An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Topping our birthday list today are the creator of Natty Bumppo and the creator of La Grande Illusion. We note also Swiss composer Frank Martin, French automotive designer Ettore Bugatti, mystery queen Agatha Christie, and King Kong mesmerizer Fay Wray.
James Fenimore Cooper (September 15, 1789 – September 14, 1851) is recognized on only a single US stamp, and that one came out way back in 1940. Perhaps unexpectedly, the Soviet Union honored him with a rather big spread for his bicentenary in 1989, a portrait stamp and a strip of five showing scenes from the five Leatherstocking novels, in chronological order The Deerslayer (1841), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Pathfinder (1840), The Pioneers (1823), and The Prairie (1827). (I’ve read ‘em all, and the most famous one is the most famous for a reason. They’re all good, though.) Cooper wrote a great deal more than this, many other novels, biography, history, memoir, and political and travel writing. Anecdotally, Franz Schubert reportedly took great pleasure reading Cooper in the days leading up to his premature death.
French auteur Jean Renoir (15 September 1894 – 12 February 1979), son of the painter, was born in Montmartre and largely reared by his mother’s cousin. He served in the cavalry in World War I, was wounded, and became a flier. He directed his first film in 1924, eight silents would follow, and then he turned to sound in 1931. By the time he got to La Grande Illusion in 1937, he had twenty films under his proverbial belt. Renoir had been struck by the directorial work of Erich von Stroheim (whose birthday is a week from today), and so it must have given him particular pleasure to recruit the older man as an actor opposite Pierre Fresnay and Jean Gabin. One of Renoir’s other great filmic masterpieces, The Rules of the Game (1939), was a complete flop. These two films are now held to be among the finest ever made. Renoir served with the French Army Film Service from 1939, that is, well before World War II broke out, and fled to America in 1940 and became a US citizen after the war. The output of his films slowed, with his last appearing in 1969, but Renoir wrote a good deal, including the memoirs, Renoir, My Father (1962) and My Life and My Films (1974).
It so happens that Renoir shares a birthday with Jacques Becker (15 September 1906 – 21 February 1960), not only another French director recognized on the same set of stamps, but one who actually worked as Renoir’s assistant on both La Grande Illusion and The Rules of the Game, as well as on other films made during the thirties. (In 1928 Becker had worked with King Vidor in the United States.) His own solo directorial debut was with Trump Card (Dernier Atout) in 1942. If I understand correctly, he made another film before being arrested by the Germans for his association with the secret Comité de libération du cinéma français, which made films, some of them involving the Maquis, not intended to be seen until after the war. He was held for a year. (But I read elsewhere that Becker was a prisoner of war in 1940, released under the auspices of the Red Cross. I don’t know whether both stories are true.) After the war Becker made ten more movies before his early death at 53. One of them, selected for the stamp, was Casque d’Or (Golden Helmet, 1952) with Simone Signoret. Another great one was Touchez pas au grisbi (Don’t Touch the Loot, 1954) with Gabin, the late Jeanne Moreau, and Lino Ventura.
Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage (15 September 1765 – 21 December 1805) was a Portuguese Neoclassic poet of French lineage. His brilliance as a child and young adult drew such plaudits that he became rather full of himself and tended to lead a devil-may-care existence, often depending on others for his support. He did serve two years in the Portuguese army and then entered the navy and was assigned to India. Bocage wielded a forceful pen, known for his satirical, even subversive, and occasionally erotic writings, but his finest work is said to be found in his sonnets.
Three European composers share this September 15 birthday: the Norwegian Halfdan Kjerulf (SHARE-oolf, 17 September 1815 – 11 August 1868) studied with Niels Gade in Copenhagen. It was through his efforts that the Norwegian public was introduced to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. His own works were mainly partsongs and solos and piano music, which was admired by Grieg, who displays the influence in his own Lyric Pieces. Einar Steen-Nøkleberg recorded the complete piano music in 2001. The stamp was issued two years ago for the composer’s bicentennial. On the subject of musical centenary observations, I might just note that, philately aside, we have two (!) today. Both born on 15 September 1917 were the beloved Austrian soprano Hilde Gueden (d. September 17, 1988) and English composer Richard Arnell (d. 10 April 2009).
Like Kjerulf, the Serbian Josif Marinković (ma-RIN-ko-vitch, 1851 –13 May 1931) wrote primarily choruses and songs of a lyrical nature. There are also some sacred music, a few violin pieces, and a Sonatina for piano four hands.
The third of our composers is surely the most gifted of them, Frank Martin (FRONK mar-TAN, as we Murricans say, 1890 – 21 November 1974). Though Swiss, he spent much of his life in the Netherlands. Attracted to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, he modified it to his own standard, retaining a basis of tonality in his fairly small number of highly well-crafted scores.
The story of American painter William B(rooke) T(homas) Trego (15 September, 1858 – 24 June, 1909) is a remarkable one. At the age of two he suffered almost complete paralysis of his hands and feet, and at sixteen had an accident at school with a gas jet that burned off all his hair, after which his father kept him home for domestic schooling. Yet Trego was able, by steadying his right hand with his left, to produce not only passable but award-winning paintings, mostly in the military or historical genres. With the proceeds from the sale of one of these, he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and studied under Eakins. One of his prize-winning pictures was his most famous, The March to Valley Forge (1883), seen on two issues for the American Bicentennial, a full sheet from the USPS and an individual stamp from Romania. Trego achieved financial success with his Civil War paintings and went to Paris for further study under William-Adolphe Bouguereau. There he produced such canvases as The Color Guard (1888). As realism in art grew less popular, Trego had to make ends meet with magazine and book illustrations and taking on students. He was found unconscious in his studio at age 50, and some have attributed his death to suicide.
Beneath the Trego souvenir sheet we see a stamp for Czech poet and short story writer Vladimír Vašek, who used the pen name Petr Bezruč (15 September 1867 – 17 February 1958). His father was the teacher and philologist Antonín Vašek. His poems were published in magazines and in the collection Silesian Songs (1909). This book appeared in German translation in 1916 with an introduction by Franz Werfel, whose birthday we just noted a few days ago. He was influenced by the symbolists and Czech moderns. Despite depression and tuberculosis he lived to the age of 90.
Another writer of the period, but of an entirely different milieu, was the Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (or Chattopadhyay); 15 September 1876 – 16 January 1938). It seems he has the odd distinction of being the most plagiarized Indian author of any age. The other side of the same coin is that his works have also been more translated and adapted than those of any other Indian writer. Some fifty films have been made of his books. An active and adventuresome child and youth, he also excelled at scholastics. He moved to Burma in 1893 and worked for the railway but lost his first wife and baby son to the plague. Chatterjee returned to India in 1916 and would play a part in the independence movement.
Classic automobiles are a very common topic for worldwide stamps, and the designs of Ettore Bugatti (15 September 1881 – 21 August 1947) can often be seen on them. Along with his portrait stamp, which concludes our second collage, we devote the third entirely to Bugatti automobile stamps from many nations: Paraguay, Vietnam, and Nicaragua; Gambia, Monaco, and Zambia (a curious gold-plated issue!); Australia, Cambodia, and Laos; and the islands of St Lucia and St Vincent. Bugatti’s father was the Milan-born Art Nouveau decorator and designer Carlo Bugatti. Like him, Ettore Bugatti also designed furniture and jewelry, etc.
As a kid I read almost all of the 66 mystery novels of Agatha Christie (15 September 1890 – 12 January 1976) (and all of the James Bond books) before discovering weightier literature. She was born Agatha Miller in Devon to an American father, who died when she was 11, and an English mother. Agatha married a military officer, Archibald Christie, in 1913 and served as a volunteer nurse in Torquay during WWI. Her first published novel (an earlier one had been universally rejected) introduced her detective Hercule Poirot in 1920. Here he is already described as old, but he went on solving crimes for another 52 years. Miss Marple came along in 1927. After a divorce in 1928, Christie married the archaeologist Max Mallowan, and when he was knighted in 1968 she became Lady Mallowan. She is honored on two stamps from the Isle of Man, one of them citing her short story “Manx Gold”, and one from a set of fictional detectives (Poirot) from Nicaragua. I haven’t read any Agatha Christie in a very long time.
The Thai sculptor Silpa Bhirasri (15 September 1892 – 14 May 1962) is celebrated as the father of modern art in Thailand, although he was actually an Italian, born Corrado Feroci in Tuscany. He went to Thailand on an invitation to teach sculpture there in 1923. Twenty years later he founded the fine arts school now called Silpakorn University. One year after that, when Italy surrendered to the Allies, Feroci changed his name so as to avoid arrest by the occupying Japanese and became a Thai citizen. Among his more prominent works are the statue of the 19th-century heroine Thao Suranari (1934), seen on the green stamp, reliefs for the base of the Democracy Monument (1939) in Bangkok (the two horizontal stamps), and the statue in Phutthamonthon, at 52 feet in height believed to be the tallest free-standing Buddha statue in the world. Bhirasri designed the statue in 1955, but it wasn’t actually cast until 1981. Finally, a stamp honoring Bhirasri himself was issued in 1992 for his centenary. Every September 15 is observed in Thailand as Silpa Bhirasri Day.
Two popular entertainers born exactly four years apart are next. The early country music singer and fiddler Roy Acuff (September 15, 1903 – November 23, 1992) started making records with his band the Smoky Mountain Boys in 1938. Born in Alberta, Canada, actress Fay Wray (September 15, 1907 – August 8, 2004) grew up in Utah, where her mother was born. Though both parents were Mormons, Wray never practiced the religion. She started in movies in Hollywood at 16 and had her first lead in The Wedding March (1928), directed by—guess who?—Erich von Stroheim. 1932 and 1933 saw two of her most famous films, The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong. It was in 1933 that she became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Wray went on making movie and television appearances (three times on Perry Mason) until 1980 and died at age 96 in New York City.
Our final subject for this day is a Maltese military historian who is an expert on the medieval military architecture of his island. Stephen C. Spiteri (born 15 September 1963), son of the architect Joseph M. Spiteri (1934-2013) and hailed as the “leading expert on Malta’s fortifications”, designed the set of five stamps issued in 2003 that we see at the bottom of our fourth collage.
These great talents lack stamps: American humorist Robert Benchley (September 15, 1889 – November 21, 1945), Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares (September 15, 1914 – March 8, 1999), and jazz alto saxophonist Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley (September 15, 1928 – August 8, 1975). And a happy birthday to the wonderful historian and travel writer John Julius Norwich (born 15 September 1929), whose trilogy on the history of Byzantium is a treasure, and to director Oliver Stone (born September 15, 1946). (Coincidentally, Viscount Norwich’s family name is Cooper, as in James Fenimore.)
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.