Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

08 FEBRUARY, 2012

Da Vinci’s Ghost: How The Vitruvian Man Came To Be

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Fifteen centuries of combinatorial creativity, or what Leonardo’s to-do list has to do with ancient Rome.

In the first century B.C., at the dawn of the Roman imperial age, the architect and thinker Vitruvius proposed that the human body could fit inside a circle, symbolic of the divine, and a square, associated with the earthly and secular — an idea that later became known as the theory of the microcosm, and came to power European religious, scientific, and artistic ideologies for centuries. Some fifteen hundred years later, in 1487, Leonardo da Vinci rediscovered Vitruvius’s theories and put them into form. Thus, the Vitruvian Man was born — one of humanity’s most powerful, iconic, and enduring images, and a cornerstone of mapping the body, dominating visual culture in everything from books to billboards. Yet its story is far more complex than that, and its enigma far richer than a handful of historical factoids. This is exactly what Toby Lester unravels in Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image — a fascinating century-wide saga that explores how Leonardo set out to expand the metaphysical horizons of his art by studying the proportions and anatomy of the human body and its relationship with the cosmos, and ultimately created a visceral impression of Renaissance thought itself in the process.

Lester observes:

At a superficial level, [Vitruvian Man] is simply a study of individual proportions. But it’s also something far more subtle and complex. It’s a profound act of philosophical speculation. It’s an idealized portrait in which Leonardo, stripped down to his essence, takes his own measure and, in doing so, embodies a timeless human hope: that we just might have the power of mind to figure out how we fit into the grand scheme of things.”

The story, spanning a wealth of disciplines, cultures, and eras, unfolds through two parallel threads — one tracing Leonardo’s individual journey, and one weaving together the collective narrative of the people and ideas who filled and filtered the fifteen centuries between Vitruvius and Da Vinci. Among them are ancient Greek sculptors, early Christian and Muslim philosophers, Renaissance architects and anatomists, and Poggio Bracciolini, the book-hunter credited with starting the Renaissance.

Leonardo was also a voracious information omnivore, a quality so fundamental to the very networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity that no doubt enabled him to create the Vitruvian Man. He always carried a notebook with him and was known to have owned at least 45. Lester writes of the journals:

These notes reveal Leonardo in his perpetually ravenous information-gathering mode. Benedictine monks, obscure medieval treatises, university professors, popular guidebooks, accountants, itinerant merchants, foreign diplomats, artillerymen, military engineers, waterworks experts: all are fair game to him as he hunts for information about subjects that interest him.”

To complement Robert Krulwich’s NPR story about the book, my supremely talented friend Wendy MacNaughton (remember her?) drew this lovely illustrated to-do list based on a page from one of Da Vinci’s notebooks circa the 1490s:

More than a treasure trove of historical ephemera — though it certainly is that, with its generous selection of rare archival images that capture the evolution of Vitruvian Man — Da Vinci’s Ghost is also a profound reflection on humanity’s timeless obsession with untangling the intricate relationship between the physical and the metaphysical in our quest to better understand what we are and where we belong in the universe.

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31 JANUARY, 2012

Paris vs. New York: Minimalist Illustrated Parallels of Culture

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Macaron vs. cupcake, Proust vs. Salinger, bobo vs. hipster, bordeaux vs. cosmo.

For the past two years, graphic designer Vahram Muratyan, a self-described “lover of Paris wandering through New York,” has been chronicling the peculiarities and contradictions of the two cities through “a friendly visual match” of minimalist illustrated parallel portraits. Today, Muratyan joins the finest blog-turned-books with Paris versus New York: A Tally of Two Cities — an absolutely charming collection of these vibrant visual dichotomies and likenesses. From beverages to beards, hands to houses, Muratyan captures the intricacies of cultural difference in a way that blends the minimalist and playful visual whimsy of Noma Bar’s Guess Who? with the side-by-side parallelism of Mark Laita’s Created Equal to deliver something entirely new and entirely delightful.

la romantique

le café

l'obsession

(You might recall the above from the excellent Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language.)

le roman

la barbe

le matin

les mains

la façade

le réalisateur

l'apéro

Many of these gems are available as prints on Society6, one of the best places to find affordable art. A set of postcards is being released shortly.

Images courtesy of Vahram Muratyan / Penguin

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31 JANUARY, 2012

Dogs in Books: An Illustrated History

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From The Brothers Grimm to Lassie, or what Victorian limericks have to do with Ancient Greece.

If you, like me, are a lover of dogs and a lover of books, then you’ll be head over heels with Dogs In Books: A Celebration of Dog Illustration Through the Ages. From Aesop’s Fables to the Bible to Alice in Wonderland to Oliver Twist and beyond, the slim but mighty volume chronicles the dog’s inextricable presence in our collective history, art, and mythology through contemporary drawings and rare archival illustrations of more than 30 famous dogs culled from the British Library’s collection.

In the introduction, Catherine Britton, Senior Editor at the British Library, reminds us:

The written evidence of the relationship between dogs and humans is almost as old as literature itself. In the eighth century BC Homer wrote in The Odyssey of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, where only his faithful old dog Argos recognised him. Odysseus had been away, HOmer says, for 7300 days, or twenty years, and Argos was by now old and infirm, but still struggled to greet his master.”

Alongside each image is a short essay that contextualizes the dog and its cultural significance, as well as the history of the illustration itself.

Two shepherd and their sheepdog hear of the birth of Jesus. From a fifteenth century Book of Hours, France.

A huntsman keeps his two greyhounds firmly restrained with a leash. From the Luttrell Psalter, circa 1320-40

A donkey, dog, cat and cockerel make their own form of music in order to frighten away robbers from their house. From The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Mrs. Edgar Lucas, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Constable & Co., 1909

The soldier is taken aback by the sight of the supernatural dog standing on the chest of money. From Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Harry Clarke. G G Harrap & Col, 1916

Bizarre dogs (and their equally odd owners) from the limericks of Edward Lear. From The Book of Nonsense written and illustrated by Edward Lear. Frederick Warne & Col, 1885

Toto looks on with some interest as Dorothy talks to the Cowardly Lion. From The New Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum illustrated by W W Denslow. Bobbs-Merrill Co, 1903

The curse of the Baskervilles. From The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, illustrated by Sidney Paget. Strand magazine, serialized 1901-19102

The cover of The Call of the Wild, illustrated by Philip R Goodwin and Charles Livingston Bull. William Heinemann, 1903

Dinah the Aberdeen terrier barks at 'a palpitating vacuum cleaner.' From Collected Dog Stories by Rudyard Kipling, illustrated by Marguerite Kirmse. Macmillan & Co., 1934

The unmistakable features of Lassie. From Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight, illustrated by Marguerite Kirmse. J C Winston Co., 1940

Having eaten 'a whole dish of mayonnaise fish,' there are unsurprisingly 'curious pains in my underneath.' From A Dog Day or The Angel in the House by Walter Emanuel, illustrated by Cecil Aldin. William Heinemann, 1902

Mr and Mrs Dearly, surrounded by their dalmatians. From One Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, illustrated by Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone. William Heinemann, 1956

'Are You Lonesome Tonight'

Original silkscreen. George Rodrigue, 2009

Equal parts charming and illuminating, Dogs In Books is an absolute treat for those who love literature’s fuzziest heroes.

Images courtesy of Mark Batty Publisher

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