Imaginative maps, illuminating infographics, literary cats, vintage Soviet propaganda, Gertrude Stein’s favorite objects, and other treats for eye and spirit.
By Maria Popova
After the year’s best psychology and philosophy books and best biographies, memoirs, and history books, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists continue with the finest art and design tomes published this year. (Catch up on last year’s best art books here and best design books here, then revisit the 2011 roundup here — one thing that truly great art and design books have in common is timeless mesmerism, independent of publication date.)
1. SELF-PORTRAIT AS YOUR TRAITOR
“Still this childish fascination with my handwriting,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1949. “To think that I always have this sensuous potentiality glowing within my fingers.” This is the sort of sensuous potentiality that comes aglow in Self-Portrait as Your Traitor (public library) — the magnificent collection of hand-lettered poems and illustrated essays by friend-of-Brain-Pickings and frequent contributor Debbie Millman. In the introduction, design legend Paula Scher aptly describes this singular visual form as a “21st-century illuminated manuscript.” Personal bias aside, these moving, lovingly crafted poems and essays — some handwritten, some drawn with colored pencils, some typeset in felt on felt — vibrate at that fertile intersection of the deeply personal and the universally profound.
John Maeda once explained, “The computer will do anything within its abilities, but it will do nothing unless commanded to do so.” I think people are the same — we like to operate within our abilities. But whereas the computer has a fixed code, our abilities are limited only by our perceptions. Two decades since determining my code, and after 15 years of working in the world of branding, I am now in the process of rewriting the possibilities of what comes next. I don’t know exactly what I will become; it is not something I can describe scientifically or artistically. Perhaps it is a “code in progress.”
Self-Portrait as Your Traitor, a glorious large-format tome full of textured colors to which the screen does absolutely no justice, is the result of this progress — a brave and heartening embodiment of what it truly means, as Rilke put it, to live the questions; the stunning record of one woman’s personal and artistic code-rewriting, brimming with wisdom on life and art for all.
2. ART AS THERAPY
The question of what art is has occupied humanity since the dawn of recorded history. For Tolstoy, the purpose of art was to provide a bridge of empathy between us and others, and for Anaïs Nin, a way to exorcise our emotional excess. But the highest achievement of art might be something that reconciles the two: a channel of empathy into our own psychology that lets us both exorcise and better understand our emotions — in other words, a form of therapy.
In Art as Therapy (public library), philosopher Alain de Botton — who has previously examined such diverse and provocative subjects as why work doesn’t work, what education and the arts can learn from religion, and how to think more about sex — teams up with art historian John Armstrong to examine art’s most intimate purpose: its ability to mediate our psychological shortcomings and assuage our anxieties about imperfection. Their basic proposition is that, far more than mere aesthetic indulgence, art is a tool — a tool that serves a rather complex yet straightforwardly important purpose in our existence:
Like other tools, art has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with. Art compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties. … Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.
De Botton and Armstrong go on to outline the seven core psychological functions of art — remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth, and appreciation — which you can read about at length in the original article, featured in October.
3. THE BIG NEW YORKER BOOK OF CATS
“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell proclaimed in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, one of the best art books of 2012 and among the finest pet-related books of all time. Cats, on the other hand — despite their long history as literary muses, poetic devices, creative catalysts, and targets of artful grievances — are largely about something else, about some facet or other of our human needs, desires, and conceits: our relationships, our cities, our grappling with mortality.
So bespeaks The Big New Yorker Book of Cats (public library), the highly anticipated feline sequel to last year’s canine edition — a shiny, well-fed tome that gathers the best cat-coddling articles, essays, short stories, poems, cartoons, covers, and other feats of literature and art from the New Yorker archives. Spanning nearly nine decades, the collection featuring contributions from such celebrated minds as John Updike, Margaret Atwood, James Thurber, Susan Orlean, and even the patron saint of “the other side,” famed dog-lover E. B. White.
In the foreword, the great New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane lays out the decrees of cat-connoisseurship:
The first rule of felinology: you need to learn to look at cats down to the last whisker, every bit as closely as they look at you. To them, remember, nothing is lost in the dark.
And another solemn dictum:
Serious cat people, like first-rate art critics, are chivvied by passion into perspicacity. Believing is seeing.
Lane considers the singular allure of using the feline psyche as literary fodder:
This will never be anything but challenging, even if you wear motorcycle gauntlets and a knight’s visor, but it remains a quest to which many writers are lured. Perhaps they view it as a kind of scratching post — ready-made, abrasive chance to sharpen their natural skills.
Even Joyce, Lane tells us, was privy to it — in the fourth chapter of Ulysses, he tackled a “very specific quandary, the spelling of a cat’s ululation … and came up with the infinitesimal swell of ‘mkgnao’ into ‘mrkgnao.’” Lane illustrates the affectionate absurdity of it all with a tongue-in-cheek invitation: “Try both, out loud, but not after eating crackers, and see if you can tell them apart.”
More than anything, however, the anthology embodies the cat’s defining characteristic: its cluster of opposites, rolled together into a giant hairball of cultural attitudes — something, perhaps, at once uncomfortably and assuringly reflective of our own chronically conflicted selves. Lane writes:
So it is, as this well-fed book stretches out in languor, that the array of feline opposites starts to emerge. Cats must be destroyed; cats should be saved. Cats are like us; no, cats are not of this world. Cats can be savored for their fellowship, then eaten for their flesh. . . . Cats exist in these pages, as they do throughout our lives, both as obsessively singular … and as a barely controllable mass, doomed to proliferate forever, like poison ivy or biographies of Napoleon. Above all, for every cat who is liked, accepted or worshipped from afar, there is another who peers into our eyes — those hopeless orbs, superfluous at night — and spies only horror, indifference, and fear.
Perhaps we need to rethink the assumption, deep-rooted but far from well grounded, that writers and cats are a good mix. Sure, Mark Twain had cats, such as Sour Mash and Blatherskite, and, up at the more louche and loping end of American literature, in the life and work of Poe, Kerouac, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Edward Gorey, and Stephen King, you are never that far from the patter of ominous paws; whether a cat has been reared on a diet of neat Burroughs would find a niche at The New Yorker, however, is open to debate. We aim at the scrutable, the translucent, the undrugged, and the verified; whether we even get close is not for us to say, but such aspirations find no echo in the bosom of the cat. The cat sneers at clarity and career plans, and even its major stratagems can be dropped upon a whim. . . .
One of the best pieces in the collection, both for the sheer joy of exquisite language and for its disarming insight into the baffling paradoxes of the human-feline psychic bond, is a long 2002 feature by Susan Orlean, titled “The Lady and the Tigers.” Beyond the undeniable freakshow mesmerism of a true story about a New Jersey woman who owns more than two dozen tigers for no other reason than her intense love for the species, the essay, much like good visual caricature, also reveals a whole lot about the psychology of our ordinary relationships with small domestic cats through this woman’s extraordinary relationship with her gigantic felines. Take, for instance, the evolution of the woman’s tiger menagerie:
After arriving in Jackson, Byron-Marasek got six more tigers — Bengal, Hassan, Madras, Marco, Royal, and Kizmet — from McMillan and from Ringling Brothers. The next batch — Kirin, Kopan, Bali, Brunei, Brahman, and Burma — were born in the back yard after Byron-Marasek allowed her male and female tigers to commingle. More cubs were born, and more tigers obtained, and the tiger population of Holmeson’s Corner steadily increased. Byron-Marasek called her operation the Tigers Only Preservation Society. Its stated mission was, among other things, to conserve all tiger species, to return captive tigers to the wild, and “to resolve the human/tiger conflict and create a resolution.”
And so we get the perfect Orleanean spear at the heart of the human condition in all its absurdity:
You know how it is — you start with one tiger, then you get another and another, then a few are born and a few die, and you start to lose track of details like exactly how many tigers you actually have.
Tucked between the essays and short stories are also a number of delightful poems, such as this 1960 gem by Ted Hughes:
Daylong this tomcat lies stretched flat
As an old rough mat, no mouth and no eyes.
Continual wars and wives are what
Have tattered his ears and battered his head.
Like a bundle of old rope and iron
Sleeps till blue dusk. Then reappear
His eyes, green as ringstones: he yawns wide red,
Fangs fine as a lady’s needle and bright.
A tomcat sprang at a mounted knight,
Locked round his neck like a trap of hooks
While the knight rode fighting its clawing and bite.
After hundreds of years the stain’s there
On the stone where he fell, dead of the tom:
That was at Barnborough. The tomcat still
Grallochs odd dogs on the quiet,
Will take the head clean off your simple pullet.
Is unkillable. From the dog’s fury,
From gunshot fired point-blank he brings
His skin whole, and whole
From owlish moons of bekittenings
Among ashcans. He leaps and lightly
Walks upon sleep, his mind on the moon
Nightly over the round world of men
Over the roofs go his eyes and outcry.
(The poem was penned the year Frieda, his daughter with Sylvia Plath, was born — a child nursed on nursery rhymes — so one can’t help but find in Hughes’s playful verses the hint of an irreverent nursery rhyme.)
In his 1992 piece “Cat Man,” George Steiner tells the story of “the most illustrious, compelling cat in the history of literature” — a Montparnasse tabby named Bébert, who was abandoned by his Germany-bound owners at the onset of WWII and met his second owner, the novelist, physician and “manic crank” Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, better-known as Céline, in Paris. Bébert promptly proceeded to enthrall the man into describing him as “magic itself, tact by wavelength.” When the cat’s time came in his Sphinx-like years at the end of 1952, the obituary Destouches wrote — rivaled only by E. B. White’s remembrance of his beloved dog Daisy — was nothing short of a literary micro-masterpiece:
After many an adventure, jail, bivouac, ashes, all of Europe … he died agile and graceful, impeccably, he had jumped out the window that very morning. . . . We, who are born old, look ridiculous in comparison!
Perhaps the most recurring theme of all, however, is the concept of the cat not as an extension of the human self, as a dog might be, but rather as something otherworldly, mysterious, with a mind of its own onto which we may project our human intentions and interpretations, but one which we will ultimately never comprehend — a force of nature, often as uncontrollable as its elements, as in this 1960 poem by Elizabeth Bishop:
Dawn an unsympathetic yellow.
Cra-aack! — dry and light.
The house was really struck.
Crack! A tinny sound, like a dropped tumbler.
Tobias jumped in the window, got in bed —
silent, his eyes bleached white, his fur on end.
Personal and spiteful as a neighbor’s child,
thunder began to bang and bump the roof.
One pink flash;
then hail, the biggest size of artificial pearls.
Dead-white, wax-white, cold —
diplomats’ wives’ favors
from an old moon party —
they lay in melting windrows
on the red ground until well after sunrise.
We got up to find the wiring fused,
no lights, a smell of saltpetre,
and the telephone dead.
The cat stayed in the warm sheets.
The Lent trees had shed all their petals:
wet, stuck, purple, among the dead-eye pearls.
Originally featured in October, with lots more art and excerpts.
4. INTERACTION OF COLOR: 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
“Hundreds of people can talk, for one who can think,” John Ruskin wrote, “but thousands of people can think, for one who can see.” “We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object,” Alexandra Horowitz lamented in her sublime meditation on looking. Hardly anyone has accomplished more in revolutionizing the art of seeing than German-born American artist, poet, printmaker, and educator Josef Albers, as celebrated for his iconic abstract paintings as he was for his vibrant wit and spellbinding presence as a classroom performer. In 1963, he launched into the world what would become the most influential exploration of the art, science, psychology, practical application, and magic of color — an experiment, radical and brave at the time, seeking to cultivate a new way of studying and understanding color through experience and trial-and-error rather than through didactic, theoretical dogma. Half a century later, Interaction of Color (public library), with its illuminating visual exercises and mind-bending optical illusions, remains an indispensable blueprint to the art of seeing.
Albers, who headed the legendary Black Mountain College that shaped such luminaries as Zen composer John Cage and reconstructionist Ruth Asawa, lays out the book’s beautifully fulfilled and timeless promise in the original introduction:
In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.
In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually. To this end, the beginning is not a study of color systems.
First, it should be learned that one and the same color evokes innumerable readings. Instead of mechanically applying or merely implying laws and rules of color harmony, distinct color effects are produced-through recognition of the interaction of color-by making, for instance, two very different colors look alike, or nearly alike.
Albers defied the standard academic approach of “theory and practice,” focusing instead on “development of observation and articulation,” with an emphasis not only on seeing color, but also feeling the relationships between colors. He writes:
[Interaction of Color] reverses this order and places practice before theory, which after all, is the conclusion of practice. … Just as the knowledge of acoustics does not make one musical — neither on the productive nor on the appreciative side — so no color system by itself can develop one’s sensitivity for color. This is parallel to the recognition that no theory of composition by itself leads to the production of music, or of art.
Practical exercises demonstrate through color deception (illusion) the relativity and instability of color. And experience teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect. What counts here — first and last — is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision — seeing. Seeing here implies Schauen (as in Weltanschauung) and is coupled with fantasy, with imagination.
To mark the book’s fiftieth anniversary, here is an excerpt from a fantastic Design Matters conversation with Brenda Danilowitz, Chief Curator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and Philip Tiongson, who designed the magnificent iPad app accompanying the new edition of the book, who discuss Albers’s far-reaching legacy and his fundamental contributions to our everyday understanding of color:
Albers believed that in normal seeing, we use our eyes so much because the world is controlled by our vision, but we become so accustomed to it that we take things for granted. And when he talked about visual perception, he meant something much more profound than just the way we look at the world — he would stop and look at the world, look at the smallest object, smallest event, and see through it in a deep kind of way. … He would see magic, he would see something deeper. And he believed that the majority of people just missed the true reality — it was available for everyone to see, but nobody was looking. And that was where his notion of “to open eyes” really comes from.
Originally featured in August — read the full article here.
5. MAPPING MANHATTAN
“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation … so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul,” E. B. White memorably wrote in his 1949 masterpiece Here Is New York. And indeed what a canvas of glorious shared eclecticism Gotham is — city of cats and city of dogs, city of beloved public spaces and beloved secret places, of meticulous order and sparkling chaos, but above all a city of private memories woven together into one shared tapestry of belonging.
Maps, meanwhile, have long held unparalleled storytelling power as tools of propaganda, imagination, obsession, and timekeeping. From Denis Wood’s narrative atlas to Paula Scher’s stunning typo-cartographic subjectivity maps impel us to overlay the static landscape with our dynamic lived experience, our impressions, our selves.
The convergence of these two — New York’s extraordinary multiplicity and the emotive storytelling power of maps — is precisely what Becky Cooper set out to explore in an ongoing collaborative art project that began in an appropriately personal manner: The summer after her freshman year of college in 2008, Cooper became an accidental cartographer when she was hired to help map all of Manhattan’s public art. As she learned about mapping and obsessively color-coded the locations, she considered what it took to make “a map that told an honest story of a place” and was faced with the inevitable subjectivity of the endeavor, realizing that an assemblage of many little subjective portraits revealed more about a place than any attempt at a “complete” map.
And so the idea was born — to assemble a collaborative portrait of the city based on numerous individual experiences, memories, and subjective impressions. She painstakingly hand-printed a few hundred schematic maps of Manhattan on the letterpress in the basement of her college dorm, then walked all over the island, handing them to strangers and asking them to draw “their Manhattan,” then mail the maps back to her — which, in a heartening antidote to Gotham’s rumored curmudgeonly cynicism, they readily did. Dozens of intimate narratives soon filled her inbox — first loves, last goodbyes, childhood favorites, unexpected delights. In short, lives lived.
The finest of them are now collected Mapping Manhattan: A Love (And Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers (public library) — a tender cartographic love letter to this timeless city of multiple dimensions, parallel realities, and perpendicular views, featuring contributions from both strangers and famous New Yorkers alike, including Brain Pickings favorites like cosmic sage Neil deGrasse Tyson, artist-philosopher Yoko Ono, wire-walked Philippe Petit, The Map as Art author Katharine Harmon and Paris vs. New York creator Vahram Muratyan, as well as prominent New Yorkers like writer Malcolm Gladwell and chef David Chang.
Cooper writes of the project:
The maps were like passports into strangers’ worlds. … I talked to gas station workers, MTA employees, artists, tourists, and veterans; to Columbia med students, Mister Softee drivers, city planners, San Francisco quilters, bakery owners, street cart vendors, Central park portraitists, jazz musicians, Watchtower distributors, undergrads, can collectors, and mail carriers. … These are their maps. Their ghosts. Their past loves. Their secret spots. Their favorite restaurants. These are their accidental autobiographies: when people don’t realize they’re revealing themselves, they’re apt to lay themselves much more bare.
I hope to show Manhattan as a cabinet of curiosities, a container of portals to hundreds of worlds; if I’ve succeeded, this portrait of the city will be as true as any of the seventy-five others.
The inimitable Adam Gopnik — a New Yorker’s New Yorker — writes in the foreword:
Maps and memories are bound together, a little as songs and love affairs are. The artifact envelops the emotion, and then the emotion stores away in the artifact: We hear ‘All the Things You Are’ or ‘Hey There Delilah’ just by chance while we’re in love, and then the love is forever after stored in the song. … This attachment requires no particular creative energy. It just happens. … Maps, especially schematic ones, are the places where memories go not to die, or be pinned, but to live forever.
Gopnik pads the metaphorical with the scientific, echoing Richard Dawkins, who famously speculated that drawing maps may have “boosted our ancestors beyond the critical threshold which the other apes just failed to cross,” and turns to the brain:
Cognitive science now insists that our minds make maps before they take snapshots, storing in schematic form the information we need to navigate and make sense of the world. Maps are our first mental language, not our latest. The photographic sketch, with its optical hesitations, is a thing we force from history; the map, with its neat certainties and foggy edges, looks like the way we think.
“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E. B. White wrote. “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” It is this poetry of the internal engine — the emotional excess necessary for creativity, the compressed feeling bursting out of the poet’s soul like a rocket — that Gopnik, too, observes in reverence:
A remembered relation of spaces, a hole, a circle, a shaded area — and a whole life comes alive. The real appeal of the map, perhaps, is not so much that it stores our past as that it forces our emotions to be pressed into their most parsimonious essence — and, as every poet knows, it is emotion under the force of limits, emotion pressed down and held down to strict formal constraints, that makes for the purest expression. These maps are street haiku, whose emotions, whether made by the well known or the anonymous, are more moving for being so stylized.
Each map in this book diagrams the one thing we most want a map to show us, and that is a way home.
The final page of Mapping Manhattan contains a blank map, inviting you to draw your Manhattan and mail it to Cooper.
Originally featured in April, with more maps and video.
6. BEFORE I DIE
In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Chang, queen of thoughtful installations in public spaces that invite collaborative storytelling, covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence “Before I die I want to . . .,” which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration. To Chang’s surprise, the wall was completely filled by the next day. Soon, the project took on a life of its own and was replicated in over 10 languages across more than thirty countries, giving voice to millions of such private yearnings.
Before I Die (public library) collects the best of these public yet anonymous walls, from Alaska to Australia, Brooklyn to Berlin, filled with answers ranging from the poignant (“see a year without war”) to the silly (“sleep with a harp player”) to the disarmingly honest (“repair my broken heart”). Alongside the photographs are the stories of some of the people who chalked in their anonymous answers
Chang shares the genesis of the project, her harrowing personal brush with the mortality paradox:
Joan died on a quiet August day. She was a mother to me for fifteen years. She was kind and thoughtful. She loved to garden and she taught me how to plant flowers. When I was a confused teenager, she told me to be true to myself. Her death was sudden and unexpected, and there were so many things she still wanted to do: learn to play the piano, live in Paris, and see the Pacific Ocean. I spent a long time filled with grief. Then I felt gratitude for the time we had together.
Death was always on my mind. It brought clarity to my life. It reminded me of the people I want to love well, the type of person I want to become, and the things I want to do. But I struggled to maintain this perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to me. I wondered if other people felt the same way.
Death is something we’re often discouraged to talk about or even think about. … Perhaps that is why it took me so long to explore these thoughts, but when I finally did, I found a comfort and clarity that I did not expect. Beyond the tragic truth of mortality lies a bright calm that reminds me of my place in the world. When I think about death, the mundane things that stress me out are reduced to their small and rightful place; the things that matter most to me become big and crisp again. … Thinking about death clarifies your life.
The book opens with the perfect amuse-bouche of wisdom by none other than Carl Sagan:
We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.
But in a wonderfully paradoxical way, the project both embodies and counters this sentiment: The question at its heart isn’t particularly “courageous,” nor are the majority of the answers particularly “deep,” but the combination produces something profound and deeply human, and that’s precisely the point: What makes the world significant — more than that, what makes “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” significant — is perhaps the simplicity and sincerity of our answers to the simplest and most sincere of questions.
Indeed, the answers brim with seeming individual simplicity which somehow unravels the collective complexity of the human condition: World peace, curing cancer, and learning to love might not be the most original of answers, but something magical happens when anonymity strips us of the compulsion for originality and lays bare our deepest, most unoriginally human and heartfelt longings with crisp, urgent sincerity. In aggregate, they are a reminder of what truly matters — a moral lens on what should matter — as we face the immutable fact that one day, when we turn to look back on our lives, all the cleverness and pretentiousness and witticism will dissipate into dust over the burning coals of our innermost, simplest, most earnest desires for a meaningful life.
The project also inhabits — champions — another important dimension, the notion that public spaces anchor us to our physical reality and, at their best, awaken a richer relationship with our surroundings. Chang writes:
Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. They are our shared spaces and reflect what matters to us as a community and as individuals. … At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. They can help us grieve together and celebrate together and console one another and be alone together. Each passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, and wonder. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.
Originally featured in October — see more here.
7. FRITZ KAHN
Around the time when Austrian sociologist, philosopher, and curator Otto Neurath was building his ISOTYPE visual language, which laid the foundation for pictogram-based infographics, another infographic pioneer was doing something even more ambitious: The German polymath Fritz Kahn — amateur astronomer, medical scientist by training, gynecologist by early occupation, artist by inclination, writer, educator and humanist by calling — was developing innovative visual metaphors for understanding science and the human body, seeking to strip scientific ideas of their alienating complexity and engage a popular audience with those essential tenets of how life works. Best-known today for his iconic 1926 poster Man as Industrial Palace, Kahn inspired generations of scientific illustrators, including such legends as Irving Geis and such cultural treasures as the 1959 gem The Human Body: What It Is And How It Works. His influence reverberates through much of our present visual communication and today’s best infographics .
Now, visual culture powerhouse Taschen has captured the life’s work of this infographic pioneer in the magnificent monograph Fritz Kahn (public library) — a 6-pound tome in English, French and German that collects and contextualizes his most influential images and essays and, above all, celebrates a boundless mind that never settled for limiting itself to a single discipline, to any one area of curiosity, to the onus and hubris of specialization that our culture so vehemently and so toxically fetishizes.
In the introduction, the prolific design historian and writer Steven Heller calls Kahn and Neurath “two sides of the same pie chart,” despite the fact that they likely never met:
Each passionately sought to devise a distinct graphic design language to replace the jargon and lay waste to an ever-growing Tower of Babel.
Like Neurath, who didn’t actually create the symbols he became known for, Kahn was not an artist himself but compensated for it with the potent combination of his powers of logic and his ability to surround himself with top talent, who would execute his visions while also expanding his taste and visual literacy. Though his innovative methods were themselves a force to be reckoned with, the underlying impetus was as simple as it was profound: Kahn was just a brilliant science communicator who sought to engage the public’s imagination in popularizing science. He used his infographics as Carl Sagan did narrative and the moving image, subverting the medium — and subverting it masterfully — to the goals of the message. Heller writes:
His graphic design preferences were eclectic and included such methods as photo-collage, painting and drawing and styles like comic, surrealist, dada and more. The art of analogy was Kahn’s forte (sometimes to the extreme): he might compare an ear with a car or a bird’s feather with railroad tracks, all meant to explain ever more impenetrable phenomena by means which triggered the viewer’s imagination. Kahn employed whatever visual trick he could cobble together for the end result: popular comprehension.
The legacy of Kahn’s work has resonance now and will continue into the future.
Kahn found his greatest power in enlisting the physical to explain the metaphorical. As a scientist, he understood the visual bias of our brains; as an artistically minded design-thinker, he knew how powerfully graphics could convey ideas and ideologies; as a man of medicine, he grasped the importance of visualizing the body to illuminate its inner workings.
Kahn was also keenly aware of the importance of pictures in education. He trawled textbooks and scientific journals for material to use in his famous “man book,” but he enlisted his artists and the design department of his publishing house in infusing the images with more life, more vibrancy, greater calls to the imagination. He developed a style based on architectural and industrial visual metaphors and began depicting the human body as a series of modern workplaces, with each organ and organ-system operated by different machines, control panels, and circuits, as in his famous Man as Industrial Palace, seeking “to depict the most important processes of life, which can never be observed directly, in the form of familiar technical processes.” (Bear in mind, he was working long before some of the most now-fundamental notions in modern science were known, decades before even the discovery of DNA.)
Kahn could also be considered a pioneer of interactive storytelling long before the technologies of interaction existed. He transformed the pictorial image from a static object to passively behold to an active invitation to engage, reimagine, and connect:
Kahn’s conceptual illustrations inverted the text-image relationship that had prevailed until then. The picture took prominence and switched from observed object to active agent, opening up new imaginary spaces for the viewer. It challenged the viewer to explore these spaces independently, to find [his or her] place in them, and develop new perspectives from there — a life-saving ability in a crisis-torn age like that of [the world war].
Apart from instruction and entertainment, edification is another important function of the illustrated factual book. Meaning, comfort, fresh perspectives, and ideally a faith that can move mountains, often form in reaction to a strong aesthetic impulse — for example, in the borderland between science and art. Kahn knew the healing effect of the “imagination” from personal and medical experience, especially in relation to observing the macro- or microcosm. … Verbal and visual images can help man (re)connect with himself, his group, the world and the universe, to find his way or place.
Above all, however, Kahn was a kind of scientific poet who enlisted the tenets of literature and the arts in making scientific ideas not only accessible but exciting. One of the most beautiful examples of this comes from his 1924 article for the journal Kosmos, titled “Fairy-tale Journey on the Bloodstream.” In it, he extols “the drama which, since its discovery 200 years ago, has repeatedly stirred the ecstasy of all who have seen it: the circulation of the blood” and writes — sings, almost:
“What a drama, but alas, only a drama!” The microscope’s field of vision is narrowly limited and we see the blood cells arriving on one side and disappearing again on the other… where from? where to? — we don’t know […]. The researcher stops at the rigid circle of his microscope’s field of vision, but we, we are poets, and who will forbid the imagination to travel to magical realms over lands and over seas like the child with the seven swans? […] Like the hero of the “last fairy-tale” we become smaller and smaller until at last we stand microscopically tiny, mini-Lilliputians on the bank of the vein-stream, and see the cells drifting past us, as big as the barques [large sailing ships] of men. We climb up one of the cliffs that loom into the stream, and wait. Cell after cell swims past, but quick and in the middle of the stream, unattainable to our desires. At last, however, a cell-boat drifts close to us on the beach, settles askew like a ship run aground, we leap across and into it, now it tilts from side to side, we push off and sail away. We are sailing! In our cell-boat on the red-gold stream of blood! Farewell, realm of man! We are in the land of fairy-tales, the fairy-tale land of truth, above which you rough giants gap blithely away on your great feet, and we sail towards miracles, true miracles!
Originally featured in November — read the full article here.
8. TENDER BUTTONS
Given my affinity for all things Gertrude Stein and my enduring admiration for the art of my frequent collaborator and talented friend Lisa Congdon, I was instantly enamored with Tender Buttons: Objects (public library) — Stein’s 1914 collection of avant-garde verses celebrating everyday objects in her signature style of semantic somersaults, brought to fresh life with Lisa’s vibrant illustrations of birds, boxes, cups, clocks, umbrellas, and other ordinary objects made extraordinary.
A feather is trimmed, it is trimmed by the light and the bug and the post, it is trimmed by little leaning and by all sorts of mounted reserves and loud volumes. It is surely cohesive.
I asked Lisa about the project’s particular mesmerism:
Every now and again an illustration project comes your way that feels like sheer kismet. I’ve had an infatuation with the life of Gertrude Stein since I was in my early 20s, and I’ve always been intrigued by her bizarre poetry.
Hope in gates, hope in spoons, hope in doors, hope in tables, no hope in daintiness and determination. Hope in dates.
In the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling.
Originally featured in March.
9. BEST AMERICAN INFOGRAPHICS
As an appreciator of the art of visual storytelling by way of good information graphics — an art especially endangered in this golden age of bad infographics served as linkbait — I was thrilled and honored to be on the advisory “Brain Trust” for a project by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, New Yorker writer, and Scientific American neuroscience blog editor Gareth Cook, who has set out to highlight the very best infographics produced each year, online and off. (Disclaimer for the naturally cynical: No money changed hands.) The Best American Infographics 2013 (public library) is now out, featuring the finest examples from the past year — spanning everything from happiness to sports to space to gender politics, and including a contribution by friend-of-Brain Pickings Wendy MacNaughton — with an introduction by none other than David Byrne. Accompanying each image is an artist statement that explores the data, the choice of visual representation, and why it works.
The very best [infographics] engender and facilitate an insight by visual means — allow us to grasp some relationship quickly and easily that otherwise would take many pages and illustrations and tables to convey. Insight seems to happen most often when data sets are crossed in the design of the piece — when we can quickly see the effects on something over time, for example, or view how factors like income, race, geography, or diet might affect other data. When that happens, there’s an instant “Aha!”…
Byrne addresses the healthy skepticism many of us harbor towards the universal potency of infographics, reminding us that the medium is not the message — the message is the message:
A good infographic … is — again — elegant, efficient, and accurate. But do they matter? Are infographics just things to liven up a dull page of type or the front page of USA Today? Well, yes, they do matter. We know that charts and figures can be used to support almost any argument. . . . Bad infographics are deadly!
One would hope that we could educate ourselves to be able to spot the evil infographics that are being used to manipulate us, or that are being used to hide important patterns and information. Ideally, an educated consumer of infographics might develop some sort of infographic bullshit detector that would beep when told how the trickle-down economic effect justifies fracking, for example. It’s not easy, as one can be seduced relatively easily by colors, diagrams and funny writing.
And, indeed, at the heart of the aspiration to cultivate a kind of visual literacy so critical for modern communication. Here are a few favorite pieces from the book that embody that ideal of intelligent elegance and beautiful revelation of truth:
Byrne — who believes the best use of infographics allows us to “experience a kind of geeky rapture as our senses are amplified and expanded through charts and illustrations” — is especially fond of one sub-genre:
Flowcharts [are] a form of poetry. And poetry is its own reward.
Indeed, flowcharts have a singular way of living at the intersection of the pragmatic and the existential:
Some appear more visually abstract yet derive from precise and concrete data sets:
Then there’s the mandatory love of pie charts and its derivatives:
The greatest power of infographics, however, lies in two things: Their ability to weave visual metaphors that enhance our understanding, something particularly potent given how essential metaphorical thinking is to the way we communicate and learn, and their role in igniting the very pattern recognition that fuels our creative comprehension. Byrne writes:
We have an inbuilt ability to manipulate visual metaphors in ways we cannot do with the things and concepts they stand for — to use them as malleable, conceptual Tetris blocks or modeling clay that we can more easily squeeze, stack, and reorder. And then — whammo! — a pattern emerges, and we’ve arrived someplace we would never have gotten by any other means.
Originally featured in September — see more here.
10. MAURICE SENDAK
Maurice Sendak is celebrated by many, myself included, as the greatest and most influential children’s book artist of the past century. A year after Sendak’s death comes Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library) — the companion volume to the wonderful 2013 exhibition at New York’s Society of Illustrators, and also among the year’s best biographies, memoirs, and history books. From rich essays by historians and artists who contextualize Sendak’s life and legacy to a selection of his best-loved and notable little-known illustrations, the book is a treasure trove of insight on Sendak’s spirit, sensibility, and evolution as an artist.
Dive deeper with excerpts exploring Sendak’s lessons on art and storytelling and his lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.
11. LOLITA: THE STORY OF A COVER GIRL
“I am a slave of images,” Vladimir Nabokov declared through his character John Krug, the brilliant philosopher in Bend Sinister. In fact, the author himself — a man of notoriously strong opinions — was both a slave of images himself and an exacting master seeking to enslave them. He famously instructed publishers on how to — and how not to — cover his 1955 masterpiece Lolita, one of literary history’s most controversial classics:
I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls. … Who would be capable of creating a romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile, picture for LOLITA (a dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway—that sort of thing)? There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.
He eventually rescinded his dictum, but it endures as emblematic of Lolita’s demanding complexity and the strain it places on any attempt to synthesize that conflicting intricacy in a static image. That’s precisely what Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl (public library) addresses through a magnificent collection of concept covers for the Nabokov classic, which editors John Bertram and Yuri Leving describe as planted “firmly in the public consciousness, but more often for its misunderstood subject than for its masterful and dazzling prose,” by eighty of the world’s most celebrated graphic designers and illustrators, including such favorites as Paula Scher, Jessica Hische, and Debbie Millman. Featuring a number of essays on the novel’s cover history, its evolving pop culture interpretations, and the challenging art of cover design, the book presents the most exhaustive and dimensional topography of Lolita’s cultural landscape examined through the lens of design and visual communication.
In the preface, celebrated author and Guggenheim Fellow Mary Gaitskill reflects on the appalling blurb Vintage printed on what’s considered the most successful Lolita cover of all time — “The only convincing love story of the century,” taken from a review by Vanity Fair’s Gregor von Rezzori — and reflects on the chronically misunderstood dualities at the heart of the Nabokov classic:
Lolita is not about love, because love is always mutual; Lolita is about obsession, which is never, ever love, and Nabokov himself was so disappointed that people did not understand this and take away the right message… For how could anyone call this feeding frenzy of selfishness, devouring, and destruction “love”?
How vigorously Henry Miller would nod in agreement. But Gaitskill goes on to demonstrate that no one-dimensional interpretation is better than any other, for Lolita is above all about our contradictory multiplicity of selves:
Lolita is about obsession and narcissistic appetite, misogyny and contemptuous rejection, not only of women, but of humanity itself. And yet. It is also about love; if it were not, the book would not be so heart-stoppingly beautiful.
Purity of feeling must live and breathe in the impure gardens of our confused, compromised, corrupt, and broken hearts. Love itself is not selfish, devouring or cruel, but in human beings it suffers a terrible coexistence with those qualities. . . . In most people, this contradiction will never take the florid form it takes in Humbert Humbert. But such impossible, infernal combinations are there in all of us, and we know it. That Lolita renders this human condition at such an extreme, so truthfully, and yes, as von Rezorri says, convincingly, is the book’s most shocking quality. It is why it will never be forgotten. It is also why no one will ever succeed in describing it fully on a book jacket. But how wonderful that so many have tried.
And try they did. Given no conceptual constraints and liberated from the marketing burden of using the cover as an actual sales tool, the eighty designers — ranging from in-house talent from major publishing houses to notable freelancers — brought to the subject uncommon freedom of thought and bravery of interpretation, with graphics spanning from the unabashedly provocative to the brilliantly subtle. Some intentionally violated Nabokov’s “no girls” injunction, others winked at it irreverently and assaulted it obliquely, while others still paid full heed and went with the expressly metaphorical. (Though, as John Gall thoughtfully admonishes in one of the chapters, “the land of metaphor is filled with furrows and ruts and roads going off into the distance.”)
Originally featured in August — read and see more here.
12. INSIDE THE RAINBOW
Since the golden age of children’s literature in mid-century America and Europe, we’ve seen children’s books used for purveying everything from philosophy to propaganda to science. But two decades before this Western surge of design innovation and conceptual experimentation in children’s books, a thriving scene of literature and art for young readers was taking root on the other side of the soon-to-be Iron Curtain. Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times (public library), edited by Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, collects the most vibrant masterpieces of Russian children’s literature from the short but pivotal period between 1920 and 1935 — a time-capsule of the ambitious aesthetic and imaginative ideology that burned bright for a few brief moments before the onset of communism cast down its uniform grayness.
Philip Pullman, who knows a thing or two about the permeating power of children’s storytelling, writes in the foreword:
The world of Russian children’s illustrated books in the first twenty years or so of Soviet rule is almost incomparably rich. What were they doing, these commissars and party secretaries, to allow this wonderland of modern art to grow under their very noses? I expect the rule that applies to children’s books was just as deeply interiorized in the Soviet Union as it has been in the rest of the world: they don’t matter. They can be ignored. They’re not serious.
(Coincidentally, Neil Gaiman recently lamented that “there is [no] such a thing as a bad book for children. … Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading.”)
Pullman contrasts the distinctive, indigenous style of this Russian book art with its Western counterparts from the same era:
The kind of modern art that lives so vigorously and joyously in these pages is, of course, one with a Russian ancestry. There is no Cubism here … no Post-Impressionism … no Dada. What there is is Constructivism, and plenty of it, and of its metaphysical parent, Suprematism. Basic geometrical shapes, the square, the circle, the rectangle, are everywhere; flat primary colors dominate.
And yet, conceptually, many of these illustrations find — and often presage — certain Western counterparts. Take, for instance, these spreads from Boris Ermolenko’s 1930 visual taxonomy of occupations, Special Clothing, which call to mind beloved French illustrator Blebolex’s book People, one of the best children’s books of 2011:
Some of the most charming pieces explore the burgeoning world of transportation:
Then there are the sheer, unmediated delights, such as Kornei Chukovsky’s playful 1927 poetry book The Telephone.
Ting-a-ling-a-ling… A telephone ring! “Hallo! Hallo!”
“Who are you?” “Jumbo Joe,
“I live at the zoo!” “What can I do?” “Send me some jam For my little Sam.” “Do you want a lot?” “A five-ton pot,
And send me some cake — The poor little boy
Has swallowed a toy
And his tummy will ache If he gets no cake.”
“How many tons of cake will you take?” “Only a score.
He won’t be able to eat any more —
My little Sam is only four!”
And after a while
A crocodile rang from the Nile:
“I will be ever so jolly
If you send us a pile
Of rubber galoshes —
The kind that one washes —
For me and my wife and for Molly!”
“You’re talking too fast! Why, the week before last I posted ten pair
Of galoshes by air.”
“Now, doctor, be steady!
We’ve eaten already
The pile that you posted!
We ate them all roasted,
And the dish it was simply delicious, So everyone wishes
You would send to the Nile
A still bigger pile
That would do for a dozen more dishes.”
What’s most striking about these vibrant, colorful, exuberant images and verses, however, is their stark contrast to the cultural context in which they were born — alongside them we find grim photographs of desolate little faces in shabby schoolrooms, the faces of a generation that would be soon engulfed by communism’s dark descend. And yet these children’s books, Pullman marvels, emanate “a lovely primary-colored geometrical wonderland-light sparkling with every conceivable kind of wit and brilliance and fantasy and fun” — a light at once heartening as a glimmer of generational hope and bittersweet against the historical backdrop of the oppressive regime that would eventually extinguish it as communism sought to purge the collective conscience of whimsy and imaginative sentimentality.
Originally featured in October — see more here.
13. A MAP OF THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ILLUSTRATORS AND STORYTELLERS
“Could it have been the drawing of maps that boosted our ancestors beyond the critical threshold which the other apes just failed to cross?,” Richard Dawkins famously speculated. Maps have undoubtedly changed the world as both objects of art and tools of political power. They help us understand time and make sense of the universe. At their most beautiful, they reflect a level of stunning subjectivity.
In A Map of the World According to Illustrators and Storytellers (public library), the fine folks of Gestalten — who have a knack for pictorial magic and visual storytelling — collect more than 500 maps by artists, illustrators, and designers representing the creative zeitgeist of modern cartography around the world, ranging from the astoundingly accurate and detailed to the marvelously abstract and utopian.
Antonis Antoniou writes in the preface:
Only few graphic representation devices have been such a fountainhead of wonderment, controversy, and utility as maps have. What seems to have begun on a more intuitive level has evolved over time into a sophisticated visual instrument. Maps have proven to be a versatile medium through which to express our inquisitive nature and make sense of our physical world. Within a singular visual, we are able to impose order by appropriating reality and its complex layers. It is an endeavor that emanates an intoxicating sense of power in harnessing knowledge.
Maps make compelling promises. … They grasp greater concepts, detect patterns, prognosticate, and reveal new layers of meaning. … Cartography can be an incredible form of escapism, as maps act as proxies for experiences, real or fabricated. Whatever their purpose or subject matter, even the most rudimentary of maps have an inherent beauty, an attraction in their way of ordering things.
Originally featured in March — see more here.