Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

04 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Provensens’ Gorgeous Vintage Illustrations of Aesop’s Fables

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Timeless visual exorcism of our greatest moral shortcomings, bridging antiquity and today.

Predating both Arabian Nights and the Grimm fairy tales by centuries, the fables of Aesop, an ancient Greek slave and storyteller who lived between 620 and 560 BCE, endure as some of humanity’s most influential narratives. “He made use of humble incidents to teach great truths,” wrote the Greek philosopher Philostratus of Aesop, and indeed these fables explore the most complex facets of human morality and its failings — deceit, greed, vanity, impatience, egotism, cowardice — through seemingly simple stories featuring animal protagonists. The fables themselves weren’t recorded in writing during Aesop’s lifetime and how exactly they made their way from ancient Greece to world domination remains uncertain. Though the core morality tales have endured over the centuries, the stories have been retold and reimagined over and over, and among the most magical aspects of their constant reinvention has been the art that has accompanied them.

There is hardly a more wonderful, or better-matched, visual take on the tales than that by Alice and Martin Provensen, whose gift for translating history’s greatest storytelling into visual magic spans from Homer to classic fairy tales to William Blake.

In 1965, nearly a decade after their adaptation of the Iliad and Odyssey, they illustrated Louis Untermeyer’s version of Aesop’s Fables (public library) — sadly, another ghost from the cemetery of out-of-print gems, but one summoned back to life here for a new round of admiration and appreciation, thanks to my own surviving copy of the magnificent tome and some generous friends’ large-format scanner. From The Boy Who Cried Wolf to The Fox and the Grapes to The Tortoise and the Hare to The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs, these familiar, beloved tales shine with uncommon warmth and wisdom under the Provensens’ vibrant touch and expressive elegance.

Aesop’s Fables is sublime in its entirety, and the few remaining copies still findable online and off are very much worth the scavenger hunt.

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03 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Maurice Sendak’s Little-Known and Lovely Posters Celebrating Books and the Joy of Reading

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A heartening transaction of literary pleasure.

Given my well-documented soft spot for all things Maurice Sendak and for rare vintage out-of-print gems, imagine my extreme delight over this recent discovery: As if to have any surviving copy of the 1986 gem Posters By Maurice Sendak (public library) weren’t already joyous enough, to have no ordinary copy but a first edition signed by Sendak himself is absolute exaltation. Collected in this magnificent large-format tome are Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters for plays, book fairs, art events, operas, Broadway shows, and other cultural happenings. But, given Sendak’s love of classical literature and the literary greats who became his lifelong influences, most enchanting of all are his posters celebrating the love of books and the joy of reading, many featuring his iconic Wild Things, which I’ve digitized below for our shared enjoyment.

Sendak writes in the introduction:

Posters and other occasional pieces make up a very small part of my picture-making, but, paradoxically, I have a disproportionate affection for these easy images. Why “easy”? They came easy. They were painted in rare moments of relaxation. Often, they were the happy summing up of conglomerate emotions and ideas that had previously been distilled into picture books and theatrical productions. Simply, they were fun to do.

[…]

All of the pictures collected here were done for pleasure, and they are offered up now with the hope that they will give pleasure.

And give they do:

In the altogether wonderful Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library) — which also gave us this beautiful personal reflection on Sendak’s lesser-known but exceptional gift as an educator, and which features on its cover none other than the above Sendak poster — design critic extraordinaire Steven Heller writes:

Maurice Sendak is not a poster designer. Well, not one per se, but he made some beautiful posters. . . . The poster is a distinctive genre with its own conventions; it is not simply a blown-up image that is larger than a book or illustration. . . . Posters require forethought and attention to typographic and imagistic details.

[…]

Sendak’s posters were rarely occasions to experiment with entirely new methods. Many poster designers do, as a rule, use the genre to try new vocabularies and styles. On the contrary, Sendak used the extra space to stretch out with his favored characters and allow them a chance to breathe more than they could on a book page.

[…]

Posters are a distinct genre, but after perusing this “small part” of Sendak’s picture making, it is easy to see that in whatever he created, he had the heart of a poster maker, the eye of a book illustrator, and the soul of an artist.

Posters By Maurice Sendak, if you’re able to get a hold of the few used copies floating around, is an irrepressible joy from cover to cover, brimming with Sendak’s heart and soul.

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30 AUGUST, 2013

William Faulkner’s Little-Known Jazz Age Drawings, with a Side of Literary Derision

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From the sartorial to the satiric, or how the award-winning author’s youthful pretensions earned him a helping of high-brow mockery.

The latest addition to luminaries’ secret talents in a surprising discipline — including Richard Feynman’s sketches, Dr. Seuss’s wartime propaganda, and Marilyn Monroe’s poetry — comes from none other than William Faulkner. As if it weren’t already pleasantly disorienting to learn that he penned a little-known children’s book with a kooky inception, it turns out the Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning author also had a deftness for drawing.

In 1916, as he was about to turn twenty, Faulkner began contributing poems and sketches to the Mississippian, the literary magazine at Ole Miss — the University of Mississippi, in which he would enroll three years later for a brief three-semester stint before dropping out in 1920. But Faulkner continued to draw for the magazine until 1925 — shortly before he penned the aforementioned little-known children’s book while courting his future wife — even earning small commissions for his drawings, largely inspired by Aubrey Beardsley, bearing that distinct Jazz Age swanky sensibility and reminiscent of Henry Clarke’s sensual 1919 illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, with a twinge of Goreyana. The drawings were published only once, in William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry (public library; public domain), an out-of-print anthology released months after Faulkner’s death in 1962 by The Atlantic Monthly’s imprint.

But in Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner (public library), Philip Weinstein argues that the drawings were merely part of Faulkner’s budding pretensions — which included claims to have served in the British Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, which he never actually did:

During the postwar years … Faulkner remained in aggressively role-playing mode. Following the initial season of sporting his unearned war uniform — worn not only on ceremonial occasions but at dances and on golf courses as well — he settled into an equally self-conscious role as a special student at the university. He took courses in English, Spanish, and French, but he was better-remembered for his cultural and sartorial pretensions. Earlier, his expensive tailored suits had earned him the title “The Count.” Now his more elaborate costuming — replete with cane, limp, and swagger — elicited from his university peers the derisive term “Count No ’Count.” Seemingly descent from Parnassus and returned from war-torn France, Faulkner maintained his façade of imperturbability. He published poems in the university literary magazine, the Mississippian, as well as contributed elegant, Beardsley-inspired drawings.

Indeed, his drawings pushed his already irked peers over the edge and an orchestrated high-brow mockery ensued:

Annoyed classmates eventually refused to take his cultural pretensions lying down. The title of one his poems — a translation of Paul Verlaine’s “Fantoches” — was misprinted in the Mississippian as “Fantouches.” That title and the poem’s most famous line — “la lune ne garde aucune rancune” — soon generated a satiric response. There appeared in the same magazine a counter-poem — “Whotouches,” described as “Just a Parody on Count’s ‘Fantouches’ by Count Jr.” — and it ended thus: “how long the old aucune raccoon.” Journalistic ripple effects continued, and a month later the Mississippian published “Cane de Looney” written by one “Peruney Prune.”

And yet the drawings, taken in and of themselves, are undeniably lovely.

Should you be so lucky, you might be able to snag one of the few surviving copies of William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry still floating around. Else, there’s always a voyeuristic look back at Faulkner’s other secret talent.

Open Culture Lit Hitchhiker

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30 AUGUST, 2013

Rare Book Feast: John Christopher Jones’s Seminal Vintage Vision for the Future of Design

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Sowing the seeds of human futures, one pioneering worksheet at a time.

More than two years ago, Nate Burgos of Design Feast brought us the first installment of Rare Book Feast — an ongoing video series celebrating the timeless joy of books in the era of digital ephemera and spotlighting yesteryear’s out-of-print gems. Now, he’s back with the second installment: Design Methods: Seeds of Human Futures (public library) by John Christopher Jones, the very first professor of design at Open University, originally published in 1970 — a seminal treatise exploring the process of design and its impact on countless facets of society.

From practical strategies for generating ideas, complete with worksheets, to a bigger-picture vision for areas as wide-ranging as urbanism and the relationship between people and objects, the methods Jones examines were devised or borrowed from different disciplines in response to “a world-wide dissatisfaction with traditional procedures,” seeking to offer novel insight for all those “concerned with creative behavior and with technological change” and framing design as a powerful tool for public decision-making.

Three decades later, Jones followed up with The Internet and Everyone (public library) — an even rarer gem, featuring a remarkable series of letters from the dawn of electronic communication, in which Jones evolves his thinking on human-dependent technology as he explores the strange new immediacy of information networks.

Design Methods was reprinted in 1992 and is thus still available, but at $93 for a paperback and a whopping $85 for an ebook version, which instantly renders it the most expensive Kindle book I’ve ever encountered, one has to wonder whether we need a separate category for books that aren’t quite out-of-print, but rather out-of-reach such baffling reasons as publishers pricing the unlimited resource of bits the same way that limited atoms are priced.

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