pencil and paper have lost some of their cultural status, but a new publication wants to remind us of their value in recording and understanding our world.

Just out from Harvard University Press, Field Notes on Science and Nature is as much a scientific travelogue as a celebration of traditional methodologies for making sense of our natural environment. Full of beautiful reproductions of original journal pages, Field Notes takes us from Baja, California with eminent ornithologist Kenn Kaufman to the Serengeti with renowned mammalogist George Schaller.

In the words of the book’s editor, Michael Canfield (himself a biologist at Harvard), we can all “peer over the shoulders of outstanding field scientists and naturalists” through their brilliant annotations and illustrations.

'Meriwether Lewis's journal notes of the Eulachon fish (Thaleichthys pacificus), made on February 24, 1806, while Lewis was near Fort Clatsop, Oregon.'

Image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

'A typical notebook page detailing the thoughts and events of a day doing fieldwork at Olorgesailie, Kenya, with a personal note near the end of the page about the joy of being alone with rocks.'

Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Paleontologist, in the essay 'Linking Researchers Across Generations'

'Page from a field notebook made in New Guinea on the food webs of aquatic animals known as phytotelmata that live in plant containers, such as tree hollows and bromeliad tanks.'

Roger Kitching, Ecologist, in 'A Reflection of the Truth'

The twelve essays in Field Notes were written by professional naturalists from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, botany, ecology, entomology, and paleontology, and their enthusiasm and experience are contagious. For the amateur naturalists among us, the compilation also contains essays on “Note-Taking for Pencilophobes” and basic instructions on color theory and sketching.

'Ink and watercolor drawing of a red sea fan (Swiftia sp.)'

Jenny Keller, in the essay 'Why Sketch?'

The simple satisfactions of mindfully documenting our surroundings are probably best summed up by E.O. Wilson, who penned the book’s introduction:

If there is a heaven, and I am allowed entrance, I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore. I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks, from which I can send back reports to the more sedentary spirits (mostly molecular and cell biologists). Along the way I would expect to meet kindred spirits among whom would be the authors of the essays in this book.”

Let Field Notes be your guide to seeing both the wonders of biology and your own backyard with new eyes.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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