An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
June 26 is the birthday of two writers of note, Pearl S. Buck and Martin Andersen Nexø, and we have our usual variety of artists in other fields today.
We begin with 18th-century English artist George Morland (26 June 1763 – 29 October 1804), who specialized in paintings of animals and bucolic scenes. In childhood his great gifts were exploited by his father, who locked him in a room to draw pictures that the scoundrelly bounder could then sell. Clever George got around that by lowering extra copies out the window to his chums and making his own pocket money. He met Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Romney while still in his teens, but went from one selfish taskmaster to another when, after leaving his father, he took up with an equally exploitative dealer. Morland had his fun, though, dressing foppishly, drinking heroically and carousing with disreputable companions, and teaching himself the violin. He seems to have given up the Prince Hal existence when he married, but recidivism gained the upper hand, yet Morland was so productive that he was always able to make his way by tossing off another painting until he was finally arrested for debt in 1799. Despite his alcoholism he continued to produce hundreds of canvases and drawings of high quality. But fast living had destroyed his health, and he died at age 41. The Russian stamp shows Morland’s Approaching Storm, which hangs in the Hermitage.
Heading east, we encounter Lebanese painter Daoud Corm (1852 – 6 June 1930). Legend has it that when he was nine years old his drawings of birds on the sides of boulders so impressed a pair of Italian Jesuit priests that they offered him a job as a drawing instructor at their local missionary school. They couldn’t pay him, but would teach him Italian in return. He taught there for ten years (I hope he got a salary at some point) before selling three paintings to finance his travel to Rome for further study at the Accademia di San Luca. While there he painted a portrait of Pope Pius IX from memory and earned the pontiff’s blessing. He also had two exhibitions in Paris and served the Belgian royal family before returning to Lebanon to take up residence in Beirut. Besides making portraits of prominent Lebanese and Egyptians (he made two trips to Egypt in 1887 and 1894), Corm painted many canvases on religious topics. His postage stamp, the first Lebanese one we’ve had this year, I think, shows his Self-Portrait of 1900.
The best known work of Danish writer Martin Andersen Nexø (26 June 1869 – 1 June 1954), Pelle the Conqueror, was brought to a wider audience thirty years ago when a film of the novel was made with Max von Sydow. The movie is actually an adaptation of only the first volume, Boyhood (1906); the following sections are Apprenticeship (1907), The Great Struggle (1909), and Daybreak (1910). Martin Andersen took on the name “Nexø” from the town to which his family moved when he was eight. An apprenticeship in journalism was the tried-and-true path to book authorship. Nexø embraced socialism, then Communism, which naturally led to his being arrested after the Nazi invasion of Denmark. On his release he fled to Sweden and then the Soviet Union, where he made propaganda broadcasts to his homeland and Norway. After the war he settled in East Germany, becoming an honorary citizen, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is why his other stamp (besides the Danish one) comes from the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.
Another expat novelist was Pearl S. Buck (the S stands for her maiden name, Sydenstricker), whose 125th anniversary is being marked this year. Born on June 26, 1892 in West Virginia, she was taken at five months of age back to her parents’ Presbyterian mission in China, and Pearl lived most of her first 42 years in that country. The first hiatus coincided with her American university education, after which, somewhat to her own surprise, she herself became a missionary and married a like-minded compatriot named John Lossing Buck. The Good Earth was her second published novel, and actually, like Pelle the Conqueror, is only the first part of a longer work. The full title of the trilogy is The House of Earth, the later parts being Sons (1933) and A House Divided (1935). The Good Earth was the best-selling book of fiction in the U.S. in 1931-2 and earned Buck the Pulitzer Prize and contributed to her receiving the Nobel Prize in 1938. (By this time she had divorced John Buck and married her editor Richard J. Walsh.) She went on to write a great deal more, this in addition to her humanitarian work, including acting as co-founder (with James A. Michener and Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein) of Welcome House, Inc., the first international, interracial adoption agency, as well as the Asian-based Opportunity Center and Orphanage. Pearl Buck died of lung cancer on March 6, 1973. Anchee Min’s recent novel Pearl of China (2010) is a fictionalized biography of Buck. The stamp dates from 1983.
Armenian composer Artemi Ayvazyan (June 26, 1902 – November 14, 1975) was fortunate enough to have been born into a musical family whose circle included Rachmaninov and Chaliapin, regular visitors to their home. He attended the state conservatories of Tbilisi and Moscow. He founded the Armenian State Jazz Orchestra in 1938, was director of the Yerevan Musical Comedy Theater, and taught cello at the Yerevan State Conservatory. As a composer, he wrote mostly songs and film music along with an opera, Taparnikos, and an operetta called The Eastern Dentist (shades of McTeague?).
Cristóbal Ojeda Dávila, an Ecuadorian composer of popular songs, was born on 26 June, 1906 (some say 1910). Having displayed a strong musical penchant from an early age, he attended the National Conservatory of Music. Very little other information on him is available online. He was killed by a stray bullet during the Four Day War (an Ecuadorean civil disturbance that claimed a thousand lives) on August 31, 1932. A music conservatory named for him (the Conservatorio Particular de Música Cristóbal Ojeda Dávila) was founded in Santo Domingo, Ecuador in 2009.
German Heldentenor Wolfgang Windgassen (1914 – September 8, 1974) was one of the principal Wagner tenors of his day (though he made his debut in 1939 as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly). Both his parents were also opera singers. He famously took part in the historic sessions of Georg Solti’s Decca recording of the Ring. We’ve already seen this stamp on the birthday of Elisabeth Grümmer, with whom he is pictured in a scene from Lohengrin. Speaking of the Ring, June 26 is also, curiously enough, the anniversary of the first performance of Die Walküre, which, like Tristan und Isolde (1865), Die Meistersinger (1868), and Das Rheingold (1869), was premièred at the Königliches Hof- und National-Theater in Munich. This was in 1870. I love the Uruguayan (!) stamp, from a block celebrating the 125th anniversary of the first complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1876.
Our final stamp today celebrates Canadian popular singer Renée Martel (26 June 1947). She lived in Los Angeles from 1957 to 1963 and made her first record back in Canada the next year. In the decades since, she has sold 10 million albums and earned the designation La Reine du country.
I thought you may like to know that today is also the birthday of Branwell Brontë (26 June 1817 – 24 September 1848), brother of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, and of American art historian Bernard Berenson (June 26, 1865 – October 6, 1959) and Peter Lorre (born László Löwenstein; 26 June 1904 – 23 March 1964).
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.