An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Molière is probably the most prominent of the creative artists we commemorate on this January 15th, but it’s a busy day in philately, so busy that we must offer two separate images to get them all in. Several of today’s birthday subjects come from Eastern Europe: Romania’s national poet Mihai Eminescu, Russian poets Alexander Griboyedov and Osip Mandelstam, and Polish artist Stanisław Wyspiański; we also celebrate the natal days of Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer, Italian painter Giovanni Segantini, the writers Peter Asbjørnsen of Norway and Nâzim Hikmet of Turkey, and French automotive designer Ettore Bugatti. We’ll discuss them in the order of their birth.
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, who came to be known as Molière, was baptised at the Church of Saint-Eustache in Paris on this date, 15 January 1622 (died 17 February 1673). Besides authoring so many favorite plays, Molière essentially created the form of the comédies-ballets, collaborating with composers Jean-Baptiste Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Likely the best known of the later musical creations based on Molière would be Richard Strauss’s music for Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s 1912 adaptation of Le bourgeois gentilhomme.
Franz Grillparzer (15 January 1791 – 21 January 1872) also wrote for the stage. He provided an opera libretto for Beethoven, but nothing came of the project. Schubert wrote three songs to Grillparzer’s texts: Bertas Lied in der Nacht, D. 653 (1819), Ständchen, D. 920 (1827), and Miriams Siegesgesang, D. 942 (1828). Much more recently (2010), Aribert Reimann wrote an opera based on Grillparzer’s Medea. It was Grillparzer who inscribed the immortal words for Schubert’s gravestone: “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even fairer hopes.”
Alexander Sergeyevich Griboyedov (1795 – 11 February 1829) was a diplomat who dabbled in the arts, writing a few plays and some verse and even trying his hand at composing (a recent Bis CD gives us two little piano waltzes). His comedy, Woe from Wit (1823), however, although censored and not staged until after his death, has since assumed a position of importance in Russian literature. Named ambassador to Persia, Griboyedov was killed along with the rest of the embassy staff by an irate mob disgruntled over territorial concessions made following the Russo-Persian Wars.
It’s curious that January should give us not only Jacob Grimm and Charles Perrault, but also Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (1812 – 6 January 1885), who collected Norwegian folklore with his colleague Jørgen Engebretsen Moe. In Norway their work is commonly referred to simply as “Asbjørnsen and Moe”. They are seen together on this stamp issued for Asbjørnsen’s bicentenary in 2012.
Mihai Eminescu (born Mihail Eminovici; 1850 – 15 June 1889) is revered in Romania and Moldova as their national poet. Published at 16, he helped co-found a literary circle called “Orient” before he was 20. He later worked as a teacher, journalist, and newspaper editor. Although his poetry is often metaphysical, it is eclectic, even to the point of exploring agnostic themes. He was also interested in mythological and historical subjects. Following a nervous breakdown in 1886 Eminescu was diagnosed with syphilis and given mercury treatments that contributed to his early death.
Although his is hardly a household name today, the Divisionist and Symbolist painter Giovanni Segantini (1858 – 28 September 1899) was one of the most famous artists in Europe in his time. Born Giovanni Segatini (without the first n) in Trentino in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he grew up under intellectually barren circumstances and wasn’t even able to read or write at an adult level until he was in his 30s. His talent for drawing, however, was noticed at the reformatory to which he had been committed after running away from home at the age of seven. Taken up by his brother, who had a photography studio, Segantini learned that art and soon was able to attend Brera Academy in Milan. Curiously enough, one of his closest friends there was artist and designer Carlo Bugatti, the father of another of our subjects today. The Swiss stamp—Segantini was active in Switzerland for most of his life—shows his 1891 painting Midday in the Alps.
Another painter born on January 15 was Stanisław Wyspiański (1869 – 28 November 1907), who was, however, also active as playwright, poet, and interior designer. His father was a sculptor, but on account of his mother’s early death from tuberculosis and his father’s alcoholism, Stanisław was adopted by an aunt. It was in her home that Wyspiański met the important painter Jan Matejko, whose guiding hand gave the lad his start as an artist. But Wyspiański branched off into other disciplines, too; one finds many drawings of many different kinds among his manuscripts for plays and poetry. The stamps, including a set of six flower drawings, reflect to some degree the variety of his interests. There is a Stanisław Wyspiański Museum in Kraków, where the artist was born and died.
I could find no stamp for Osip Mandelstam (15 January [O.S. 3 January] 1891 – 27 December 1938), but the Soviet Union got around to issuing a postal card for him in time for his 1991 centenary. The delay is not entirely surprising. He was twice arrested in the 1930s for writing such pieces as “The Stalin Epigram” (1933), a work describing the climate of fear under Stalinism. Following a brief reprieve from exile, Mandelstam was arrested again in 1938 and died in a transit camp on the way to Siberia. His posthumous “rehabilitation” began under Khrushchev in 1956, but was completed only under Gorbachev in 1987. One of the by-products of glasnost, it would seem (remember glasnost?), was this postal card. Mandelstam at one point made the prophetic statement, “Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed.”
The Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet Ran (1902 – 3 June 1963) was also arrested more than once, indeed several times, for his politics (Communist, so he was thus persecuted by the opposite extreme of the political spectrum) and spent years in exile or in prison, continuing to write while incarcerated. His sentence prompted an international outcry from such great figures as Picasso, Sartre, and Paul Robeson. In 1950, following a hunger strike, Ran was released and spent his final years in Moscow. His poetry, which broke away from traditional Turkish syllabic verse, has been translated into more than fifty languages. Ran also directed films, making four of them in the 1930s, and was a screenwriter for many more, often using the pseudonym Mumtaz Osman. The USSR issued a stamp for Nâzim Hikmet in 1982, and a new one was finally issued by Turkey just last year.
Classic automobiles are a very common topic for worldwide stamps, and the designs of Ettore Bugatti (1909 – 11 August 1939) can often be seen on them. His portrait stamp is surrounded by examples from Australia, Monaco, St Lucia, St Vincent, and Vietnam. As mentioned above, his father was the Milan-born Art Nouveau decorator and designer Carlo Bugatti. Like him, Ettore Bugatti also designed furniture and jewelry, etc. [Author's note: I confused Bugatti's dates of birth and death with those of his son Jean. Ettore Bugatti lived from 15 September 1881 to 21 August 1947. But why not enjoy the stamps nine months in advance?]
The United States has not yet seen fit to issue a stamp for Gene Krupa (January 15, 1909 – October 16, 1973).
A graduate of the University of Massachusetts with a B.A. in English, Doug Briscoe worked in Boston classical music radio, at WCRB, WGBH, and WBUR, for about 25 years, beginning in 1977. He has the curious distinction of having succeeded Robert J. Lurtsema twice, first as host of WGBH’s weekday morning classical music program in 1993, then as host of the weekend program when Robert J.’s health failed in 2000. Doug also wrote liner notes for several of the late Gunther Schuller’s GM Recordings releases as well as program notes for the Boston Classical Orchestra. For the past few years he’s been posting a Facebook “blog” of classical music on stamps of the world, which has now been expanded to encompass all the arts for The Arts Fuse.