Feb 182017

An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.


By Doug Briscoe

Quite a cosmopolitan group today, with every one of our twelve (!) artists representing a different ethnicity (technically speaking) and ten of the twelve born in different countries (geopolitically speaking). February 18 is the birthday of Nikos Kazantzakis, Toni Morrison, Luis Muñoz Marín, Miloš Forman—and seven others in the arts—and the death date of Fra Angelico. The others? A 17th-century French actress, painters from England/Australia, Russia, and Sweden, a Norwegian writer, a Ukrainian soprano, and a Portuguese ballerina! (The Russian painter and the Ukrainian soprano were both born in the Russian Empire.)

Country no. 1: Turkey (ethnicity: Greek). Nikos Kazantzakis (18 February 1883 – 26 October 1957) is most celebrated for his world-famous novel Zorba the Greek (1946; original title: Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas), with The Last Temptation of Christ (1955) coming in second, largely because of the controversial Martin Scorsese film of 1988. Kazantzakis (ka-ZAHN-dza-kis, by the way, not kah-zant-ZAH-kis) was born on the island of Crete, which in 1883 was still within the Ottoman Empire. He studied in Athens and at the Sorbonne and traveled widely. He admired Communism until the advent of Stalin. Nominated nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature, he came closest to winning in 1957, when he lost to Albert Camus by a single vote. Kazantzakis is buried on the wall around the city of Heraklion, the Orthodox Church having prohibited his burial in a cemetery. The stamps are from Greece and Cyprus.

Country no. 2: The United States (ethnicity: African-American). Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931) did win the Nobel Prize in 1993. She had won the Pulitzer and the American Book Award for Beloved five years earlier. Born in Ohio, she adopted Catholicism at age 12—her baptismal name “Anthony” explains the nickname “Toni”. She studied at Howard, where she later taught and where she wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), and at Cornell. After her marriage and divorce, she worked as an editor at Random House before her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), won the National Book Critics Circle Award and established her name. Morrison’s latest novel is her eleventh, God Help the Child (2015). She appears on a Swedish stamp as the Swedes routinely honor Nobel Laureates philatelically.

Country no. 3: Spain (ethnicity: Hispanic). Our next artist, Luis Muñoz Marín, was born some months before the United States took control of Puerto Rico from Spain. But, of course, although born in Spanish territory, he was for almost the entirety of his life a citizen of the same country as Toni Morrison. José Luis Alberto Muñoz Marín (1898 – April 30, 1980) is likely best known for having been the first elected Governor of Puerto Rico, serving four consecutive four-year terms until 1965; but Muñoz Marín was also a poet and and the son of a poet. (His father, Luis Muñoz Rivera, was also an important politician and founder of two newspapers on the island.) The family moved to New York, where Muñoz Marín’s father founded a third paper, the bilingual Puerto Rico Herald. A few years later, they returned to Puerto Rico, where Muñoz Rivera won an election and served in the government for the rest of his days (he died in 1916). Muñoz Marín started out wanting to be a writer and gave up his law studies at Georgetown to publish a book of stories and a play. He married the American writer and activist Muna Lee in 1919. (In 1992, their daughter Victoria Muñoz Mendoza was the first woman to run for governor in Puerto Rico.) But in time the desire to serve drew him to the political life and to a lengthy career that has led some to call him the “Father of Modern Puerto Rico”. The stamp was issued in 1990.

Country no. 4: Czechoslovakia. The acclaimed director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984) was born Jan Tomáš Forman on this date in 1932. Forman’s parents, anti-Nazi Protestants, both died in concentration camps, his mother at Auschwitz; he learned after the war that his biological father was actually a Jewish architect, Otto Kohn, who fled the Holocaust in 1938 and had a noteworthy career in Ecuador and the US. Forman made a couple of films in Czechoslovakia before leaving following the 1968 Communist invasion. He came to New York and taught at Columbia, taking on American citizenship in 1977. His most recent film, coincidentally, is called Beloved (no connection with the Morrison book) from 2011. His stamp comes from a souvenir sheet issued by Mozambique, which, like a number of sub-Saharan nations, issues such items as revenue earners. (They are perfectly legal as postage, but probably do not see much use as such.)


Country no. 5: France. Now we leave our contemporary world for the 17th century and the actress Marie Champmeslé (1642 – 15 May 1698). Uncharacteristically for that time, she was born to a wealthy family who, if the trend runs true, must have been appalled at the idea of their daughter appearing on—gasp!—the stage (unless that’s where they themselves earned their wealth—I wasn’t able to determine the source of their fortune or their position in Society). Marie acted in her native Rouen with Charles Chevillet Champmeslé (1645-1707), whom she later married and with whom she led a successful career in Paris. She established a relationship with Racine, who wrote some of his finest work for her, and was admired by La Fontaine, who dedicated to her his fable Belphégor. Champmeslé’s brother and niece also had brilliant careers as actors.

Country no. 6: England, later Australia. The painter John Glover (1767 – 9 December 1849) was born into a farming family in Leicestershire and lived most of his life in England, removing to London in 1805 and meeting with great success there. It was only in 1831, when he was 64, that Glover relocated to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). In both countries he concentrated on landscapes and has achieved more renown in our time for his Tasmanian pieces than for his English ones. He is admired for having taken particular trouble with the accuracy of his representations of the local flora. While known in his own day as “the English Claude” after Claude Lorrain, he has subsequently come to be viewed by some as “the father of Australian landscape painting”. The quite recent stamp shows a detail from his Mr. Robinson’s House on the Derwent (c1838).

Country no. 7: Russia. Another country, another painter. Alexey Gavrilovich Venetsianov (1780–4 January 1847) is celebrated for his depictions of peasant life, as we can see in the gorgeous Summer, Reaping, the comic Boy With Dog (subtitled That Was My Father’s Dinner), and the charming The Reapers (all from the 1820s). While Glover’s family were farmers, Venetsianov’s were merchants (of Greek descent), and he began his working life in the civil service in Moscow. But soon he moved on to St. Petersburg to study art. By 1819, he was able to leave the service and devote himself entirely to painting, not only to its creation, but as an instructor. He established his own school and took on poor students and even serfs in this endeavor. Tsar Nicholas I approved, giving Venetsianov the title of “court painter”, which came with a stipend that allowed Venetsianov to accept students without charging them more than a nominal fee for tuition. Venetsianov was killed in a carriage accident in 1847 when he lost control of his horses and was precipitated down a hillside.

Country no. 8: Norway. Held, with Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and Jonas Lie, as one of the “Four Greats” of Norwegian literature, Alexander Kielland (1849 – 6 April 1906) was, like Venetsianov, the scion of a merchant family, but a very rich one. His advantages did not blind him to the less fortunate, for he championed the cause of the underprivileged and the defenseless and criticized the injustices of society throughout his career as a writer, also writing a novel trilogy that lambasted the hypocrisy of the clergy. Kielland also wrote short stories and plays. He became mayor of his hometown, Stavanger, in 1891 and gave up writing to focus on governance. His elder sister Kitty Lange Kielland was a landscape painter.

Country no. 9: Sweden. Anders Zorn (1860 – 22 August 1920), like John Glover, grew up on a farm. He studied in Stockholm, and apparently his gifts were so extraordinary that it is said he astonished his teachers at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. Commissions flew in, and he married into a wealthy and cultivated Jewish family. Not that he would need their money—his own efforts as an artist eventually made him rich and internationally famous. He was called upon to paint the portraits of the king of Sweden (Oscar II) and no fewer than three US presidents, Cleveland, Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt. His reputation took him to the United States and, of particular interest to us, here to Boston, where he painted a portrait of Martha Dana in the home of Isabella Stewart Gardner. That painting now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, which numbers two other Zorn paintings and 162 of his prints in its collection. The Gardner, by the way, held a retrospective of Zorn’s work, Anders Zorn: A European Artist Seduces America, just four years ago. Zorn also worked as a sculptor and etcher and in his later years established the Bellman Prize (named after Carl Bellmann), whose birthday we acknowledged here exactly one week ago). He and his wife were also avid art collectors and bequeathed their entire collection to the Swedish State.


Country no. 6 redux: Russia. Oksana Petrusenko was born in 1900 on 17 or 18 February (Russian-language Wikipedia says the 18th; in any case, 5 February O. S.), probably in Sevastopol. The author of an expansive page (in Ukrainian) on Petrusenko, complete with a lengthy discography, argues in favor of this birthplace and the 17th. Another detailed page about her (in Russian) is here. Petrusenko was known not only for her interpretations of the Russian operatic literature, but particularly shone in Ukrainian national operas by composers such as Lysenko and Gulak-Artemovsky, whose birthday we noted just the day before yesterday. Petrusenko also loved to perform Ukrainian folk songs. She was named People’s Artist of the Ukrainian SSR in 1939 and died in Kiev on July 15, 1940, eight days after the birth of her son Alexander. There were allegations that she had been poisoned! (Petrusenko and Venetsianov are the two people we’re celebrating today who came from the same country, Russia, however, Petrusenko was ethnically Ukrainian.)

Country no. 10: Morocco (ethnicity: Portuguese). Today is also the birthday of ballerina Isabel Santa Rosa (1931 — 17 September 2001), who was born, not in Portugal, but in Casablanca. While still in her teens she did move to her parents’ homeland to study with Francis Graça, soon achieving the rank of first dancer with the Companhia Portuguesa de Bailado Verde Gaio. She married the choreographer Carlos Trincheiras and was the first Portuguese to earn international distinction in such standard repertoire as Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Giselle, and Petrushka. Santa Rosa turned down offers to work in other countries, but did tour widely—Spain, Brazil, France, Italy, Japan, even in the Portuguese territories of Angola and Mozambique—until accepting a position as a ballet teacher in Brazil in 1980. On the death of her husband she took over direction of Balé Teatro Guaíra and created a ballet based on Wagner’s Wesendonk Lieder.

Country no. 11: Italy. I place the very great master Fra Angelico last in today’s presentation only because it’s not his birthday, which is unknown, but rather the anniversary of the day he died in 1455. His birth name was Guido di Pietro; he was known to his contemporaries as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John of Fiesole) or Fra Giovanni Angelico (Angelic Brother John); to modern Italians he is il Beato Angelico (the Blessed Angelic One), and to the rest of us simply Fra Angelico, the “Angelic friar”. Born around 1395 in Tuscany, he began, according to Vasari, as a book illuminator—several incunabula exist in Florence that are thought to contain his work. He painted frescoes at the Dominican friary of Cortona (very little of this work has survived) and at the convent or friary of San Marco in Florence, where Cosimo de’ Medici was his patron. He later served Pope Eugene IV, but his frescoes for Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St Peter’s in Rome were lost when the building was demolished by Pope Paul III. It was at Rome that Fra Angelico died. In 1982 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II. The Vatican appears to have issued the lion’s share of Fra Angelico stamps, though I offer an example from Uganda as well.

As a postscript, we turn to a performance anniversary. Massenet’s opera Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, described as a “miracle” in three acts, is based on an 1892 prose work of Anatole France. Unusual in that all the major parts are for male voices (only the two angel characters, briefly heard, are sopranos), it had its première on 18 February 1902 in Monte Carlo. Thus the 1979 stamp comes from Monaco. (There will be another Massenet opera stamp tomorrow!)

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


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