Jul 112017

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


By Doug Briscoe

E. B. White is on today’s program, but two sixteenth-century Italian artists get us rolling, and we’ll visit with Spanish Baroque lyric poet Luis de Góngora, a Russian fabulist, a French Cubist, a Russian painter, an Australian woman photographer, an Argentine tango musician, and Yul Brynner.

Apart from the famous, fabulous, anthropomorphic fruit-and-vegetable portraits we’ve all seen, the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo is little known. Born in Milan in 1526 or 1527, Arcimboldo was the son of a painter and began as a worker in stained glass and frescoes for local churches. He served at the Habsburg courts of three Holy Roman Emperors in Vienna and Prague. The last of them, Rudolf II, surprisingly requested his own portrait in the form of one of Arcimboldo’s plant kingdom concoctions. The Emperor is depicted as Vertumnus, Roman god of the seasons, in a painting dated c1590-91. The peculiar and popular Four Seasons of Arcimboldo, which are all in the Louvre, have appeared on a few stamps: Winter (1593) on one from Italy, Summer (1592) on one from France, and all four on a block issued by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a Catholic entity that has permanent observer status at the UN and maintains relations with 106 countries. Arcimboldo died in his birthplace, Milan, on July 11, 1593.

Our second Italian artist is actually from an earlier generation, but I believe less well known today than Arcimboldo. He is Girolamo Genga (c1476 – 11 July 1551), a polymath who was primarily an architect, but also a painter, sculptor, and musician. In his youth he worked in Urbino under Perugino alongside Raphael. He worked on decorations of ducal palaces there and in Siena, for which town he also painted a Resurrection for the church of Santa Caterina. Another of Genga’s patrons was Francesco Maria della Rovere, the duke of Urbino, for whom Genga designed the residential Villa Imperiale, and this building is shown on an Italian stamp of 1983. Another of Genga’s works is the façade of Mantua cathedral.


Spanish poet and priest Luis de Góngora is the first of our subjects who was born on the 11th of July, as opposed to expiring on that date, as Arcimboldo and Genga did. Góngora (11 July 1561 – 24 May 1627) was of the nobility of Córdoba and later lived at Valladolid and Madrid. He was involved in a lengthy and rather vicious contretemps with Francisco de Quevedo over the contrasting styles of culteranismo, later renamed Gongorismo, and conceptismo. Wikipedia defines culteranismo as “characterized by a very ornamental, ostentatious vocabulary and a message that is complicated by a sea of metaphors and complex syntactical order… This movement seems to use as many words as possible to convey little meaning or to conceal meaning.” Whereas conceptismo, again to borrow from Wikipedia, is “a witty style,” marked by puns, “rapid rhythm…simple vocabulary, and conveying multiple meanings in as few words as possible.” The two poets attacked each other in satirical and trenchant verse, often ad hominem. Quevedo pretty much emerged the victor, personally if not necessarily in the verbal arena, as he purchased the house where Góngora resided and forced him out. Góngora was also an inveterate gambler and died in penury. The portrait we see on the pair of Spanish stamps is by Velázquez.

I find it rather sad that E. B. White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985) hasn’t received a proper stamp of his own. All we have is his creation Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web (1952) in a set of four stamps recalling popular children’s books. He was, of course, a fixture at the New Yorker, the reviser of the indispensable The Elements of Style (“Strunk & White”) and authored another famous children’s book, Stuart Little (1945). He was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for the body of his work in 1978.

Russian folktale collector Alexander Afanasyev (11 July 1826 – 23 October 1871) worked on his gargantuan compilation between 1855 and 1867, the result being a publication of some 600 Russian tales and an inspiration for the Brothers Grimm. Afanasyev’s work may have earned him plaudits, but it also cost him his job as librarian of the Archives of Moscow, where he had been employed since 1849. His publication of Russian Popular Religious Legends, a satirical collection unsparingly critical of the clergy, got him fired in 1862. He also suffered for his association with Alexander Herzen and other socialists and died of tuberculosis at the age of 45. But he also produced a grand theoretical work of some 2000 pages called The Poetic Outlook of Slavs about Nature (1865-69). The folk tales had a powerful influence on subsequent artists such as Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. In 1984, the Soviet Union put out a beautiful large sheet of stamps highlighting Russian folk stories with the title Narodnye russkie skazki. As this is the same title used by Afanasyev, I suspect that all twelve of the stamps in the sheet are based on the stories in his collections. (The stamps are not individually labeled and do not specifically cite Afanasyev.) Three of them certainly are, as I was able to confirm by matching the illustrations, all of which are by Ivan Bilibin. They are: Vasilisa the Beautiful, The Frog Princess, and Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf. An Hungarian stamp of 1960 illustrates another Afanasyev tale, The Giant Turnip.


July 11 is the birthday of Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836 – 16 September 1896), described by Wikipedia as “the first New World composer whose work was accepted by Europe.” Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro II took an interest in the young Gomes and got him admitted to the Musical Conservatory of Rio de Janeiro. On graduation, Gomes met immediate success with his first opera A noite do castelo (1861). His second opera, Joana de Flandres, was considered to be even better. The emperor provided a scholarship for Gomes to study in Italy, where, again, the young composer’s work met with rave reviews. This time, he chose a Brazilian subject, the novel O Guarani by Brazilian writer José de Alencar. The opera, given (as O Guarany) at La Scala in Milan in May 1870, remains Gomes’ most famous work. He wrote a hymn celebrating American independence (performed in Philadelphia on July 19, 1876), but when asked in 1889 to provide a new Brazilian national anthem on the proclamation of the Brazilian republic, he declined out of loyalty to his benefactor the Emperor Dom Pedro. He also wrote an anti-slavery opera, Lo Schiavo, at the suggestion of his friend André Rebouças, a black engineer. He composed eight operas altogether, as well as choruses, piano pieces, and three books of songs.

The family of Roger de La Fresnaye (11 July 1885 – 27 November 1925) was of the aristocracy. His father was an officer in the French army, and the son volunteered for service during World War I. On falling ill with tuberculosis he was discharged in 1918, whereupon his health declined to the point that he had to give up painting after 1922, though he continued to sketch until his death at 40. A member of the group Section d’Or, La Fresnaye embraced Cubism but later adopted a more linear approach. His most famous painting is The Conquest of the Air (1913), a self-portrait of himself with his brother en plein air. The stamp, however, offers up his Louis-Philippe Table (La table Louis-Philippe) of 1922, and I provide a link also to his early, pre-Cubist self-portrait (c1906).

Russian painter Boris Grigoriev (11 July 1886 – 7 February 1939) was also a graphic artist who wrote poems and at least one novel (Young Rays, 1913). He was a member of the Union of Impressionists and World of Art movements and lived for a while in Paris, where he fell under the influence of Cézanne. Grigoriev painted portraits of his artist contemporaries like Rachmaninov, Chaliapin, Anna Akhmatova, and Vsevolod Meyerhold. He was also keenly interested in the life of the poor, the peasants, and the village, as can be seen in Peasants in the Field (1920) and An Old Man from Olonets. After the revolution, Grigoriev traveled widely, living in Finland, Germany, France, the USA, Central and South America. His Lady in Black (1917) is seen on a postage stamp from Ukraine, and his Self-Portrait (before 1939) on one from Guinea. An intriguing earlier Self-Portrait (1916) can be seen here.


The father of Olive Cotton (11 July 1911 – 27 September 2003) had accompanied Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic as a geologist in 1907, and her mother was a pianist and painter. Olive was eleven when she got her first camera as a gift. She was a childhood friend and later wife of another prominent Australian photographer, Max Dupain. Like her mother Cotton also became an accomplished pianist. Her most well known picture is Tea cup ballet (1935), shown on the Australian stamp of 1991.

Aníbal Troilo (July 11, 1914 – May 18, 1975) was an Argentine bandleader, composer, and player of the bandoneon. That same instrument was played by Astor Piazzolla when he was a member of Troilo’s band in the years 1939-44. Again we reprise a stamp we have seen in these pages recently, as the caricature of Troilo was executed by Hermenegildo Sába, whose birthday we acknowledged on June 23. But a more realistic portrait of Troilo can be seen on the Uruguayan stamp next to it.

Finally today, we give a nod to Yul Brynner (July 11, 1920 – October 10, 1985), whose birth name was Yuliy Borisovich Briner. Of Swiss-German, Russian, and Buryat ethnicity, he first saw the light of day in Vladivostok and lived from the ages of three to twelve in China. He and his mother emigrated to Paris, where he played guitar in Russian clubs, in 1932 and the United States in 1940. He appeared on Broadway as early as 1941. Brynner gave French language radio broadcasts to occupied France as an announcer for the US Office of War Information. Beginning on March 29, 1951, he played King Mongkut in The King and I 4,625 times, not including the movie (for which he won a Best Actor Oscar in 1956). It was for that role that Brynner shaved his head, which thereafter became his trademark. So let it be written, so let it be done.

It’s Jhumpa Lahiri’s birthday today. She’s 50.

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.


Read more by Doug Briscoe

Follow Doug Briscoe on Twitter

Email Doug Briscoe

 Leave a Reply