An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Along with Walt Whitman, today’s program offers up three Italian painters (Tintoretto claiming top billing), two Nobel Prize winners, four Germans (two poets, an architect, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder), a Swedish painter, and Clint Eastwood.
As he is generally regarded as America’s greatest poet, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) might be expected to have a slew of stamps in his honor, but I know of only five, and the one from the US dates all the way back to 1940! Even that was only as part of a large issue of prominent Americans in various fields. (I have no doubt we’ll see one from the US—and probably many from other countries—for the upcoming bicentenary in 2019.) It’s (almost) hard to find an English-speaking composer who hasn’t set something of Whitman’s, so I’ll limit myself to a few examples. Famously, Vaughan Williams’s “Sea Symphony” is set entirely to Whitman, whose words VW also used in his early cantata “Toward the Unknown Region” (1906), a set of Three Poems for baritone and piano of 1925, and the Dona nobis pacem (1936). “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d” inspired major works with that title by both Hindemith (his Requiem) and Roger Sessions. “Sea-Drift” gave its title (without the hyphen) to works by Delius (1904) and John Alden Carpenter (a tone poem of 1933). Another of Delius’s Whitman scores is the “Songs of Farewell” (1930). Yet another British composer, Gustav Holst, wrote a “Walt Whitman Overture” in his youth (1899) and several Whitman settings in later years. Howard Hanson’s “Three Songs from Drum Taps” (1935) and “Song of Democracy” (1957) and William Schuman’s “Carols of Death” (1958) and “Perceptions” (1982) are all choral works set to Whitman texts. And on and on.
I was unaware that the birth name of the great artist Tintoretto was just discovered ten years ago. An expert at the Prado determined that it was Jacopo Comin. Born in late September or early October of 1518, he died on this date in 1594. Also known as Jacopo Robusto, he was the eldest of 21 children, and his father was a dyer (tintore), whence derives the nickname Tintoretto, “little dyer”, or “dyer’s boy”. Legend has it that he was rejected as an apprentice by Titian, but that story may simply serve as an explanation for their later rivalry. I’ve groused in these pages about the souvenir sheets of stamps issued by some nations—stamps that were never really intended for postage but rather to earn revenue from international collectors. And yet I frequently rely on them for personages not otherwise represented on any stamps and/or because some of these sheets truly are quite beautiful. And such is the case with the 2013 sheet from Côte d’Ivoire, an elegant design that reproduces Tintoretto’s Miracle of the Slave (1548) and Danae (1580). On the left side of the sheet we have details from The Adoration of the Shepherds, (1578-81), Self-portrait (c1588), and The Ascent to Calvary (1565-67); on the right The Bathing Susanna (1560-62), Ariadne, Venus and Bacchus (1576), and a detail from the ravishing Magdalena penitente (1598-1602).
It happens that our other two Italian painters share not only a birthday but also their initials. Alessandro Allori (31 May 1535 – 22 September 1607) and Andrea Appiani (31 May 1754 – 8 November 1817) are the artists in question. Allori, a Florentine, was brought up by a friend of the family, who happens to have been Agnolo Bronzino. (Allori’s full moniker was Alessandro di Cristofano di Lorenzo del Bronzino Allori, and he sometimes used the name Bronzino when signing his own pictures.) On a stamp from Antigua we see the rich palette of his Allegory of the Church. The author of the Wikipedia article aptly points out, “The polish of figures has an unnatural marble-like form as if he aimed for cold statuary.” This is demonstrated in the Allegory but even more plainly in the Self-Portrait of about 1555. Incidentally, Allori was one was one of the numerous artists to work under Vasari in the decoration of the Studiola of Francesco I. One of the others was Giovanni Battista Naldini.
As for Appiani, he was the product of a much later time, the age of Napoleon, whom Appiani painted, as we see in the stamp from Cuba, Napoleon in Milan. Among his other works, notably frescoes and other portraits, is one of Josephine Beauharnais, partly limned on a stamp from the Republic of Guinea.
Now to the first of our two German poets, Ludwig Tieck (31 May 1773 – 28 April 1853), who was also a novelist, critic, editor, and translator and is held to be one of the founders of the Romantic movement. His poems resonated with German composers from Weber and Spohr through Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn and Carl Loewe to Paul Hindemith and Wilhelm Killmayer. Brahms’s only song cycle, “Die Schöne Magelone“, is set to texts by Tieck. Schubert sketched only a single song on Tieck’s verses, “Abend“, D. 645, in 1819 but left it unfinished. Tieck’s stamp came out for his bicentenary in 1973.
Today’s other German poet, whose verses have been much less frequently set by composers, is Georg Herwegh (31 May 1817 – 7 April 1875), born and educated at Stuttgart before going on to the University of Tübingen. He studied theology but chafed at the discipline and was expelled. It seems his nature was a rebellious one, for no sooner had he entered military service than he found himself in hot water and absconded to Switzerland. There his Poems of a living man (Gedichte eines Lebendigen, 1841-43), infused with revolutionary ideas, were published, immediately banned in Prussia, and enthusiastically received by like-minded spirits. In Paris, he produced his second volume of poetry (1844) and translated the complete works of Lamartine into German. After some further broils he settled down to translate Shakespeare, rising up again to take aim at Prussian nationalism, the Franco-Prussian War, and the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. I said above that relatively few composers had set Herwegh’s poems as Lieder, but Liszt, who set three, was among them.
The Swedish painter I enumerated at the outset is Carl Fredrik Hill (31 May 1849– 22 February 1911), a landscape artist. Ignoring or overcoming opposition from his mathematics professor father, Hill went to the Stockholm Royal Academy of Fine Arts and to France, where he drank in the influence of the Barbizon School. Tragically, he suffered severe mental illness and required hospitalization at the age of 28, and it was a further 28 years that his mother and a sister cared for him until he died. During this period, however, although he could no longer paint, he made thousands of drawings, four every day. One of the last paintings he was able to complete was his Seine landscape and poplars of 1877.
The remarkable life of Alexis Leger began on this day in 1887 in Guadeloupe. An ancestor had settled there in 1815, but the family returned to France in 1899. There young Alexis was at loose ends, going to his club, fencing, horseback riding, sailing… But he rubbed elbows with the likes of Paul Claudel, Odilon Redon, and André Gide and turned to writing poetry. His first publication, Éloges, appeared in 1911. In 1914 he shifted gears and entered the diplomatic service, which took him to Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, and Washington. He became the assistant of French Prime Minister Aristide Briand. After some more elbow-rubbing in Paris (Paul Valéry, Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger, and the members of Les Six), he saw his long poem Anabase, which he had written in China, into print. It was with that work that he assumed the pen name Saint-John Perse (he also wrote as Saint-Leger Leger). Thereafter he brought nothing more before the public for two decades, regarding such activity as inappropriate for a diplomat. His career ended with the Second World War, when, on being dismissed by the Pétain government for his antifascist stance, he went to America, living here until 1957. Archibald MacLeish and other American friends helped him financially and even provided him with a villa in Provence. Three years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for the soaring flight and evocative imagery of his poetry.” He died on 20 September 1975.
The late Frei Otto (31 May 1925 – 9 March 2015) was a Luftwaffe pilot who was captured near the end of the war and, out of a need for makeshift shelter, created tent-like structures. This may go far to explain why so much of his architecture looks the way it does. The stamp, for example, offers his West Germany Pavilion for the Montreal 1967 Expo, and further examples would be the roof of the stadium for the 1972 Munich Olympics and the umbrellas for Pink Floyd’s 1977 In the Flesh Tour. He had earned a doctorate in tensile and membrane constructions in 1954. The stamp comes from a 1997 sheetlet showing the work of four German architects.
I find it a tad ironic, given his political persuasion, that Clint Eastwood’s full first name is Clinton. Sure, talking to the chair was not the highlight of his career, but Mr. Eastwood (born May 31, 1930) has certainly done much admirable work, particularly, in my view, as a director in his (truly) golden years. I have from time to time—actually, just the day before yesterday was the last occasion—mentioned the connections of my 60s jetsetter model sister. Well, she used to play tennis with Clint Eastwood (and Merv Griffin) back in the day. A curious coincidence is that another of my sisters, from my father’s side, quite unrelated both in the consanguineous and anecdotal senses, had met Mr. Eastwood even earlier when, as a young Navy engineer in California, she once attended a party at which he invited her out. Not being familiar with Rawhide, she didn’t know who he was and turned him down.
Speaking of incongruity (was I?), we turn next to Rainer Werner Fassbinder (31 May 1945 – 10 June 1982), quite the other side of the film auteur coin. As with the Eastwood pair, from Chad and Mali, another money-maker souvenir sheet, this time from Guinea-Bissau, is the source of Fassbinder’s stamp. I had somehow forgotten that he was only 37 when he died of a cocaine and barbiturates cocktail. And yet he made some forty features along with numerous other projects, including the extraordinary 14-part TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).
Today’s Nobel Prize winner No. 2 is Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who turns 69 today and is thus our most recently born honoree for this piece. Her particular forte has been oral histories, and her books have dealt with the grim topics that have haunted Soviet history, World War II (as seen through the eyes of women and children), Afghanistan, the fall of the USSR and its consequences for the people, and Chernobyl. She is the first writer from Belarus and the first journalist—though she herself objects to the term—indeed, her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face (1985), is described as a novel—to receive the Nobel Prize. It was awarded in 2015 “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
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.