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21 NOVEMBER, 2011

Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women

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Exploring gender identity and cultural disposition through rare archival images from 1800-1980.

Having competed in amateur (a.k.a. drug-free) bodybuilding in my college years and to this day remaining the dedicated maintainer of a six-pack, I’m tremendously fascinated by the intersection of femininity and muscularity. So I was thrilled to come across Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women — a fascinating collection of rare archival images by David L. Chapman and Patricia Vertinsky 30 years in the making, chronicling nearly 200 years of sociocultural narrative on the strong female physique. These women expanded and redefined femininity itself, reining in a new era of relating to the will and the body, but their plight was and remains far from easy, carried out most prominently in the battlefield of popular imagery.

This treasure trove explores strongwomen’s legacy through rare posters, advertisements, comic books, flyers, and magazines, many never-before-published, for a total of 200 fantastic full-color and black-and-white illustrations and photographs, framed in their intriguing and far from frictionless cultural context.

Among the earliest strongwomen whose names have come down to us is the subject of this lithograph: Elise Serafin Luftmann. Apparently from a German-speaking region of Bohemia, she performed all over central Europe. Luftmann was famous for her ability to lift heavy weights and to juggle cannonballs. This illustration dates c. 1830.

There is something profoundly upsetting about a proud, confident, unrepentantly muscular woman. She risks being seen by her viewers as dangerous, alluring, odd, beautiful or, at worst, a sort of raree show. She is, in fact, a smorgasbord of mixed messages. This inability to come to grips with a strong, heavily muscled woman accounts for much of the confusion and downright hostility that often greets her.” ~ David L. Chapman

A way to diffuse male worries about women being too strong and threatening was to portray them in photos that emphasized their grace and beauty rather than their mass and musculature. Trapeze artists like this one had highly developed arms and upper bodies; it is significant that the photographer chose not to emphasize those parts of the subject's anatomy. Although her name and date are unknown, this gymnast is almost certainly a circus or music hall performer from the 1890s.

The ambivalence about women and muscularity has a long history, as it pushes at the limits of gender identity. Images of muscular women are disconcerting, even threatening. They disrupt the equation of men with strength and women with weakness that underpins gender roles and power relations.” ~ Patricia Vertinsky

The Belgian strongwoman had figured out that the one of the ways that she could amaze audiences was to lift a man on her shoulders. Eventually she was able to support half a dozen burly males as well as an oversized barbell.

In the early twentieth century, nothing conveyed the modern spirit of mobility, freedom, and independence better than the bicycle. When a pretty athletic girl was included, she added sexual desirability to the mix -- a sleek human machine joined to the manufactured machine. To many observers, this novel combination was exciting and perhaps a little frightening.

(On that note, see Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way).)

Created between 1800 and 1980, the images trace society’s conflicted relationship with muscular women, met with everything from fascination to erotic objectification to derision, and even moral admonition. (A 1878 article for The American Christian Review, for instance, outlined a nine-step path to sin and humiliation, down which women participating in sports were headed — a simple croquet game could lead to picnics, which led to dances, which led to absence from church, which engendered moral degeneration…poverty…disconnect…disgrace…and, finally, ruin.) Coupled with this is the permeating fear that a sculpted musculature would effectively “unsex a woman.”

The strongest and most famous strongwoman of the Golden Age of the early twentieth century was Sandwina. Her birth name was Katie Brumbach. She stood over six feet tall and had enough bulk and muscle to amaze audiences with her prowess. Sandwina came from an athletic family, and in this poster c. 1900 she lifts three people (probably siblings) on a bicycle.

The Braselly Sisters were a pair of strongwomen who specialized in graceful and artistic strength stunts. They were also sisters of the even more famous female athlete, Sandwina. Here the two ladies do an adagio (acrobatic balancing) act. The photo found its way into The Police Gazette in 1909 where it was titled 'Muscles and Music.' The editors asked rhetorically, 'But don't you think the lady athletes are a stunning pair of statuesque beauties?'

When women first began to work out with weights, it was considered dangerous to have them lift anything heavy and so they were given only two- or four-pound wooden dumbbells. The fact that women lifted much heavier objects in the home seems to have escaped most of the men who designed the exercise. here two cheerful ladies work out in their street clothes in a photograph c. 1910 by Willis T. White.

Curiously, the period between 1900 and 1914 was a golden age for images of muscular women, but these images become mysteriously difficult to find in popular media, until about the 1970s. Chapman speculates the advent of cinema and other popular entertainment displaced fairs, circuses, and vaudevilles, a prime venue for strongwomen, causing these foremothers to gradually disappear.

Lydia Pinkham marketed a vegetable compound that was supposed to alleviate menstrual and menopausal pains. The company was successful because the remedy was sold by a woman to women at a a time when females were considered childish and emotional to have much medical knowledge. Pinkham's company produced this booklet (with the same title as Bernarr Mcfadden's well-known magazine), c. 1900. It featured a female athlete flexing her muscles, and was emblematic of the positive and respectful attitude toward their customers.

In the 1940s and '50s, there were few places where muscular women congregated; one of the most important was in the circus. Aerialists, trapeze artists, and acrobats all developed impressive musculature by practicing their arts. There was a cadre of men who pursued these women and captured their flexing biceps on film. The pictures do not show much creativity or talent, but they document female muscularity at a time when such images were very rare. There is a rustic charm to these photographs, taken in off-hours in fort of circus wagons or company busses. Unfortunately, few paying customers wanted to see girls posing like this.

From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, women had to appear as ladylike as possible, even when doing something as traditionally masculine as working out with weights. This girl is doing a seated press with respectably heavy weight, but her high heels and helmet0like hairdo are like fig leaves preserving her femininity.

Chapman’s inspiration for the book came from the confluence of two influences — his 1988 encounter with Muscle Beach icon Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton (1917-2006) and a 2000 New Museum exhibition titled Picturing The Modern Amazon. When Chapman was eventually invited to the museum to give a lecture on the iconography of strong women in historic images, he got a chance to meet some remarkable female athletes, which gave him new insight into these physique-builders’ psyches:

They aren’t building their bodies for us, anyway. The question is not whether they are sexually appealing for others but whether they excel at what they do for themselves. In the end, it is an issue of self-fulfillment. It was a simple explanation, but it made me wonder about the women who had tried to build their bodies in previous generations. Did they worry about gender-identity issues a hundred or more years ago?”

Ultimately, Chapman reminds us misconception, stereotype, and judgement of strongwomen are far from eradicated:

Many of the same battles that were being fought over a century ago are still being waged today… after all, labels are so much easier to deal with than realities.”

The woman on the cover, by the way, is the legendary aerialist Laverie Vallee, better-known by her stage name of Charmion. She is the subject of this rare Thomas Edison film from 1901, featuring her famous trapeze strip-tease:

Visually stunning, rigorously researched, and thoughtfully written, Venus with Biceps is as much a treasure chest of rare vintage ephemera as it is a fascinating and important meditation on a contentious facet of gender identity and cultural politics.

Images and caption text courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press © 2011

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21 NOVEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best Illustrated Children’s and Picture Books of 2011

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From evil stepmothers to Edward Gorey, or what Richard Dawkins has to do with Hindu deities.

It’s that time of year, the time I turn around and start sifting through the year behind with my best-of fine tooth comb in an exercise of meta-meta-curation. Having a well-documented soft spot for children’s books, I’ve decided to begin with my favorite 2011 treats for young readers, ranging from the classic to the quirky to the impossibly charming. Enjoy — you might find it hard not to feel like you want to be a kid again.

THE FAIRY TALES OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register for the preservation of cultural documents, have been delighting and terrifying children since 1812, transfixing generations of parents, psychologists, and academics. The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm is an astounding new volume from Taschen editor Noel Daniel bringing together the best illustrations from 130 years of The Brothers Grimm with 27 of the most beloved Grimm stories, including Cinderella, Snow White, The Little Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty, amidst artwork by some of the most celebrated illustrators from Germany, Britain, Sweden, Austria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and the United States working between the 1820s and 1950s.

The new translation is based on the final 1857 edition of the tales, and stunning silhouettes from original publications from the 1870s and 1920s grace the tome’s pages, alongside brand new silhouettes created bespoke for this remarkable new volume.

An introduction by Daniel explores the Grimms’ enduring legacy, from the DNA of fairy-tale scholarship to the shadow play and shape-shifting at the heart of the stories, and a preface to each tale frames it in its historical and sociocultural context.

The Grimms’ were a vital engine for a whole new caliber of artistic activity […] Suddenly, artists across the Western world could make a living illustrating books, and they found a solid foundation for new work in the heroes and princesses, talking animals, dwarfs, and witches of fairy tales. The tales were an important part of each technological advancement along the way, and the best of this visual iconography still influences artist, art directors, filmmakers, and animators today […] Even as our modes of reading continue to change with new technologies, taking a measure of the interactivity of text and image in past treasures helps us understand the changing landscape of reading in the future.”

And in case you were wondering why Taschen, purveyors of high-end and often risque art and design books, are doing a children’s book, they’ve got a thoughtful answer:

Taschen recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. We have many readers who have come of age with us and are now have their own families. These readers are interested in beautifully produced children’s books that take seriously a child’s exposure to stories and images with depth and historical meaning. We wanted The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm to embody our mission to create meaningful books that are timeless yet original, modern but classic.”

Full review, with more images, here.

I LIKE CATS

Earlier this year, we featured The Night Life of Trees — an incredible handmade book based on Indian mythology, crafted by a commune of artists, designers and writers in South Indian independent publisher Tara Books’ fair-trade workshop in Chennai. Among Tara’s many other treats is the exceptional I Like Cats — part lovely children’s picture book, part priceless showcase of work by some of the best-known tribal and folk artists from various Indian traditions. Each rich, textured page is screen-printed by hand and features a different cat. (In the vein of this week’s inadvertent running theme of cats — as a piece of Edison’s marketing genius, a key to the future of computing, and now an ambassador of Indian artisanal culture.)

Alongside the images are simple but clever verses of author Anushka Ravishankar for a light touch of playful poetry.

As if the book itself wasn’t enough of a jewel, each copy comes with a frameable screenprint.

Like other Tara Books gems, I Like Cats comes in several limited-edition runs of 2000 copies, each hand-numbered on the back and featuring a different artwork on the front cover.

Original review here.

UPDATE: I Like Cats is now sold out in the U.S. — the fine folks at Tara have put together an offset version in its stead.

STUCK

Who doesn’t love Oliver Jeffers, illustrator extraordinaire and maker of favorite children’s books? This season, he’s back with another treat: Stuck, an absurdly funny “tale of trying to solve a problem by throwing things at it.”

And as with all of Jeffers’ books, buried in his childlike illustrations and light-hearted storytelling is a deeper metaphor for the blessings and curses of the human condition.

In this lovely trailer, Jeffers reads the book himself:

via Swiss Miss

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH

The Phantom Tollbooth isn’t merely one of the most celebrated children’s books of all time, it’s also one of those rare children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, its map of The Kingdom of Wisdom a profound metaphor for curiosity and the human condition. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the beloved classic and there’s hardly a better celebration than The Phantom Tollbooth 50th Anniversary Edition — a magnificent volume featuring brief essays from renowned authors, educators, and artists, including Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, Jeanne Birdsall, and Mo Willems, alongside the complete original text and illustrations of the book and the now-legendary 35th anniversary essay by Where The Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak.

Packaged in the classic original art, stamped and debossed on the case with a transparent acetate jacket, the book is an absolute treasure to touch and to hold, exuding in a tactile way the intangible magic that fueled a half-century of heart-warming enchantment.

Here’s a lovely short documentary about the book’s masterminds, author Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer, reminiscing about the unusual spark of their collaboration and the original creative process behind the work:

Juster’s new picture book, Neville, is also out this year and absolutely delightful.

PEOPLE

From French illustrator Blexbolex — whose poetic meditation on time, impermanence and the seasons you might recall from earlier this month — comes People, a continued exploration of the world building on Seasons. Each charmingly matte and papery double-page spread features a full-bleed illustrated vignette that captures the human condition in its diversity, richness and paradoxes. From mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies, Blexbolex’s signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing.

People, available in English for the first time, is part Mark Laita’s Created Equal, part Guess Who?: The Many Faces of Noma Bar, part something entirely new and entirely delightful, certain to make you smile, make you think, and make you wish you were a snake charmer.

Original review, with trailer, here.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

EVERY THING ON IT

Shel Silverstein is one of the most beloved children’s authors and illustrators of our time, his masterpiece The Giving Tree one of those rare gems of children’s literature with timeless philosophy for grown-ups.

Every Thing On It is a lovely new book of 137 never-before-seen poems and drawings, only the second posthumous anthology published since Silverstein’s passing in 1999. (We originally featured it the day it launched, alongside a rare 1973 animated adaptation of The Giving Tree narrated by Silverstein himself.)

A spider lives inside my head
Who weaves a strange and wondrous web
Of silken threads and silver strings
To catch all sorts of flying things,
Like crumbs of thought and bits of smiles
And specks of dried-up tears,
And dust of dreams that catch and cling
For years and years and years . . .

THE MAGIC OF REALITY

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — who in 1976 famously coined the term “meme” in his seminal, must-read book The Selfish Gene — is nowadays best-known as the world’s most celebrated atheist. This year, Dawkins brought us his first sort-of-children’s book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True — a scientific primer for the world, its magic, and its origin, teaching young readers how to replace creationist mythology with science, and a fine addition to our favorite soft-of-children’s nonfiction.

With beautiful illustrations by graphic artist Dave McKean, Dawkins’ volume is as accessible as it is illuminating, covering a remarkable spectrum of subjects and natural phenomena — from who the very first person was to how earthquakes work to what dark matter is — in a way that infuses reality with the kind of fascination and whimsy we’re used to finding in myth and folklore. Each chapter begins with a famous myth from one of the world’s religions or folklore traditions, which Dawkins proceeds to myth-bust by examining the actual scientific processes and phenomena that these stories try to explain.

Here’s an introduction from Dawkins himself:

BBC has a great short segment, in which Dawkins explores the relationship between comfort and truth, and explains why evolution is the most magical, spellbinding story of all, more poetic than any fable or fairy tale:

When you think about it, here we are, we started off on this planet — this fragment of dust spinning around the sun — and in 4 billion years we gradually changed form bacteria into us. That is a spellbinding story.” ~ Richard Dawkins

The book comes with a companion immersive iPad app.

In an age when we’re still struggling to convince the powers that be of the value of public science and some public schools still perpetuate the mythology of creationism, Dawkins delivers a sober yet wildly absorbing and magical dose of reality in The Magic of Reality — one that brings to mind Jonah Lehrer’s reformulation of the famous Picasso quote: “Every child is a natural scientist. The problem is how to remain a scientist once we grow up.”

Originally reviewed here.

THE BIG POSTER BOOK OF HINDU DEITIES

In 2006, Pixar animator Sanjay Patel self-published The Little Book of Hindu Deities — an impossibly charming illustrated almanac of gods and goddesses, which we revisited earlier this year and it quickly became one of the most popular books on Brain Pickings in 2011. (How’s that for a pick to follow Dawkins?) In August, he followed up with The Big Poster Book of Hindu Deities — not so much a “book” per se as a stunning large-format portfolio of 12 removable full-color posters, each bringing a revered ancient deity into the modern Technicolor world in Sanjay’s signature anime-inspired vibrant graphic style. Equal parts playful, iconic, and irreverently subversive, the prints are less about reinforcing religious ideology — okay, they’re actually not about that at all — than they are about exploring cultural storytelling and tradition from a fresh, unusual angel meant to delight and inspire.

Images courtesy of Sanjay Patel

GOODNIGHT IPAD

Last month, the web watched with equal parts amazement, amusement, and sheer horror as a one-year-old thought a magazine was an iPad. And just last week, while attending the Futures of Entertainment 5 summit for my MIT fellowship, I was unsurprised to learn that a presenter’s toddler cousin walked up to a TV screen and tried to “swipe” it like a giant iPad. So I find myself delighted by the release of Goodnight iPad — “a parody for the next generation” by Ann Droyd (get it?), winking at the long-gone quiet era of the Goodnight Moon classic and “adapting” it for the age of LCD WiFi HD TVs and Facebook.

Whether Goodnight iPad will go the viral way of its conceptual ilk (hey there, Go the F**k to Sleep) and become a hipster darling is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: at the heart of this irreverent nursery rhyme, still made very much of paper, is a playful reminder for all of us eternal kids that when the moon goes up, it’s not an entirely terrible idea for the power to go down.

HOW THE WORLD WORKS

Christoph Niemann, whose I LEGO N.Y. topped our favorite children’s books last year, is back this year with another gem: That’s How! — an absolutely lovely invitation to explore the inner workings of the world visually, though the pursuit of what we hold as our highest ideal for navigating life: Reckless, indiscriminate curiosity.

Playful, quirky, and irreverent, the book is a cover-to-cover treat for parents, kids, and eternal children of all ages, tickling our fancy as we imagine a whimsical alternate reality behind our worn mundanity.

Originally reviewed here.

WHY WE HAVE DAY AND NIGHT

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Edward Gorey’s, mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton. Eleven years after his death, Gorey still manages to charm us with his signature style of darkly delightful illustrations with Why We Have Day and Night. In three dozen beautifully minimalist black-and-white illustrations, with plenty of design-nerd-friendly negative space, Gorey and collaborator Peter F. Neumeyer illuminate young readers on the mystery of why we have darkness and light.

Gorey used this lovely envelope, part of his fascinating illustrated correspondence with Neumeyer, as the basis for the book:

The envelope, alongside 37 others, 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends between September 1968 and October 1969, can be found in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — not only the second most popular book amongst Brain Pickings readers this year, but also one of my personal all-time favorite tomes.

Images ©The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, courtesy of Pomegranate

* * *

One of the most wonderful things about great children’s books is how timeless they are — why not catch up on last year’s best?

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18 NOVEMBER, 2011

Hands Are Amazing

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From monkeys to Michelangelo, or what Margaret Mead has to do with combinatorial creativity.

Earlier this month, former Apple designer Bret Victor penned the most intelligent piece on what’s wrong with our visions for the future of interaction design, where in discussing the four basic grips, he mentions in passing a vintage book by John Napier, a physician specializing in hands. Having grown accustomed to finding my most interesting discoveries in footnotes and asides and passing mentions, I of course went ahead and pursued the book. Simply titled Hands and originally published in 1980, it’s a richly illustrated treasure trove of insight into the anatomy, function, and evolution of one of our most fundamentally human features. From handedness to fingerprints to gestures to grooming to the making and usage of tools, Napier covers a fascinating range of hand-related subjects, each explored through an absorbing blend of anecdote, entertainment, and education.

Right from the beginning, Napier blends science and storytelling with such Yoda-esque observations as:

The hand at rest is beautiful in its tranquility, but is infinitely more appealing in the flow of action.”

…and…

When the hand is at rest, the face is at rest; but a lively hand is the product of a lively mind.”

The powerful hand of David by Michelangelo expresses the position of rest.

Velasquez's court dwarf at the time of Philip IV. The facial expression is one of slyness, which leads one to the conclusion that the hands are up to something equally sly. Undoubtedly the arrogant dwarf is performing a conjuring trick.

Also included is this charming time-capsule of the era’s media reality, and a powerful reminder to appreciate just what we have at our disposal today:

The gap between scientists and nonscientists is not so wide as it used to be, largely because of the influence of radio and television and other forms of science reporting.”

Then a thoughtful meditation on curiosity and cognitive comfort zones, delivered with delightfully subtle humor:

I hope that scientists will not be offended by a not-too-technical approach. They may even find it a relief for, as Margaret Mead put it, ‘To a physicist even a botanist is a layman.’ We are all laypersons once we are outside our expertise. There may be only one language of science, but there are many dialects.”

But this excerpt from the book’s acknowledgements, a true testament to networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity, made my heart sing more than anything:

Anyone who writes a book about science or indeed about any subject that is rich in facts, figures, and ideas, is from the beginning up to his neck in debt. He must beg, borrow, and steal left, right, and center… Much of one’s information is derived from memories of conversations heard, snippets of fact retained, and bright ideas once read but the source promptly forgotten.”

Whether you’re a designer or detective, artist or anthropologist, surgeon or synchronized swimmer, Hands is the kind of book you won’t be able to put down, thanks to both the miracle of your opposable thumbs and Napier’s captivating edification.

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