Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “line drawings”

The Agony of the Artist (with a capital A): E.E. Cummings on What It Really Means to Be an Artist and His Little-Known Line Drawings

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.”

“You’re an artist when you say you are,” Amanda Palmer offered in her emboldening reflection on the creative life. “And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.” Nearly a century earlier, Sherwood Anderson advised his aspiring-artist son: “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.” But one of the greatest meditations on what art is and isn’t, on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, comes from E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962), whose lesser-known prose enchants very differently and yet by the same mechanism that his celebrated poetry does — by inviting the reader to “pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.”

A concentrated burst of such delight and recognition is delivered in E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised (public library) — a most unusual and satisfying compendium Cummings himself described as “a cluster of epigrams, forty-nine essays on various subjects, a poem dispraising dogmata, and several selections from unfinished plays.” Many of the pieces had been previously published under clever pseudonyms (for instance, “An Ex-Millionaire’s Rules for Success in Life” by a C.E. Niltse, “Success Editor” at Vanity Fair), and a few had appeared anonymously in various magazines. It was originally published as a limited edition in 1958, when Cummings was sixty-four, and reissued three years after his death to include a number of the author’s previously unseen line drawings — a fine addition to the canon of great authors with lesser-known talents in other fields, including Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly studies, J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustrations, Richard Feynman’s sketches, Sylvia Plath’s drawings, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age etchings, Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, and Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors.

With his usual mischievous charisma and elegant acrobatics oscillating between wit and wisdom, Cummings writes in the preface to the original edition:

Taken ensemble, the forty-nine astonish and cheer and enlighten their progenitor. He’s astonished that, as nearly as anyone can make out, I wrote them. He’s cheered because, while re-reading them, I’ve encountered a great deal of liveliness and nothing dead. Last but not least; he’s enlightened via the realization that, whereas times can merely change, an individual may grow.

One of the finest pieces in the collection — an exquisite wellspring of such lively growth — is a satirical yet remarkably profound essay titled “The Agony of the Artist (with a capital A),” originally published in Vanity Fair in 1927 under Cummings’s own name. (A name the capitalization of which has itself been the subject of much misunderstanding.)

‘THE DOG IN THE MANGER … Aesop knew …’

Cummings begins by a humorous taxonomy of the three types of artists:

First we have the ultrasuccessful artist, comprising two equally insincere groups: “commercial artists,” who concoct almost priceless pictures for advertising purposes, and “fashionable portrait painters,” who receive incredible sums for making unbeautifully rich women look richly beautiful. Very few people, of course, can attain the heights of commercial and fashionable art. Next we have the thousands upon thousands of “academicians” — patient, plodding, platitudinous persons, whose loftiest aim is to do something which “looks just like” something else and who are quite content so long as this undangerous privilege is vouchsafed them. Finally there exists a species, properly designated as the Artist (with capital A) which differs radically from the ultrasuccessful type and the academic type. On the one hand, your Artist has nothing to do with success, his ultimate function being neither to perpetuate the jeweled neck of Mrs. O. Howe Thingumbob nor yet to assassinate dandruff. On the other hand he bears no likeness to the tranquil academician — for your Artist is not tranquil; he is in agony.

‘THE FIRST ROBIN … if the punishment fitted the crime …’

Cummings considers the source of the Artist’s disquiet:

Most people merely accept this agony of the Artist, as they accept evolution. The rest move their minds to the extent of supposing that anybody with Art school training, plus “temperament” — or a flair for agony — may become an Artist. In other words, the Artist is thought to be an unsublimated academician; a noncommercial, anti-fashionable painter who, instead of taking things easily, suffers from a tendency to set the world on fire and an extreme sensibility to injustice. Can this be true? If not, what makes an Artist and in what does an Artist’s agony consist?

The agony, Cummings argues, has to do with the path one takes to becoming a capital-A Artist. Half a century before Teresita Fernandez’s spectacular commencement address on what it really means to be an artist, Cummings jeers at the misleading cultural narratives about that path:

You may have always secretly admired poor Uncle Henry who, after suddenly threatening to become an Artist with a capital A, inadvertently drank himself to death with a small d instead… Or both you and I may have previously decided to become everything except Artists, without actually having become anything whatever. Briefly, a person may decide to become an Artist for innumerable reasons of great psychological importance; but what interests us is the consequences, not the causes, of our decisions to become Artists.

‘THE HELPING HAND … nobody is exempt …’

The obvious decision for those who decide to become Artists, Cummings notes as he sets up his wry critique of standard education, is to go to Art school:

Must not people learn Art, just as people learn electricity or plumbing or anything else, for that matter? Of course, Art is different from electricity and plumbing, in that anybody can become an electrician or a plumber, whereas only people with temperament may become Artists. Nevertheless, there are some things which even people with temperament must know before they become Artists and these are the secrets which are revealed at Art school (how to paint a landscape correctly, how to make a face look like someone, what colors to mix with other colors, which way to sharpen pencils, etc.). Only when a person with temperament has thoroughly mastered all this invaluable information can he begin to create his own hook. If you and I didn’t absorb these fundamentals, reader, we could never become Artists, no matter how temperamental we were.

‘THE SWAN AND LEDA … protect your dear ones …’

But the travesty of the system, Cummings points out, is that at Art school the future capital-A artist ends up at the mercy of the “academician” who learned from the “fashionable portrait painter.” The future Artist is being taught technique by “the renowned Mr. Z, who was formerly a pupil of the great Y,” who in turn “studied at various times under X, W and V and only came into the full possession of his own great powers shortly before his untimely death.” In a sentiment that calls to mind Pete Seeger’s assertion that all artists are “links in a chain,” Cummings concludes:

We are not really studying with Mr. Z at all. We are really studying through Mr. Z.

‘THE GARDEN OF EDEN … before the dawn of history …’

He then turns to the prevalent notion, perhaps best captured by Anaïs Nin and tightly woven into the mythology of genius, that temperamental excess is essential for creativity:

If you and I didn’t have temperament, we should now become ordinary humdrum academicians. But, being temperamental, we scorn all forms of academic guidance and throw ourselves on the world, eager to suffer — eager to become, through agony, Artists with capital A.

He considers the particular problem of the American artist:

Our next problem is to find the necessary agony. Where is it, gentle reader?

Your answer: the agony lies in the fact that we stand no chance of being appreciated… Not only is there a complete absence of taste anent the domestic product, but once an Artist is found guilty of being a native of the richest country on earth he must choose between spiritual prostitution and physical starvation. What monstrous injustice!

‘THE SPINSTER’S DILEMMA … but a parrot did …’

Cummings goes on to illustrate the pretentious and posturing of reducing art to objects and forgetting that it is primarily a contagious experience:

Let me show you a painting which cost the purchaser a mere trifle and which is the work (or better, play) of some illiterate peasant who never dreamed of value and perspective. How would you category this bit of anonymity? Is it beautiful? You do not hesitate: yes. Is it Art? You reply: it is primitive, instinctive, or uncivilized Art. Being “uncivilized,” the Art of this nameless painter is immeasurably inferior to the civilized Art of painters like ourselves, is it not? You object: primitive Art cannot be judged by the same standards as civilized Art. But tell me, how can you, having graduated from an Art school, feel anything but scorn for such a childish daub? Once more you object: this primitive design has an intrinsic rhythm, a life of its own, it is therefore Art.

And therein lies Cummings’s most serious — solemn, even — point: That what we learn about art through formulaic instruction takes us further away from what Jeanette Winterson aptly termed “the paradox of active surrender” which art asks of us in order to work us over with its transformative power. In a passage that could well be the Modernist’s manifesto, Cummings considers what ordains that hypothetical peasant’s painting capital-A Art:

It is Art because it is alive. It proves that, if you and I are to create at all, we must create with today and let all the Art schools and Medicis in the universe go hang themselves with yesterday’s rope. It teaches us that we have made a profound error in trying to learn Art, since whatever Art stands for is whatever cannot be learned. Indeed, the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself; and the agony of the Artist, far from being the result of the world’s failure to discover and appreciate him, arises from his own personal struggle to discover, to appreciate and finally to express himself.

‘THE FRIEND IN NEED … a boon to travelers …’

This condition — which the wise and wonderful Ann Truitt would come to capture perfectly two decades later in considering the difference being doing art and being an artist, asserting that “artists have no choice but to express their lives” — is the sole requirement of being a capital-A Artist. With an eye toward a far more luminous and liberating definition of success, Cummings urges:

Look into yourself, reader, for you must find Art there, if at all… Art is not something which may or may not be acquired, it is something which you are not or which you are. If a thorough search of yourself fails to reveal the presence of this something, you may be perfectly sure that no amount of striving, academic or otherwise, can bring it into your life. But if you are this something — then, gentle reader, no amount of discrimination and misapprehension can possibly prevent you from becoming an Artist. To be sure, you will not encounter “success,” but you will experience what is a thousand times sweeter than “success.” You will know that when all’s said and done (and the very biggest Butter Baron has bought the very last and least Velasquez) “to become an Artist” means nothing: whereas to become alive, or one’s self, means everything.

Or, as Sherwood Anderson wrote three decades earlier his magnificent letter of life-advice to his son, “The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor. The point of being an artist is that you may live.”

‘THE DEATH OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN … even prominent people …’

E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised is, sadly, out of print — but it’s well worth the hunt. Complement it with Susan Cheever’s spectacular biography of Cummings and the unusual story of the fairy tales he wrote for his only daughter, then revisit Georgia O’Keeffe’s exquisite letter on success and what it means to be an artist and some of today’s most prominent artists contemplating this slippery subject.

BP

The Astronomical Art of Maria Clara Eimmart: Stunning 17th-Century Drawings of Comets, Planets, and Moon Phases by a Self-Taught Artist and Astronomer

Celestial splendor from a forgotten woman who broke the bounds of her time.

Born in Germany in an era when no woman could obtain a formal education in science anywhere in the world, Maria Clara Eimmart (May 27, 1676–October 29, 1707) predated Caroline Herschel — the world’s first professional woman astronomer — by a century. She went on to become an artist, engraver, and astronomer who produced some of the most striking astronomical art since the invention of the telescope, in a time when humanity had no idea that the universe contained galaxies other than our own.

Like Margaret Fuller, Eimmart benefitted from the love and intellectual generosity of a father who equipped her with a rigorous foundation of French, Latin, mathematics, and art. A successful engraver, draughtsman, and painter with a passion for astronomy, he spent most of his earnings on astronomical instruments and eventually built a small observatory on the city walls of Nuremberg, where he served as director of the Academy of Art. The young Maria Clara began apprenticing with her father both as an artist and an astronomer, assisting in his observations and creating pictorial depictions of his data.

Between her late teens and her mid-twenties — around the time her compatriot Maria Sibylla Merian was revolutionizing entomology with her own work as a self-taught artist and naturalist — Eimmart created a series of exquisite, detailed illustrations of celestial objects. Among them are the phases of Venus, Galileo’s observations of which furnished the first nail in the coffin of the geocentric model of the universe less than a century earlier.

In her thirtieth year — an old maid by the era’s standards — she married one of his father’s pupils, a budding physicist who would eventually come to direct the observatory. A year later, at only thirty-one, Eimmart died in childbirth — a common tragedy at the time — leaving behind some stunning astronomical engravings of the Moon, the planets of the Solar System, comets, and the atmospheric optical phenomena paraselene and parhelion, Latin for “beside the Moon” and “beside the Sun,” commonly known as moon dog and sun dog.

Some of Eimmart’s art appears in Michael Benson’s altogether splendid Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time. Complement it with Johannes Hevelius’s pioneering 17th-century map of the moon and the Solar System quilt that a 19th-century Iowa woman spent seven years embroidering in order to use it as a teaching tool in her astronomy lectures to women, then revisit contemporary artist Lia Halloran’s stunning cyanotype tribute to trailblazing women in astronomy.

I have made some of Eimmart’s etchings, which are in the public domain, available as art prints, with all proceeds benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory at Pioneer Works:

Phases of Jupiter and Mercury by Maria Clara Eimmart. Available as a print.
Phases of the Moon by Maria Clara Eimmart. Available as a print.
Phases of Venus and Saturn by Maria Clara Eimmart. Available as a print.
BP

Into the Chute of Time: Annie Dillard on the Stunning Otherworldliness of a Total Solar Eclipse

“What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know.”

Into the Chute of Time: Annie Dillard on the Stunning Otherworldliness of a Total Solar Eclipse

“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer,” Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the project of literature. Often, the measure of a writer is the attentiveness with which they observe the subtlest dimensions of existence, those realms of experience imperceptible to the eye. Sometimes, it is the subtlety and nuance with which they capture the human dimensions of the most dramatic observable phenomena, the ones that arrest the eye and overwhelm the ordinary mind into a stunned silence.

A century after pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell penned her enchanting and rhetorically ingenious account of the Great Eclipse of the nineteenth century, Annie Dillard — another enchantress of observation, a supremely poetic observer of phenomenology inner and outer — captured the otherworldly experience of a total solar eclipse in a stunning essay originally published in her 1982 book Teaching a Stone to Talk, then included in her indispensable recent collection The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New (public library | IndieBound).

Diagram of a solar eclipse from a 13th-century illuminated manuscript. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Dillard frames the inescapable cosmic drama of this divinely disorienting experience:

What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially different for those of us whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and fifteen years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for daylight saving time. Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know.

Recounting her own experience of viewing the total solar eclipse of March 26, 1979, she paints the eerie landscape of sight and sense:

The sky’s blue was deepening, but there was no darkness. The sun was a wide crescent, like a segment of tangerine. The wind freshened and blew steadily over the hill. The eastern hill across the highway grew dusky and sharp. The towns and orchards in the valley to the south were dissolving into the blue light. Only the thin band of river held a spot of sun.

Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was saturated, deep indigo, up in the air.

19th-century diagram of an eclipse. Artist unknown.

With an awed and terrified eye to what Maria Mitchell called “the un-sunlike sun,” Dillard shudders at the incomprehensible strangeness of it all:

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were now platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were fine-spun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.

[…]

Gary was light-years away, gesturing inside a circle of darkness, down the wrong end of the telescope. He smiled as if he saw me; the stringy crinkles around his eyes moved. The sight of him, familiar and wrong, was something I was remembering from centuries hence, from the other side of death: Yes, that is the way he used to look, when we were living. When it was our generation’s turn to be alive. I could not hear him; the wind was too loud. Behind him the sun was going. We had all started down a chute of time.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings

All of nature, it seemed, partook in the strangeness with the same alarmed awe:

From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching, a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That’s when the screams began. All at once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed.

Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. For the hole where the sun belongs is very small. Just a thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world… Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. The light was wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was over.

“Vignette pour L’éclipse, sonnet d’Auguste Vacquerie” by Félix Bracquemond, 1869. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In a passage that embodies what biologist and trailblazing environmentalist Rachel Carson called “one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves,” Dillard writes:

I saw a circular piece of that sky appear, suddenly detached, blackened, and backlighted; from nowhere it came and overlapped the sun. It did not look like the moon. It was enormous and black. If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never once thought of the moon. (If, however, I had not read that it was the moon — if, like most of the world’s people throughout time, I had simply glanced up and seen this thing — then doubtless I would not have speculated much but, like Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840, simply died of fright on the spot.) It did not look like a dragon, although it looked more like a dragon than the moon. It looked like a lens cover, or the lid of a pot. It materialized out of thin air — black, and flat, and sliding, outlined in flame.

Seeing this black body was like seeing a mushroom cloud. The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself… For what is significance? It is significance for people. No people; no significance. This is all I have to tell you.

In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether that buoys the rest, that gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.

Indeed, the most powerful aspect of the experience is the way it unfirms the mind’s grip on meaning, on humanness, on reality itself — an eclipse, after all, is a visceral reminder of the vast cosmic scale of space and time, on which our own existence is but a speck, a blink, an ephemerality drunk on the self-defeating dream of permanence.

Dillard writes:

The mind wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not. The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, even God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy. The dear, stupid body is as easily satisfied as a spaniel. And, incredibly, the simple spaniel can lure the brawling mind to its dish. It is everlastingly funny that the proud, metaphysically ambitious, clamoring mind will hush if you give it an egg.

Further: While the mind reels in deep space, while the mind grieves or fears or exults, the workaday senses — in ignorance or idiocy, like so many computer terminals printing our market prices while the world blows up — still transcribe their little data and transmit them to the warehouse in the skull. Later, under the tranquilizing influence of fried eggs, the mind can sort through all of these data.

Of course, the very point is that the mind takes in something much greater than the sum total of data in the terror and transcendence of this cosmic spectacle. Even so, Dillard observes with a kind of nihilistic buoyancy, we calibrate to everything — our triumphant resilience to the most sundering tragedies and our tragic habituation to the most joyful stimuli stem from the same root. Joy and sorrow are equally transient. Even transcendence is transient. She writes:

We were born and bored at a stroke… Enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.

Every single essay in The Abundance, which was among my 16 favorite books of 2016, packs such a cosmic punch of truth and beauty. Complement it with Dillard on the two ways of seeing, choosing presence over productivity, and reclaiming our capacity for joy and wonder, then revisit Maria Mitchell’s timeless tips on how to view a total solar eclipse.

BP

Stunning Drawings of Seaweed from a Book by Self-Taught Victorian Marine Biologist Margaret Gatty

The tenderness of feathers meets the grandeur of trees in the otherworldly life-forms of the seas, which offered an unexpected entry point for women in science.

Stunning Drawings of Seaweed from a Book by Self-Taught Victorian Marine Biologist Margaret Gatty

Although the Victorian botanist and photographer Anna Atkins became the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images and the first woman to take a photograph, she was one of very few women who managed to subvert and transcend the era’s limiting gender roles in intellectual life and creative work. It was a time when women were formally excluded from science — the great scientific institutions of the era didn’t admit female members until pioneering German astronomer Caroline Herschel and Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville became the first women admitted into the prestigious Royal Astronomical Society in 1835. But astronomy has always led the way, in science and in society. Natural history lagged far behind. London’s Linnean Society — the ivory tower of botany — wouldn’t even allow women to attend its meetings, much less admit them as members, which didn’t happen until 1905. It was the same Linnean Society that barred beloved children’s book author Beatrix Potter from presenting a paper containing her little-known yet revolutionary contributions to mycology, which remained dormant for decades.

Margaret Gatty, 1860 (Portrait Gallery, London)

But women found one particularly opportune loophole in entering science: algae-hunting. It was another children’s book author, Margaret Gatty (June 3, 1809–October 4, 1873), who took this popular hobby — one with such famous practitioners as George Eliot and Queen Victoria herself — and brought to it a new level of scientific rigor.

Through a physician friend, she became fascinated with marine biology and entered into correspondence with some of the era’s most prominent marine biologists. Gatty eventually educated herself in the science of the seas and taught herself to draw her specimens in exquisite detail.

In 1848, five years after Anna Atkins’s pioneering cyanotypes of sea algae, Gatty published British Sea-Weeds (public library | public domain) — a stunningly illustrated field guide to local algae, fourteen years in the making, detailing 200 specimens in two volumes.

Although Gatty didn’t illustrate the specimens herself — an unknown artist hired by the publisher did — and she even disliked the drawings, in them the otherworldly life-forms of the sea come to life with the tenderness of feathers and the grandeur of trees. Algae, like moss, become a reminder that beauty beckons from even the most overlooked corners of our glorious cosmic accident of a planet.

Besides the eight-six beautiful hand-drawn artworks, the book contains Gatty’s sensible and at times countercultural advice to women on how to practice this peculiar form of early citizen science. In an era when Victorian women were given a list of don’ts for riding bicycles, including “don’t wear a man’s cap” and “don’t go out after dark without a male escort,” Gatty counsels in the introduction:

Feel the luxury of not having to be afraid of your boots… Feel all the comfort of walking steadily forward, the very strength of the soles making you tread firm — confident in yourself, and, let me add, in your dress. Verily we women are all, “more or less” (as sea-weed descriptions have it), at the mercy of our dress! It is an unpleasant truth, but a truth it is. Does it not require an actual effort of moral courage, for instance, to go to a dinner-party, when you know that you are by no means fresh from the hands of a milliner, but that other people are likely to be pre-eminently so?

Complement with some striking nineteenth-century illustrations of owls, then revisit trailblazing French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet on gender in science and the nature of genius.

HT Atlas Obscura

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.