Aug 102017

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


By Doug Briscoe

Today we mark the birthday anniversaries of Jorge Amado, Alexander Glazunov, and the author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, to name just three of our dozen subjects, and we commemorate the opening of the Louvre on this day in 1793.

I don’t know off hand whether any of the works of Ukrainian neoclassical painter Anton Pavlovich Losenko (10 August [O.S. 30 July] 1737 – 4 December [O.S. 23 November] 1773) are in the Louvre. Losenko is important as a pioneer of Russian historical painting. He was orphaned in early childhood, and somebody decided that the little boy, aged seven, should be sent to join the court choir in Saint Petersburg. By the time his voice broke he had shown enough artistic talent that he was apprenticed to an artist and then, in 1759, admitted to the Imperial Academy of Arts, which after a fashion sent him to Paris for further study. While there he painted The Miraculous Catch (1762), reproduced on the Guinean stamp. He must have returned to Russia shortly thereafter, as the portrait he made of the actor Fyodor Volkov, seen on the Soviet stamp, was executed in 1763, but in the late 1760s Losenko was working in Rome. He came home again in 1769 and died four years later.

The Kazakh poet, composer, and philosopher Abay Qunanbayuli (August 10, 1845 – July 6, 1904) is held in great esteem in Kazakhstan, with not only streets and public schools named for him, and not only the Almaty State University and Abay Opera House, but also an entire city! He went both to a Russian school and to a madrasah. His poetry, reflecting the folk culture of the region, is strongly nationalist, and in his magnum opus, The Book of Words, both a poetry collection and a philosophical work, Qunanbayuli urged his people to seek education as a means of rising from poverty and subjugation. Besides his original work, he made translations into his native language of Goethe, Byron, the poems of Lermontov, the fables of Krylov, and Pushkin‘s Eugene Onegin. His life is the subject of a 1995 film, two novels, and an opera.

Irish-born painter William Harnett (August 10, 1848 – October 29, 1892) made a specialty of trompe-l’œil still lifes of homely objects. He was born in County Cork at the time of the potato famine and was taken as a baby to the United States, his family settling in Philadelphia. Harnett began his career as an engraver while he was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and in New York City. He became a US citizen at the age of 20 and turned to oil painting at some time after that, as his first known work in the medium was painted in 1874. Harnett spent further years of study in the early 1880s in Munich, where he made four versions of his best known work, After The Hunt (seen here is the final version of 1885). Two American stamps portray his work. The first, from 1969, is Old Models, the original of which is right here in Boston at the MFA. The more recent stamp shows Harnett’s Music and Literature of 1878.

The singular accomplishment of the Indian musicologist Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (August 10, 1860 – September 19, 1936) is his penetrating survey of the theory, forms, and structure of Hindustani classical music. This was the first modern treatise on the subject, in which Bhatkhande reclassified ragas according to genre and composed several musical works to illustrate their characteristics. Born at Mumbai he learned early on to sing and play the veena and flute, and while at college he also became proficient with the sitar. Bhatkhande also created a number of schools for the systematic teaching of Hindustani music. One of these is now named for him. The stamp came out in 1961.


Alexander Glazunov was born on this day (OS July 29) in 1865 and died in 1936, having pretty much ignored 20th-century developments in his many consistently Romantic compositions. Perhaps surprisingly, neither the Soviet Union nor Russia (so far) ever issued a stamp directly honoring this prolific composer of eight symphonies and the ballet The Seasons, but one of his other ballets, Raymonda, is referenced on a postal card that also illustrates the Glazunov Concert Hall at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. There was also a stamp (superimposed over the lower right corner of the postcard) that used Raymonda as an example in its celebration of the choreography of Marius Petipa.

Canadian landscape painter James Wilson Morrice (August 10, 1865 – January 23, 1924) was born in Montreal and studied law before determining on a career in art. He left school in Toronto to study painting in England and Paris and was at the Académie Julian for five years. He remained in France until 1914, when he fled the war for Montreal and then Cuba, where he made some of his most highly regarded paintings, and finally, Algiers. Alcoholism hastened his death at age 58. The Canadian stamp shows a monotone version of The Ferry, Quebec (c1910).

If you’re like me you’re familiar with the name (at least) of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) without necessarily having read it or knowing the name of its author, Alfred Döblin (10 August 1878 – 26 June 1957). This massive work, made into a compelling German television miniseries by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is by no means Döblin’s only “claim to fame”: he is seen as one of the most important figures of German literary modernism, and yet his work, thirty volumes’ worth, is highly varied, encompassing historical novels, a crime story, science fiction, dramas, including plays for radio and film, a book of travel, two of philosophy, and many essays on wide-ranging subjects. He wrote the first of his dozen published novels in 1915 and the last in 1956. Born into a family of assimilated Jews in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), he grew up from the age of ten in Berlin, where he lived until fleeing the Nazis for France in 1933 and Los Angeles in 1940. While there he converted to Catholicism. He returned to West Germany after the war but lived his final years in France.

Again, you probably know New York’s Chrysler Building, but do you know the name of its architect? Well, I didn’t. He was William Van Alen (August 10, 1883 – May 24, 1954), born in Brooklyn. He worked at various architectural firms in the city before receiving a scholarship to study in Paris from 1908 to 1910. The Chrysler Building was built in the years 1929 and 1930, and because of contractual uncertainty, Van Alen sued Walter Chrysler for what he saw as his proper fee. He won the case, but it had a devastating effect on Van Alan’s subsequent career. Thereafter, for the next quarter century, Van Alen was reduced to teaching sculpture.

The life of Romanian writer Panait Istrati (August 10, 1884 – April 16, 1935), called by some the Maxim Gorky of the Balkans, was difficult in other ways. He never met his father, who was a Greek smuggler, and was held back twice in primary school. Later, after contributing pieces to socialist periodicals and bumming around Europe, he lived much of the time as a vagabond and attempted suicide in 1921. At about that time, he had written a letter to one of his favorite writers, Romain Rolland, who was intrigued by Istrati’s shall we say colorful existence, one that had seen him at various times in Bucharest, Istanbul, Cairo, Naples, Paris, and Switzerland. The encouragement Rolland gave Istrati, including publishing the latter’s work in Rolland’s magazine, was sufficient to revitalize the young writer, and it was now that he began his extensive cycle of stories and novels about the character Adrien Zograffi. Some years later, still a devout leftist, Istrati visited Moscow, where he met Nikos Kazantzakis, who would become his dear friend. He quickly came to see the evils of Stalinism and wrote about them in his best known book The Confession of a Loser (1927-30). The end of his life was also troubled, with tuberculosis and harassment, sometimes physical, from the right-wing Romanian Iron Guard. He died alone in a sanatorium in Bucharest.


Though not free of travails of his own, Brazilian writer Jorge Amado (10 August 1912 – 6 August 2001) led overall a rather happier life. He was born on a farm and observed the misery of the cocoa workers he would later embody in his writing, in particular his early novels Cacau (1933) and The Violent Land (1944) (I just read this). Already a magazine contributor at 14, Amado published his first novel, The Country of Carnival (1931) when he was 18. Four years later he was arrested for his leftist activities, and two years after that the government burned his books. But elsewhere his work was widely praised by such figures as Camus. Nonetheless, Amado had to go into exile in 1942 (Argentina and Uruguay) and again in 1947 (France and Czechoslovakia). He did not return to Brazil until 1954, at which time he left the Brazilian Communist Party. International success came with the famous Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (1958) and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966). Finally Amado began to receive accolades and honors (honorary doctorates and, in 1984, the Légion d’Honneur), not only from his native country, but from all over Latin America and beyond.

The Bengali avant-garde artist Sheikh Mohammed Sultan, better known as SM Sultan (10 August 1923 – 10 October 1994) hoped to study art in Kolkata, but his family couldn’t afford it. At fifteen, though, he did secure a grant for the purpose and, from that vantage point, was chosen to take part in a program offered by New York’s Institute of International Education, although the period entailed a stay of only a matter of weeks. Sultan’s work focuses on landscapes and genre pictures of rural life, an example being his Ploughing (1986), shown on the Bangladeshi stamp.

On this day in 1793 the Musée du Louvre opened to the public. People were given a chance to see an array of 537 paintings and 184 other art objects and could do so without admission charge three days of every week. Today the Louvre houses some 38,000 objects and last year welcomed over seven million visitors. The earliest stamps to reference the museum were issued in 1937; these were what we philatelists call “semi-postal” issues, sold with a surcharge that in this case specifically benefited the museum. They show the glorious Winged Victory (or Nike) of Samothrace. A later stamp from Guinea shows one of the Egyptian exhibits, and the rest give us views of the building’s exterior.

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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