An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Two of the giants of 20th-century poetry, Dylan Thomas (1914 – 9 November 1953) and Sylvia Plath (1932 – February 11, 1963), share an October 27 birthday, and the prince of violin virtuosity, Niccolò Paganini, shares it with them. Among the “name” composers who have set Thomas’s work are Milton Babbitt, John Corigliano, David Diamond, Peter Dickinson, Wolfgang Fortner, Elizabeth Lutyens, John McCabe, Bernard Rands, and Wallingford Riegger. Rands is the only one also to have set Plath, who seems to have resonated somewhat less with composers: Ned Rorem, Elizabeth Vercoe, and Robin Holloway are among those who have set her words.
Two of my three stamps for Niccolò Paganini (27 October 1782 – 27 May 1840) were issued in his bicentenary year, 1982. Though he is rightly associated primarily with the violin, he first learned to play the mandolin from his father and was also an accomplished guitarist, as shown by his numerous compositions for that instrument.
One of the most highly regarded pre-modern poets of Iceland was the hymn-writer and minister Hallgrímur Pétursson, born during the year 1614. Though his father was a humble bell-ringer, his cousin was the resident bishop. According to some sources, Hallgrímur went to the mainland “to learn the blacksmith trade,” which strikes me as odd—would it really be necessary for a young man of the 17th century to leave his village and go abroad in order to learn how to shoe horses? In any event, he attended a seminary at Copenhagen and became a minister, in which capacity he served for nearly a quarter-century. He died of leprosy on this date in 1674. His written works include a collection of fifty hymns to be sung during Lent and a book of didactic children’s rhymes.
The German architect Ludwig Bohnstedt (27 October 1822 – 3 January 1885) was born in St Petersburg and studied philosophy and architecture at Berlin. He returned to his birthplace in 1843 and began his practice, soon being named court architect. There he remained for nearly twenty years, relocating in 1862 to Gotha as master builder for the archduke. For Gotha he created many public and private buildings. The only representative stamp, however, shows a structure he made for Riga between 1860 and 1863, the City Theater, now the Latvian National Opera. Bohnstedt’s son Alfred (1854-1906) followed in his father’s trade, and a daughter Ida (1858-1916) became a painter.
I want to include Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858 – January 6, 1919) in today’s lineup for his prolific and elegant writing, even though none of it was in fiction, drama, or poetry. He was a great reader of poetry, though, acknowledged by Robert Frost as (forgive me) well versed in the subject. Roosevelt’s own writings include about eighteen books, the four-volume The Winning of the West, The Rough Riders, History of the Naval War of 1812, and an autobiography. Not only was he a keen admirer of poetry, he is said to have read “several” books a day (I guess when he wasn’t bagging big game, boxing, charging up San Juan Hill, or running the country). (By the way, while he was president he lost the sight of his left eye from sparring, but kept the news from the public for many years.) Despite my little verbal jabs—which he could easily have parried—I hold him to be one of our greatest presidents, his place on Mount Rushmore next to three even greater ones well deserved. He hated being called “Teddy”.
Serbian composer and musicologist Miloje Milojević (mi-LO-yeh-vitch, 1884 – 16 June 1946) served in the Serbian army in the First Balkan War and World War I. In the Second World War he was first arrested by the fascist authorities, then wounded when his Belgrade home was destroyed by American bombers in 1944. Milojević was the first Serbian to earn a doctorate in musicology and was remarkably productive in pedagogy, criticism and other writing on music, transcription of folk melodies (some 900 of them), and other musical disciplines. He composed mostly in smaller forms, mainly songs and piano character pieces, but he also wrote a ballet and choral and chamber music, including what is credited as the first Serbian string quartet (1905).
Israeli painter Anna Ticho (October 27, 1894 – March 1, 1980) was born in Brno and studied art in Vienna from the age of 15. At 18, she and her mother emigrated to Jerusalem to join her fiancé Dr. Avraham Albert Ticho (1883-1960), her first cousin, a tireless ophthalmalogist who had reopened the Lemaan Zion Eye Hospital. They married shortly after Anna’s arrival, and she worked as his assistant. Exiled to Damascus in 1917, they worked together in an Austro-Hungarian government medical office. At this time Anna fell ill with typhus and rediscovered her art during her recuperation. Back in Jerusalem (where Dr. Ticho established a private clinic and another hospital), they bought a 19th-century mansion that became a center for visiting artists and intellectuals. Anna Ticho had several solo exhibitions, both in Mandatory Palestine and in Europe from the 1920s to the 40s and an even greater number after the war. The stamp shows one of her characteristic paintings of the Jerusalem hills.
After a distinguished career on stage and in film, Soviet actor Mikhail Zharov (27 October 1899 – 15 December 1981) is probably best remembered in Russia for his portrayal of a character in three television series beginning with The Village Detective (1968). He made his film debut in Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita (1924) and worked with that director repeatedly thereafter. He was a stage star in the 1930s, and in the next decade he played Malyuta Skuratov in Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible duology (1942-44).
Swedish artist Sigrid Hjertén was born on this day in 1885. On the advice of her future husband Isaac Grünewald she studied, as he had done, with Matisse, though in the end her work was more influenced by German Expressionism. One of her most fascinating pictures is Studio Interior (Ateljéinteriör, 1916), in which a smart young woman in black is seen in the foreground with a man (maybe the artist Nils von Dardel) and Hjertén’s little son Ivan; meanwhile in the background Hjertén herself sits sedately (ignored?) between Grünewald and another man, possibly the artist Einar Jolin, while on the wall at top center is Hjertén’s canvas, Gypsy Woman (Zigenarkvinna, 1916-17). The painting as a whole seems to represent Hjertén as woman (siren?), mother (taken for granted?), and creative artist. Alas, she suffered from schizophrenia, to some extent worsened by her isolation in France as Grünewald made frequent visits alone to Sweden. She was committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1936, and there she remained until a botched lobotomy ended her life on 24 March 1948. On the stamp we see A View of Slussen (Utsikt över Slussen, 1917).
American pop art master Roy Lichtenstein (October 27, 1923 – September 29, 1997) was born in New York to Jewish parents and following tutelage there studied art at Ohio State, his education being interrupted by his three-year service during and after World War II. His first solo show was given in New York in 1951. In these years he worked in cubism and expressionism. Having already secreted images of cartoon characters in his works of the late 1950s, he turned to pop art with the dawn of the new decade, often using comic strips for inspiration. That’s when he got famous. Each of the two Mozambique stamps juxtaposes two Lichtenstein works, first one of his most familiar pieces, Drowning Girl (1963) partners with the much later Apple with Brushstrokes (1984) and then Bauhaus Stairway (1988-89) joins Girl with Ball (1961). The Portuguese stamp of 2007 offers Interior with Restful Paintings of 1991. The Danish stamp of 2008 is one of a set of stamps celebrating Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1958 by art lover and philanthropist Knud W. Jensen (1916-2000), who established the museum in a house built and named by one Alexander Brun (1814-93), whose three wives all happened to be named Louise. (My thanks to Arts Fuse reader Katia, who promptly corrected my assumption that the stamps had something to do with Baton Rouge. All such corrections, additions, etc., are warmly solicited and much appreciated.) Anyway, each stamp shows three separate images, and on this one the middle picture is a reproduction of Lichtenstein’s Figures in Landscape of 1977. (I gather Lichtenstein used this same title for a number of paintings of different years.) Back in January, the artist’s Masterpiece (1962) sold for—hold your breath—$165 million.
Next we turn to the Canadian stage director Irving Guttman (October 27, 1928 – December 7, 2014). Besides co-founding three Canadian opera companies (he was artistic director of the Manitoba Opera from 1977 to 1998), Guttman introduced many opera singers to Canadian audiences, having invited such figures as Joan Sutherland (her birthday is coming up Nov. 7), Marilyn Horne, José Carreras (birthday in December), Plácido Domingo, Samuel Ramey, and Beverly Sills to the country. His stamp just came out this year.
With today’s John Cleese (born 27 October 1939) we’ve now said happy birthday to all the members of Monty Python except Graham Chapman (whom I somehow overlooked in January) and Terry Gilliam, whose birthday is next month. Cleese, whose father’s name was actually “Cheese” (he changed it because it sounded as if it came from the Department of Silly Names), is such an inordinate lover of lemurs that one of them is named for him: the Bemaraha woolly lemur (Avahi cleesei), discovered in Madagascar in 1990 and officially recognized as a species in 2005, is also known as Cleese’s woolly lemur. (Now there’s a punchline if ever I heard one.) Mr. Cleese, who could have been Sir John had he desired it, has described the American Republican Party as “the most cynical, most disgracefully immoral people I’ve ever come across in a Western civilisation” and said in reference to one of its prominent members, “Michael Palin is no longer the funniest Palin.” I love him.
Belgian jazz guitarist Philip Catherine (born in London on 27 October 1942) has worked with the best of them, Charles Mingus, Benny Goodman, Stéphane Grappelli, Toots Thielemans. Mingus called him “Young Django“. Although his mother was English (his grandfather had played violin as a member of the London Symphony Orchestra), Catherine (kah-TREEN) grew up in Brussels. He was playing professionally by seventeen, but didn’t release his first album, Steam, until 1970. After that he studied for a while at Berklee College of Music.
The American actor Robert Picardo (born October 27, 1953) is probably best known for his portrayal of The Doctor (a holographic emergency medical program with an easily bruised ego) on Star Trek: Voyager, and it is in that guise that we see him on the stamp from a Voyager sheet issued by St. Vincent. Picardo made his film debut as a werewolf in The Howling (1981) and is also well known for a couple of television roles (on China Beach and The Wonder Years). He has also performed as a singer with Yale’s Society of Orpheus and Bacchus, with which group he took part in the European première of Leonard Bernstein‘s Mass in 1973 (John Mauceri conducting). Picardo, not to be confused with Jean-Luc Picardo, is also on the board of The Planetary Society.
Also born on this date, but lingering in the limbo of the stampless, is James Macpherson (Seumas MacMhuirich or Mac a’ Phearsain; 27 October 1736 – 17 February 1796), the Scottish poet who fooled everybody into believing his archaic reconstructions were written by a nonexistent bard called Ossian. And happy birthday to another writer from the British Isles, A. N. Wilson (born 1950).
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.