An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
I think we’ll lead off today with two prominent Americans, Edgar Lee Masters and Gene Kelly. We also salute 16th-century Spanish lyric poet Luis de León, New Zealand architect Thomas Turnbull, Serbian composer Kornelije Stanković, Russian painter Evgeny Lansere (Lanceray), Slovene artist Tone Kralj, cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller (the creator of the comic strip Nancy), and playwright and composer Willy Russell.
Kansas-born poet Edgar Lee Masters (August 23, 1868 – March 5, 1950) was taken by his family at age twelve to Lewistown, Illinois, which would provide the local color for his most famous work, the Spoon River Anthology. Masters wrote much more than this, some twenty-one books of poetry, six novels, and twelve plays, along with biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and three others. Masters also practiced law and from 1903 to 1908 was Clarence Darrow’s law partner.
American dancer, actor, choreographer, and director Gene Kelly (August 23, 1912 – February 2, 1996) came from Pittsburgh. Although enrolled in dance classes as a child, he disliked it and didn’t start dancing again until he was fifteen. After college, where he studied economics and took part in productions put on by the Cap and Gown Club, his family opened a dance studio. Kelly sought the big lights in the Big Apple and got work as a dancer in 1938 and as a dancer/choreographer in The Time of Your Life in 1939. He achieved stardom with the lead in Rodgers and Hart‘s Pal Joey in 1940. Then it was on to the movies with For Me and My Gal (1942) with Judy Garland and Cover Girl (1944) with Rita Hayworth (this latter recalled on the stamp from Senegal). Toward the end of WWII he wrote and directed documentaries for the U.S. Naval Air Service, which signaled the beginnings of his work as a director. More great hits followed with Anchors Aweigh (1945, his only Oscar nomination), An American in Paris (1951), and the delightful Singin’ in the Rain (1952, referenced on the stamp from Niger). A few other points of biographical interest are as follows. Although raised a Catholic, Kelly grew disaffected with the church after its support of Franco and his conviction that it was inadequately addressing the needs of the poor, and he left the church in 1939, thereafter turning to agnosticism. He defied McCarthyism when his wife, Betsy Blair, was in danger of losing her place in the great film Marty (1955) because of her suspected association with Communists. Kelly faced down the objections of the American Legion, which was pressuring the studio, by threatening to withdraw from another project unless his wife’s job was restored. (She ended up winning a BAFTA Award and earning an Oscar nomination for the part.) In 1960 he was invited to create a new ballet for the Paris Opéra, the first American to be thus distinguished (Kelly was fluent in French). The result was Pas de Dieux, set to the the music of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. He never won an Academy Award but was awarded an honorary one in 1952. He was also recognized at the 1982 Kennedy Center Honors. The United States hasn’t issued a stamp for him yet, but I expect will someday.
Primarily a theologian, Luis de León, who was born in Cuenca in 1527 and died on this date in 1591, is included in our Arts page for his poetry. He was the scion of a Jewish family who must have been of converso lineage, as Luis, after studying law, became an Augustinian friar. While at school he had also translated works from the classics as well as religious literature and earned a far-reaching reputation from this work, but it also got him into trouble with the Inquisition, and de León was imprisoned for over four years, from 1572 to 1576. (His translation and commentary of the Song of Solomon were not published until 1798.) Despite illness, he continued to write and was finally exonerated and released. He was in hot water with the Inquisition again in 1582 but not incarcerated. As for his poetry, it was not published in his lifetime, but circulated among friends. Two of the the best known are “The Life Removed” (“La Vida Retirada“) and “Ode to Salinas”.
I could dig up very little information about New Zealand architect Thomas Turnbull (23 August 1824 – 23 February 1907). Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he designed the Parliamentary Library in Wellington, which was built between 1883 and 1899. The original building is shown on the stamp, though the west wing has since been removed, as can be seen in a modern photograph.
August 23 (August 11 O.S.) is also the birthday of Kornelije Stanković (1831 – 16 April [O.S. 4 April] 1865), a Serb born in Buda, in a Serbian section of the city called Tabán. While studying with Simon Sechter and Anton Bruckner in Vienna, Stanković began his life’s work of collecting and transcribing Serbian folk melodies, ultimately publishing seven volumes of them between 1851 and 1863. His other musical concentration lay in harmonizing Slavonic church melodies, for which efforts he received the Order of Saint Stanislas from Tsar Alexander II. His original compositions for piano are mostly ethnocentric, too: three sets of Variations on Serbian Airs, a Quadrille called Slaven-Ball-Klänge (Sounds of the Slavic Ball), a Serbian Dance called Sirmier Kolo, etc. He died of tuberculosis in his native Buda.
Born near Saint Petersburg to an artistic family of French origin, Eugene Lanceray (Evgeny Lansere; 23 August 1875 – 13 September 1946) was the son of a sculptor, the grandson and nephew of architects, and the great-grandson of a composer. His sister and brother, too, entered the arts, as a painter and an architect respectively, and his cousin Nadia Benois was the mother of Peter Ustinov! A member of the group Mir iskusstva (World of Art), he was the only one to remain in Russia after the Revolution, though he removed to Dagestan from 1917 to 1920, then traveled in Japan, Turkey, and Georgia, where he was a lecturer at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts. Lanceray worked in various fields, as graphic artist, painter, sculptor, mosaicist, and illustrator (he illustrated some of the works of Tolstoy and was responsible for decorating the Kazan Railway Station and the Hotel Moskva). The stamps show two of his paintings, Excavating Metro Tunnel (1933) and Soldiers with Trophy Guns (or Inspecting Captured Artillery, 1942).
Another Eastern European painter and sculptor was the Slovenian Tone Kralj (23 August 1900 – 9 September 1975). He, too, executed wall paintings, mostly in churches, and book illustrations. One of the frescoes graces a church in the Italian village of Camporosso. As with Turnbull, online info about Kralj is scanty. He was educated in Prague, Vienna, Paris, and Venice. The 1975 stamp shows his painting Dinner. He died in Ljubljana.
Ernie Bushmiller, Jr. (August 23, 1905 – August 15, 1982) was born in the Bronx and quit regular school at 14, but instead attended evening art classes at the National Academy of Design while working as a copy boy for the New York World. From time to time he was given a chance to use his illustrating skills. In 1925, he took over the comic strip Fritzi Ritz from its creator, Larry Whittington, and it was there that Bushmiller’s character Nancy first appeared in 1933. Over time Nancy edged out Aunt Fritzi as the star of the show, and the strip was renamed Nancy in 1938. After Bushmiller’s death the strip was perpetuated by other artists. The stamp is one from a large sheet remembering popular comics issued by the USPS in 1995.
English dramatist and musician Willy Russell (born 23 August 1947) is the gentleman who has given us Educating Rita (1980, filmed 1983) and Shirley Valentine (1986, filmed 1989) and, as can be seen from the stamp, the popular musical Blood Brothers (1983), for which he also wrote the lyrics and composed the music. Blood Brothers ran in London’s West End for 24 years and 10,000 performances. Russell’s first novel, The Wrong Boy, was published in 2000.
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.