Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

12 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Unwilling Tourist: Vintage Czech Illustration Captures the Life of the Refugee

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What the dawn of the Czech avant-garde has to do with UN statistics and outsmarting Hitler.

Lawyer, politician, illustrator, cartoonist and dadaist are not the kinds of vocations that frequently converge in a single polyglot, but they did in Adolf Hoffmeister (1902-1973), whose illustrations, collages, and caricatures of prominent personalities shaped the Czech avant-garde. But parallel to his prolific creative career was a seemingly endless life on the run from political prosecution. In 1939, he spent seven month in prison in Paris, where he had emigrated. After France’s capitulation, Hoffmeister went to Morocco, where he faced time in a concentration camp. He finally made his way to New York in 1941 as a free man before returning to his homeland of then-Czechoslovakia in 1945.

As soon as he got to New York, Hoffmeister published The Animals Are in Cages, released in the UK under the title The Unwilling Tourist — a stunningly illustrated book that captured his experience of life on the run from the Nazis with equal parts humor and poignancy, spotted on the excellent 50 Watts (which you should be reading voraciously, or run the risk of having a profoundly impoverished experience of the curated web). More than a mere treat of vintage illustration — which it most certainly is — Hoffmeister’s work exudes a certain timeless tragicomic lament for the fate of refugees, or “unwilling tourists,” displaced by disaster and turmoil, of which the world netted 25.2 million in 2010 per UN statistics.

From the book’s flap:

Many books have been written by refugees, and all have ground their axe of bitter tragedy almost to the exclusion of everything else; but not so with Hoffmeister. Here is the only one of them whose native fund of humor is still so great that he must take a laughing-stock of tragedy. ‘Laugh, clown, laugh,’ both pen and pencil insist. Yet at no single moment does Hoffmeister lose sight of the final tragedy of the uprooted — for he too has made the hopeless march. But he also made this book one of the most permanent and perfect indictments, both in word and in picture, of all those who have contributed to the creation and the torture of the Unwilling Tourist.”

Though the book is long out of print, you can snag yourself a used copy with some poking around Amazon or sifting through your best-stocked local used bookstore — it’s very much worth the scavenger hunt.

via 50 Watts

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12 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Democracy & Despotism: 1940s Encyclopedia Britannica Films

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Vintage lessons in civic harmony, or how small-scale common courtesy paves the way for large-scale peace.

In 1945 and 1946, immediately following the end of World War II, Encyclopedia Britannica’s films division produced two educational short films, one on democracy and one on despotism, exploring how societies and nations rank on the spectrum from democracy to despotism by measuring the degree to which power is concentrated and respect for individuals restricted. More than half a century later, these analyses remain a compelling metric of social harmony and discord, in an era when we’re still struggling to understand the psychology of riots in a global political climate where the tension between despotism and democracy is in sharper focus than ever.

A community is low on a respect scale if common courtesy is withheld from large groups of people on account of their political attitudes, if people are rude to others because they think their wealth and position gives them that right, or because they don’t like a man’s race or his religion. Equal opportunity for all citizens to develop equal skills is one basis for rating a community on a respect scale.”

Sharing respect means that each shares the respect of all, not because of his wealth or his religion or his color, but because each is a human being and makes his own contribution to the community — from healing its sick to collecting its garbage, from managing its railroads to running its trains.”

You might recognize footage from the films, which are both in the public domain, from Temujin Doran’s provocative observations on the distortions of democracy in Market Maketh Man, highly recommended if you haven’t already seen it.

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08 SEPTEMBER, 2011

A Brief Visual History of Robots in a Matrix of Creepiness & Intelligence

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What Louis XV has to do with H.G. Wells and the hazards of mechanical animation.

Ed.: The lovely and talented Michelle Legro is an associate editor of the history and ideas magazine Lapham’s Quarterly. In her inaugural piece for Brain Pickings, she offers an exclusive snippet of LQ’s forthcoming Fall issue, which explores the future, comes out on September 15, and is an absolute treat of curiosity and fascination — get your hands on it by subscribing today. It’ll be your finest gift to yourself in a long while, we promise.

Talos, the automaton forged for King Minos to protect his kingdom from pirates and invaders, may have been the first robot in recorded literature — made of metal, its veins flowed with ichor, the divine blood of the gods. The Golem of Prague was brought to life to protect the city’s Jews, but it was rendered lifeless when it threatened innocent lives. These proto-robots provided an assurance that one day in the future, statues would move—whether they would protect us or rise against us, it was hard to tell.

“The Future” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly collects more than eight-thousand centuries of forward-looking thought, thanks to the inclusion of both Aeschylus Cassandra and H.G Wells‘ time traveler. Also from the issue, this matrix of historical robots organized by their relative intelligence and creepiness.

You’ll also find two automatons from eighteenth century Europe: the Digesting Duck, which ate and then defecated its meal, and the Chess-Playing Turk, which once played a game with Napoleon. These mechanical parlor tricks captivated court life and inspired writers with uncanny nightmares of moving statues. (Think of the mechanical beauty Olympia from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s early-nineteenth-century horror story “The Sandman.”)

One robot unfortunately not included on the matrix was Louis XV‘s special likeness of his mistress Madame du Barry by wax sculptor Philippe Curtius, better known as the teacher of young Marie Grosholtz, later Madame Tussaud. The wax figure is the oldest in the collection of Tussaud’s London museum, surviving both the French Revolution and a devastating 1925 fire. Laid out on a divan, du Barry appears in the throes of a ravishing dream, her eyes are closed but her chest heaves up and down thanks to a mechanical engine devised by Curtius.

This simple device imparted a serene animation to the lifelike wax, an impression not lost on Louis’s courtiers, who called the sculpture “The Sleeping Beauty.” While her wax-figure has slept quietly for over three hundred years, du Barry herself came to a less quiet end. After her banishment from the court of her lover’s grandson Louis XVI, she was captured by the Jacobins and dragged kicking and screaming to the guillotine.

For a complete history of robots, automatons, and moving statues there is no better book than Gaby Wood’s Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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01 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Believing Is Seeing: Errol Morris Unravels the Greatest Mysteries of Photojournalism

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What Susan Sontag has to do with Twitter hoaxes and the untold stories of WPA propaganda.

Besides being an Academy-Award-winning filmmaker and a MacArthur “Genius,” Errol Morris is also one of the keenest observers of contemporary culture and human nature. Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography), out today, brings together his great gifts in an extraordinary effort to untangle the mysteries behind some of the world’s most iconic documentary photographs, inviting you on “an excursion into the labyrinth of the past and into the fabric of reality.”

The title of the book comes from Morris’s 2008 New York Times story, in which he first took a close look at the history and future of doctored photographs in the digital age.

From the Civil War to Abu Ghraib to WPA-era propaganda, Morris approached each photograph like a mystery story and went to remarkable lengths to get to its bottom. More than a mere curiosity-tickler for history buffs, his findings and insights are both timeless and timelier than ever when the same issues — manipulation, censorship, authenticity, journalistic ethics — ebb to the forefront of our collective conscience in an age when photojournalism is both more accessible and messier than ever before.

Susan Sontag famously accused Roger Fenton of staging the cannonballs in The Valley of the Shadow of Death, his iconic photograph of the Crimean War. In the age of Photoshop, even staging is too big a bother — all it takes are a few clicks of the mouse, or maybe just a misleading tweet. (Thousands of people duped by faux Irene shark photo last weekend, I’m looking at you.)

Kathryn Schulz has a fantastic, thoughtful review in The New York Times — highly recommended.

A feat of investigative inquiry woven together by Morris’s delicate but cunning threads of cultural criticism, Believing Is Seeing is an absolute masterpiece of rigorous nonfiction that pulls you in like the best of mystery fiction.

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