More than Words: The Illustrated Love Letters, Thank-You Notes, and Travelogues of Great Artists, from Kahlo to Calder to Saint-Exupéry
“Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.”
By Maria Popova
Virginia Woolf aptly called letter writing “the humane art.” But what amplifies the humanity and immediacy of words is the addition of art itself — how instantly alive Van Gogh’s illustrated letters feel, to say nothing of Edward Gorey’s envelope drawings.
That magical marriage of epistolary text and image is what Liza Kirwin explores in More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (public library) — a wonderful selection of love letters, thank-you notes, travel missives, visual instructions, picture-puzzles and plays on words from the world’s largest repository of artists’ papers, featuring missives from creative titans like Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth, Alexander Calder, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Kirwin, who serves as deputy director of the venerable archive and has also culled from it the illustrated lists and inventories of great artists, begins the book with a perfect line from a letter the great American graphic artist John Graham wrote to his third wife, Elinor, in July of 1958 — a gem from the archive’s John Graham Papers collection:
Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.
The illustrated letter is an even more beautiful such manifestation, as artist Walter Kuhn remarked in a letter to his wife: “One should never forget that the power of words is limited.”
German-American Expressionist painter and comic strip artist Lyonel Feininger asserted this sentiment with double the ardor in a May 1890 letter to the art critic and lecturer Alfred Churchill:
I will … make one more demand upon your friendship, also it is your promise to me before we parted. viz: to illustrate your letters! If it is only a little landscape or a simple figure, or any little sketch or sketches illustrating the text of your letters, it will be just as welcome and will do you very considerably good in helping you on in penwork or ready interpretation of any little conception you may wish to put on paper.
Among the many gems is one from Frida Kahlo — who was a prolific letter writer, most notably of gorgeous and profound illustrated love letters to Diego Rivera — thanking muralist Emmy Lou Packard for taking such good care of Rivera during his trip to San Francisco. The couple had divorced a year earlier, and yet Kahlo writes, illustrating the letter with lipsticked smooches:
Kiss Diego for me and tell him I love him more than my own life.
Kahlo and Rivera remarried a few weeks later and remained together, not without tumult, until death did them part. Years later, as he recalled first meeting the teenage Kahlo, Rivera would consider her “the most important fact” of his life.
One of the sweetest love letters comes from caricaturist Alfred Joseph Frueh, who called his fiancée’s missives “pinkies” (on account of the pink paper she used) and declared that weeks without pinkies “are as empty as cream puffs without cream.” In one letter, he sent her a set of charming cartoons, writing in the postscript that he had to tear up a “pinky” and adding: “But you’ll send me another, wontcha?”
Among the most charming specimens from the section on travel letters is one from Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, listing in beautiful penmanship and delightful illustrations the masses of fruit he was consuming during his 1894 trip to Venice:
Delicious fruits are here in Venice now, and I consume vast quantities of it. Melons, pears, peaches, plums, apples, figs, grapes and other things unknown to my interior.
I eat fruit so much of the time and so much at a time that I go to bed at night expecting.
But folded into this playful admission of dietary excess is Smith’s larger and graver meditation on the excesses and pretensions of the art world. With the conflicted ambivalence not uncommon in artists — a polarizing pull between wanting commercial success on the one hand and having deep disdain for the system that bestows it on the other — he recounts his visit with the prominent American art patron Isabella Steward Gardner:
Mrs. Gardner wishes so much to have the extreme pleasure of having me make her a visit there that I have promised to go over on Wednesday and end my visit in Venice there.
I lunched there yesterday and showed my pictures and dined with the Brimmers and again passed them all out and told the same little anecdotes with the same inflexion of voice — and they seemed pleased and Colleroni and I are pretty well set up and conceited — for when they weren’t admiring him — they were the workmanship — and I simply floated home in air I was that puffed up my waistcoat hasn’t a button to its name — and the upper part of my trousers looks like two funnels.
And you will ask — you miserable money ideaed things you sordid American parents you will ask if I sold any pictures to Mrs. Gardner — so I will just say yes — “it was bit off” — and with love to you all
I remain your little sonnie JoJo
Smith’s irreverent playfulness and his conflicted attitude toward the art world appear in another letter to his parents from that spring, when he was holding informal exhibitions four evenings a week and buyers — mostly American collectors visiting Venice — were clamoring to buy his work. Illustrating his letter with a drawing that captures perfectly this duality of the artist as panhandler and fashionable commodity, he writes:
Dear Mother and Father,
“It never rains but it pours.”
Behold your son painting under a shower of gold. I am selling pictures on every side and every day. — And we are feeling very much set up and bloated at Palazzo Dario these days.
I am going to make this last picture the best thing I have ever done.
Some are landmarks not only of art history but of all history — shortly before the stock market crash of 1929, surrealist icon Man Ray is sitting in an American bar in Paris, sketching a self-portrait in a lyrical letter to his friend Julian Edwin Levi:
The blue light is creeping over Blvd. Montparnasse and the sparrows are chirping in the trees waiting for a windfall.
Another letter marks a turning point in the history of computing technology. In the fall of 1986, artist and writer J. Kathleen White brags in a letter to art historian Ellen Hulda Johnson about using a computer to draw a cat, a dog, and a bird:
These household pets here pictured come from computer land.
Then there are those practical matters for which words simply don’t suffice — such as directions. In his letter of invitation to artist Ben Shahn, the great Alexander Calder encloses a hand-drawn map to his home — and it somehow feels like one of his iconic mobiles.
Some letters offer oblique assurances about the creative path. Like many subsequently successful artists, French filmmaker and cartoon animation pioneer Robert Collard (known as R. Lortac) had a day-job. During his years as a real estate consultant, he included in a letter to his friend Edward Willis Redfield — a landscape artist — a series of beautiful drawings to give him a better sense of “the character of the landscape” in Brittany, where Redfield was planning a trip.
Another such oblique assurance comes from Andy Warhol. Immediately after graduating from college and moving to New York City — where his overbearing mother would soon follow him to take care of her son through poverty — Warhol applied for a job at Harper’s. Without the slightest care for punctuation or capitalization, except when it comes to his own name, 21-year-old Warhol answers editor Russell Lynes’s request for biographical information:
Hello mr. lynes
thank you very much
my life couldn’t fill a penny post card i was born in pittsburgh in 1928 (like everybody else — in a steel mill)
i graduated from carnegie tech now i’m in NY city moving from one roach infested apartment to another.
And yet later that year, Lynes gave Warhol one of his first jobs — to illustrate a John Cheever short story for Harper’s. It would be another decade before he began working as a low-level art director at Doubleday, producing his little-known children’s book illustrations — he filled the time by collaborating with his mother on feline drawings — and nearly twenty years before he established himself as a pop culture icon.
A letter from the German painter and writer Edith Schloss brings a delightful meta-touch to the volume — in 1981, in thanking Philip Pearlstein and other supporters for their help with her American visa, she writes on the back of the letter:
I wish we had a National Archives here to give all my junk & diaries to — I’m not good at throwing things away.
Pearlstein eventually donated his own papers to the Smithsonian’s esteemed archive from which this book is culled, and Schloss — most likely upon his suggestion — soon did the same.
Some are delightful for their little-touches — like multimedia artist Red Grooms’ genial copyediting on the word “snail” in his altogether charming thank-you note to three of his friends for letting him stay at their home in Europe during an extended visit.
Perhaps the tenderest letter in the book is also an elegant homage to time and place. Legendary French couturier Yves Saint-Laurent writes his affectionate letter to his dear friend and Vogue art director Alexander Liberman inside a sketch of a traditional Islamic cloak typically worn by women in Marrakech, where the designer had a home, against a background of a traditional Moroccan pattern.
My very very dear Alex
I am here, in Marrakech
and I am thinking of you as always
of your friendship, loyalty
and your sincerity
I hope to see you as soon as possible and hug you
I love you with all my heart
But my favorite letter comes from beloved author and contemplator of life Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, penned shortly after the completion of his masterwork The Little Prince — the manuscript of which he also illustrated.
The letter is merely a dinner invitation to his friend, but it is the postscript, referencing the completion of The Little Prince, that makes it irresistibly endearing and bittersweet:
P.S. A nuisance delayed this letter that did not leave but — to be very honest — I am so proud of my masterpiece that I send it to you anyway.
About a year later Saint-Exupéry, left on a reconnaissance mission as a fighter pilot, never to return. He was forty-four — a biographical detail utterly eerie given that in Saint-Exupéry’s beloved book, the Little Prince watches the sun set exactly forty-four times.
More than Words is an absolute treat in its totality. Complement it with Kirwin’s other collection, Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Collections of the Smithsonian Museum, then revisit Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s illustrated love letters and Lewis Carroll’s rules of letter writing.
Published March 10, 2015