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Spiderwoman’s Cloth Lullaby: The Illustrated Life of Artist Louise Bourgeois

A loving homage to one of the most extraordinary women in the history of creative culture.

“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer,” the great French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010) wrote in her diary toward the end of her long and illustrious life. That perfect fabric metaphor is not coincidental. Psychologists now know that metaphorical thinking is the birthplace of the imagination, “essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent,” and it begins in childhood as young minds transmute the namable things that surround them into fresh metaphors for the unnamable things that they experience inside.

Born into a family that restored tapestries for a living, Bourgeois wove the world of colorful textiles into her imagination and into the very work that would establish her as one of the most important and influential artists of the twentieth century. It was in this family trade that she came to see her beloved mother as a deft, patient spider repairing broken threads — the metaphor at the heart of the iconic large-scale spider sculptures for which Bourgeois is best known and which earned her the moniker Spiderwoman.

In Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois (public library) — one of four marvelous children’s books about the life of ideas I recently reviewed for The New York Times and a crowning curio among the loveliest picture-books celebrating cultural icons — writer Amy Novesky and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault trace the thread of Bourgeois’s creative development from the formative years of her unusual childhood to the pinnacle of her success as an artist.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Novesky, who has previously authored a children’s book about Billie Holiday, tells the story of Bourgeois’s life in a wonderfully lyrical way. Arsenault — whom I have long considered one of the most gifted and unrepeatable artists of our time, the kind whose books will be cherished a century from now — carries the story with her soft yet vibrantly expressive illustrations.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Louise kept diaries of her days. And in a cloth tent pitched in the garden, she and her siblings would stay till the dark surprised them, the light from the house, and the sound of a Verdi opera, far away through the trees.

Sometimes, they’d spend the night, and Louise would study the web of stars, imagine her place in the universe, and weep, then fall asleep to the rhythmic rock and murmur of river water.

The ever-flowing blue strand of the river becomes the thread of continuity across Bourgeois’s life. It flows into the Siene and takes young Louise along to Paris, where she attends university studying mathematics and astronomy.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Bourgeois’s studies are severed by her mother’s sudden death, the devastation of which drives the young woman to abandon science and turn to the certain uncertainty of art. She cuts up all the fabric she owns — her dresses, her bed linens, her new husband’s handkerchiefs — and spends the remainder of her life making it and making herself whole again, putting it all together into cloth sculptures, colorful hand-sewn spirals, cloth drawings, cloth books, and many, many, many spiders.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

With the remaining fabric of her life, Louise wove together a cloth lullaby. She wove the river that raised her — maternal pinks, blues in watery hues. She wove a mother sewing in the sun, a girl falling asleep beneath the stars, and everything she’d ever loved.

When she was done, all of her spiders beside her, she held the river and let it rock her again.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Complement the unbelievably beautiful and poetic Cloth Lullaby, bound in a perfect blue fabric spine, with the picture-book biographies of Frida Kahlo, e.e. cummings, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, and Nellie Bly, then revisit Bourgeois’s insightful diary reflections on art, integrity, and the key to creative confidence.

Illustrations © Isabelle Arsenault courtesy of Abrams Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Sculpting in Time: Legendary Russian Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky on Why Film Enchants Us and What a Great Director Should Aim to Do

“What a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: time lost or spent or not yet had.”

Sculpting in Time: Legendary Russian Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky on Why Film Enchants Us and What a Great Director Should Aim to Do

We live stretched between the ephemeral and the eternal, constantly negotiating the two. Swept up in the vortex of immediacy — the now of what we’re experiencing with such insistent urgency — we yearn to anchor ourselves to some sense of temporal stability. We long for immortality in a universe predicated on impermanence. “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail,” the great French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in contemplating our paradoxical relationship with time, “we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.” The poet Mary Oliver put it even more perfectly: “All eternity is in the moment.”

No human invention has rendered this paradox more pliant than the cinema. That’s what the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (April 4, 1932–December 29, 1986) examined in the last year of his life as he considered the raw material of his art in Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (public library).

andreitarkovsky

Tarkovsky writes:

Time, printed in its factual forms and manifestations: such is the supreme idea of cinema as an art, leading us to think about the wealth of untapped resources in film, about its colossal future.

A passionate proponent of the creative and psychological benefits of boredom as a function of learning to fully inhabit time, he considers the undergirding psychological scaffolding that makes the allure of film so robust:

Why do people go to the cinema? What takes them into a darkened room where, for two hours, they watch the play of shadows on a sheet? The search for entertainment? The need for a kind of drug? All over the world there are, indeed, entertainment firms and organizations which exploit cinema and television and spectacles of many other kinds. Our starting-point, however, should not be there, but in the essential principles of cinema, which have to do with the human need to master and know the world. I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience — and not only enhances it but makes it longer, significantly longer. That is the power of cinema: “stars,” story-lines and entertainment have nothing to do with it.

Tarkovsky turns to the task of the filmmaker as an artisan of time:

What is the essence of the director’s work? We could define it as sculpting in time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and, inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not part of it — so the film-maker, from a “lump of time” made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film, what will prove to be integral to the cinematic image.

Complement Sculpting in Time with T.S. Eliot’s exquisite ode to the nature of time, Virginia Woolf on its dizzying elasticity, and the story of how Einstein and Bergson’s 1922 debate changed our understanding of it. For a very different flavor of wisdom from another cinematic sage, see Werner Herzog on making a living out of what you love and his advice to aspiring filmmakers — excellent advice applicable to all fields of creative endeavor and entrepreneurship.

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How to Handle Criticism: Advice from Some of the Greatest Writers of the Past Century

Wisdom and wit from Kurt Vonnegut, Aldous Huxley, William Styron, Truman Capote, and other literary titans.

How to Handle Criticism: Advice from Some of the Greatest Writers of the Past Century

“Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. “Criticism,” artist Ai Weiwei told an interviewer, “is, in the Chinese context, a positive, creative act.” The truth, of course, is that it’s both — criticism is a technology of thought and, like any technology, it can be put to constructive or destructive use depending on the intention of its originator and the receptivity of its object. One thing is certain: For every artist — that is, for every human being who gives form to his or her inner life and shares that form with the outside world — critical response is inevitable, for every successful act of engaging with the world guarantees that the world will engage back. How to relate to criticism in a healthy way is therefore one of the essential survival skills of the creative spirit.

That’s what some of the most celebrated writers of the past century address in a section of The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library) — George Plimpton’s wonderful 1989 collection of wisdom from Paris Review interviews, which also gave us James Baldwin’s advice on writing.

Illustration from Enormous Smallness, a picture-book about the life and genius of E.E. Cummings

Two centuries after David Hume contemplated the only good response to critics and half a century before “don’t feed the trolls” became the self-protection mantra of the Internet, Truman Capote offers:

Most of all, I believe in hardening yourself against opinion… There is one piece of advice I strongly urge: never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.

Aldous Huxley reflects on why he doesn’t read reviews of his own work:

They’ve never had any effect on me, for the simple reason that I’ve never read them. I’ve never made a point of writing for any particular person or audience; I’ve simply tried to do the best job I could and let it go at that. The critics don’t interest me because they’re concerned with what’s past and done, while I’m concerned with what comes next.

John Irving inverts and subverts this notion, quoting Cocteau:

Listen very carefully to the first criticism of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the reviewers don’t like; it may be the only thing in your work that is original and worthwhile.

William Styron considers an inescapable yet professionally inconvenient byproduct of our humanity:

I think it’s unfortunate to have critics for friends. Suppose you write something that stinks, what are they going to say in a review? Say it stinks? So if they’re honest they do, and if you were friends you’re still friends, but the knowledge of your lousy writing and their articulate admission of it will be always something between the two of you, like the knowledge between a man and his wife of some shady adultery.

[…]

There’s only one person a writer should listen to, pay any attention to. It’s not any damn critic. It’s the reader. And that doesn’t mean any compromise or sell-out. The writer must criticize his own work as a reader. Every day I pick up the story or whatever it is I’ve been working on and read it through. If I enjoy it as a reader then I know I”m getting along all right.

Kurt Vonnegut laments critics’ growing taste for blood as a writer’s reputation grows. He recounts how critics who had previously praised him on his way up began tearing him down once he reached a certain tipping point of success:

All of a sudden, critics wanted me squashed like a bug… It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the poet Donald Hall’s terrific advice to writers, Thornton Wilder offers the most lucid disposition of all:

The important thing is that you make sure that neither the favorable nor the unfavorable critics move into your head and take part in the composition of your next work.

Complement this particular bit of the wholly magnificent The Writer’s Chapbook with Neil Gaiman on the only adequate response to critics — some of the most lucid and luminous advice on the creative life ever articulated — and Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s brilliant strategy for preempting criticism.

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