Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

20 JANUARY, 2012

The First Kiss in Cinema, 1896

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How Thomas Edison made the kiss Hollywood’s favorite audience-courting device.

Thomas Edison is responsible for some of the most significant technological innovations of modern history, and is even credited as the inventor of the movie industry itself. But besides his visionary take on technology, he also had a keen eye for what audiences wanted, from his YouTube-like 1984 boxing cats to his 1901 footage of legendary aerialist Charmion’s trapeze strip-tease. It comes as no surprise, then, that Edison is also responsible for the very first on-screen kiss in cinema, featuring Canadian actress May Irwin. A mere 23 seconds in length, it was filmed in his Black Maria studio in New Jersey in 1896., at a time when public kissing was greatly frowned upon by Victorian society. In that era, the act of kissing was referred to as “sparkin'” if it took place indoors, usually the parlor, or “spoonin'” when performed outdoors, in a secluded spot far from the public’s eye.

This footage is often confused with another kiss scene, mistakenly credited by some as cinematic appearance of a kiss — it was, however, filmed in 1900 in Edison’s new glass-topped studio in New York City, and was quickly banned in most theaters. The two lovers remain anonymous.

For more on the evolution of kissing, see Joanne Wannan’s Kisstory: A Sweet and Sexy Look at the History of Kissing. For a scientific lens, my friend Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote the excellent The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us.

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20 JANUARY, 2012

Visions of the Jinn: A Visual History of Arabian Nights

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From Aladdin to Lewis Carroll, or what Buddhist deities have to do with understanding the Middle East.

Among 2011’s best sort-of-children’s books was a magnificent volume culling the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm fairy tales — a visual history of some of the most memorable storytelling ever published. Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights is a remarkable tome that applies a similar lens to another infinitely influential piece of timeless storytelling, whose impact spans from the poetry of Goethe and Rilke to the contemporary fiction of Borges and Proust to the visuals and narratives of video games.

Though the first edition of Arabian Nights contained no pictures, the late 18th century saw a flourishing of illustrated editions, the first of which were almost comically amiss in their visual depictions of Arab culture, most notably a widely pirated 1714 edition with engravings by Dutch artist David Coster, who had no grasp of the cultural differences between medieval European and Islamic cultures, so he portrayed the characters in European dress, on European furniture, amidst European architecture.

Shahrazad tells her story to Shahryar, while her sister Dunyazad is listening. Other stories occupy the smaller frames, including 'The fisherman and the jinn.' Illustration by Dutch artist David Coster, 1714.

In the subsequent decades, other artists took a similarly hazy approach to exoticism. It wasn’t until the 1839-1841 publication of The Thousand and One Nights, translated by ethnographer Edward William Lane, who had spent several years in Egypt himself, that the stories began to reflect the Arab world with respectable accuracy. Lane, who aspired to make the text an educational introduction to everyday life in the Middle East, hired acclaimed British engraver William Harvey to do the artwork and saw to its accuracy by giving Harvey historical engravings of Egyptian and Moorish architecture to copy, approaching the project as an educational primer rather than a visual journey of the imagination.

Illustration by William Harvey, 1841.

The first unabashedly imaginative edition of the Victorian age came in 1865. Titled Dalziel’s Illustrated Arabian Nights Entertainments, it featured engravings by a number of notable artists from the era, including perhaps most notably Sir John Tenniel, famous for his whimsical and brilliantly comical illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published that same year.

Sidi Nouman's vengeance on his wife. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1865.

The sleeping genie and the lady. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1865.

The first color take on the tales came Walter Crane in his 1876 Aladdin’s Picture Book. Crane was also among the first to consider the visual tastes of children, reining in a new era of designing storytelling for young readers.

Children, like ancient Egyptians, appear to see things in profile, and like definite statements in design. They prefer well-designed forms and bright frank colour. They don’t want to bother with three dimensions. They can accept symbolic representations. They themselves employ drawing… as a kind of picture writing and eagerly follow a pictured story.” ~ Walter Crane

Aladdin’s Picture Book Arabian Nights. Illustration by Walter Crane, 1878.

Even though the editions since Lane’s scholarly translation had progressed in the realm of visual imagination, the content had remained rather sterilized and prudish. It wasn’t until the 1885-1888 publication of Richard Burton’s sixteen-volume translation that themes of sexuality emerged, complete with extensive notes on topics like homosexuality, bestiality, and castration. Though Burton’s original edition featured no pictures in order to avoid prosecution for obscenity, shortly after his death in 1890 a young friend and admirer of his by the name of Albert Letchford, who had trained in Paris as an orientalist painter, created 70 paintings, which eventually became the basis for the next edition of Burton’s translation. With a keen sensibility for fantasy and a shared interest in the erotic to complement Burton’s own, Letchford’s artwork featured many nudes and were infused with sensuality. Ironically, Letchford contracted an exotic disease in Egypt and died at a young age.

Illustration for Richard Burton's The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night by Albert Letchford, 1897.

Illustration for Richard Burton's The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night by Albert Letchford, 1897.

In the early 1900s, Anglophile Edmund Dulac illustrated the highly successful gift books Stories from the Arabian Nights (1907), Princess Badoura (1913), and Sindbad the Sailor & Other Tales from the Arabian Nights (1914), blending the British tradition of book illustration with the vibrant colors of Persian miniatures and motifs from Chinese and Japanese art. His artwork endures as arguably the most memorable and widely recognized visual footprint of Arabian Nights.

The Story of the Wicket Half-Brothers. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907.

The Fisherman and the Genie. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907.

The Princess Deryabar. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907.

The Story of the Magic Horse. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907.

In the early twentieth century, artists abandoned the obligation to historical and ethnographic accuracy, experimenting instead with the explosion of color and the cross-pollination of world mythologies. Illustrators like Danish artist Kay Nielsen looked to the fantastical monsters and whimsical landscapes of Asian folklore, weaving Buddhist deity iconography, Chinese cloud bands, and near-surrealist elements into the familiar stories.

Sheherezade. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, 1917.

Arabian Nights. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, 1917.

Arabian Nights. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, 1917.

The latter part of the twentieth century saw an even greater explosion of color, among which were the arresting illustrations of British artist Errol le Cain.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Visions of the Jinn explores these and many other treasures, as well as the fascinating historical and sociocultural context in which they were created, to paint a rich and vivid mosaic of the visual legacy of Arabian Nights.

HT The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian

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18 JANUARY, 2012

A. A. Milne on Happiness and How Winnie-the-Pooh Was Born

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On rainy days and the simplicity of happiness.

Though Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) is best-known for authoring the Winnie-the-Pooh book series, among the most beloved children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, A. A. Milne was also a prolific poet. In 1924, two years before the first Winnie-the-Pooh book, he penned When We Were Very Young — a collection of poetry for young children, illustrated by E. H. Shepard. In the 38th poem of the book, titled “Teddy Bear”, the famed Winnie-the-Pooh character makes his first appearance. Originally named “Mr. Edward Bear” by Christopher Robin Milne, Milne’s own son, Winnie-the-Pooh is depicted wearing a shirt that was later colored red for a recording produced by Stephen Slesinger, an image that eventually shaped the familiar Disney character.

The third poem in the book is a short gem titled “Happiness” — a wonderful meditation on how little it takes to find happiness. (And, clearly, a giant missed opportunity for Apple.)

John had
Great Big
Waterproof
Boots on;
John had a
Great Big
Waterproof
Hat;
John had a
Great Big
Waterproof
Mackintosh–
And that
(Said John)
Is
That.

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